The Non-Profit Experiment, Texas Tribune and its Data

The Columbia Journalism Review has an in-depth look at the non-profit online experiment known as the Texas Tribune and the site’s attempt to define itself in the industry during its first 8 months of existence.
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The piece does a great job of looking at various aspects of the site, but one part in particular jumped out at me. With all the trials and tribulations the online news service (but don’t call it that) has faced, it has also had a meta-experiment in seeing how consumers use the news.

CJR’s Jake Batsell writes:

The databases have been an unexpected hit, supplying readers with access to more than a million public records they otherwise may not have known how to find. They’ve been so popular, in fact, that the site’s biggest initial splash has been not as a fountain of authoritative reporting and analysis, but as a resource for readers to do their own exploring. While that fact may be humbling for reporters, it’s part of a “data-as-journalism” mentality that has become the Tribune’s most far-reaching calling card.

This data has even caused tension within government offices.

For instance, the site’s government salary database-by far its most popular data application-has sparked some strong reactions and nasty office politics. State hiring managers are irritated that employees now compare salaries with colleagues. Workers are alarmed to see their salaries pop up when they Google themselves. One state employee’s wife called Smith to complain that she considers the database not only a violation of privacy but “rape.”

So after wrangling the “best young journalist crew in Texas,” according to senior Dallas Morning News Political writer Wayne Slater, the main aspect of the site that has brought people in has been the raw data says CJR.

Although the Tribune has other ways of raising money, can a database support a website and the journalists under its payroll? Seems unlikely, but I guess it depends on just how annoyed those government employees are about their colleagues’ salary.