How The Marshall Project built a searchable encyclopedia for criminal justice journalism
Since it launched, The Marshall Project has collected a record of curated and original work. Thanks in part to everyone on staff, none of that work is going to waste.
On Thursday, the nonprofit news organization that covers the criminal justice system in the U.S. introduced The Record. It's a searchable database organized by topic that goes back to The Marshall Project's beginning. The purpose: to gather the work staffers discovered, as well as their own work, to offer users context and history.
"The news cycle is very based on time," said Ivar Vong, director of technology at The Marshall Project, "but I think that there are interesting things to do that do slow down a bit, and being able to organize information around these areas."
Staff at The Marshall Project knew from the beginning that aggregation would be a big part of their work. They're a small group, and they comb through hundreds of stories each day for the daily newsletter as well as for research for their own work. Could they build a tool that helped capture all of that work?
The answer, they discovered, is yes. Vong and Andy Rossback, an editorial designer, wrote for Source about why they built The Record and how they did it:
The Record is powered by a simple tool we built in 2014—called Gator, short for aggregator—to collect stories being read by reporters during the course of their workday. It’s a bookmarklet, similar to Delicious. The reporter inputs each story and adds a few tags.
Instead of free-form tagging, we used a centralized tag database, which reporters can add to on the fly. Those same tags can be applied to any other content on the site, including our own posts.
Every link that staffers have tagged and curated now lives in The Record. Essentially, the whole newsroom built it. Vong worked on The Record with Rossback and Gabriel Dance, the managing editor.
"Being able to tap into the whole staff and being able to put this small tool on top of what they're already doing is why I think this works," Vong said.
There are currently more than 14,000 links across 2,500 topics that include work from 600 news organizations. The Marshall Project's own work is included as well, with about 600 stories. Vong is excited to see how people use The Record and how it could grow and change. Could they build editorial tools on top of it? How about a way to catch up on a topic if you're new to it? A Twitter bot for each new link?
"I'm excited to see what they want it to be, and how it's being used," he said.
And even though it's been building for years, to Vong, The Record's introduction feels more like the starting line than the finish line.