Texas Tribune’s Launch ‘Just the Beginning’ of Databases, What’s to Come

When the Texas Tribune launched on Tuesday, people shared their enthusiasm about the nonprofit news site’s various features — searchable databases, a polling center and an iPhone app, to name a few. “Very impressive,” one Twitterer said. “A good day for journalism indeed,” another wrote.

But Tuesday’s launch was just a glimpse of what’s to come, said Evan Smith, the Texas Tribune’s CEO and editor-in-chief.

The Texas Tribune, which was developed in only four weeks using Django, plans to release many more features throughout the coming weeks and months.

“The funny thing is, we are releasing things gradually. We have a lot more stuff to put out there,” Smith said. “We’re going to trickle out new features. You’d just overwhelm or suffocate people if you didn’t give them a break. That was a worry — that we not go so crazy that we kill people with this site.”

The site features 11 databases — which contain information about federal campaign donations, gubernatorial appointees and government employee salaries — and plans to create several more, according to Smith.

The goal is to make the databases interact with one another so that readers can see how the information in the databases is related, said Texas Tribune reporter Matt Stiles.

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“This site is the .10 version of what we’ll be six months from now,” Stiles said. “I think the data product will be amazing when we get them all connected and when they start to talk to each other and when we can do dynamic visualization so you can get a map of the state and drill down into that county and see more details.”

The Texas Tribune, which wants to share these databases with whatever news organizations, bloggers or citizen journalists want them, is planning to create embeddable widgets of some databases and eventually make information from the databases available on its iPhone application.

Stiles has created a video about how to use the databases, and plans to produce more like it. He said he hopes that journalists will contact him individually and ask him questions about interpreting data and presenting it in a way that will help voters make better-informed decisions.

“One of the things we believe in is not only giving people information, but telling them how to best use it. It’s not enough for us to just dump the databases on our site. We’ll provide the databases and drill down and offer perspective, but we’ll also give people a way to use them,” Smith said.

Texas Tribune political reporter Emily Ramshaw shared similar sentiments, saying: “What the Texas Tribune will offer voters is incredible access — to who candidates are and where they stand, to their financial records and campaign finance, to top-notch polling under an agreement with the University of Texas. The goal here is to get real people involved in real issues, to get them better informed so they can play their own role in guiding policy.”

Sharing their content with news organizations, bloggers

Stiles said he hopes journalists will take advantage of the site’s content so that they can find information more quickly and use it to advance their reporting.

When covering politics and government for the Houston Chronicle‘s statehouse bureau prior to joining the Texas Tribune, Stiles often turned to The New York Times for campaign finance data to deepen his understanding of politics. Now, he said, reporters can turn to the Texas Tribune in much the same way.

“Ultimately, we’d like to tell every paper in the state, ‘If you like this data set, just take it,’ ” Stiles said. “I hope reporters will come see the information, download it, remix it and be creative with it.”

The site, which is being underwritten with tax-deductible donations and has received foundation grants from Houston Endowment and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is partnering with six television stations in large and small markets throughout the state to share content. Texas Tribune political reporter Elise Hu plans to go on television in Dallas and Waco in the next week to help further promote the site.

Bloggers have also expressed interest in using the Texas Tribune’s content. “I’ve gotten a lot of good advice from bloggers and citizen journalists as to what they would like to see to make it easier to share content,” Hu said.

Throughout the past week, she and the rest of the staff have spent countless hours building their audience and launching the site.

“Since we all have so much ownership over what we’re doing, and we believe in it wholly, we’ve given up our normal lives and time with our spouses and our dogs to be at work,” Hu said in the 11th hour before the site launched. “We’ve spent so much time inside the office that we’re running out of trash cans to throw food in and a lot of us have forgotten what day it is.”

A platform for flexibility

Hu pointed out that the four-person Web development team, which makes up 25 percent of the Texas Tribune’s staff, deserves a lot of credit. Though the idea for the Texas Tribune began nine weeks ago, the development team pulled together the site in just a month’s time.

Matt Waite, senior news technologist at Poynter’s St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, built the Texas Tribune’s content management system with California Watch’s Chase Davis. The two run their own Web development firm, Hot Type Consulting. Another outside company, FlashBang, helped with the site’s design.

Waite said that because of the site’s in-house expertise and the way the site was built, the Texas Tribune will be able to easily modify its site and enhance its future content. In many ways, it’s free from the obstacles that traditional news organizations face — multiple vendor products, legacy platforms and corporate edicts, to name a few.

“It’s not the launch that necessarily has me excited for [the Texas Tribune]. It’s the fact that they were able to accomplish a lot of their goals for launch but still be nowhere near where they want to be,” Waite said. “They’re not locked into some bad system. If six months from now they realize that some part of the site isn’t doing what they wanted it to do or that people aren’t using it the way they thought they would, they can go in a different direction. They have complete freedom.”

Hoping to take advantage of this freedom, Smith said he looks forward to continuing to find ways to make the site better. “What’s exciting to me is having gotten this thing out, but what’s even more exciting than day one is day three and day six and day 10,” he said. “This is only the beginning.”

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