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Archives: April 2009

Databases and polls: When numbers are the news

Many news organizations have for years culled news stories from analog databases such as police records or census information and most online news media have set up quick polls that are attached to their news stories. Because of the internet and the multimedia tools available to us, we can do more with the facts and figures we might otherwise overlook. The following sites and news sections have taken ordinary numbers and have turned them into extraordinary resources.


SickCity harnesses a simple, but impressive idea: use Twitter to gauge how sick people are in a particular area. Using Twitter to find out if the flu is spreading within 10 miles of New York City, for example, is as easy searching for “flu near:NYC within:10mi.” Putting it all together is what SC has done well, compiling information on various diseases as they spread in cities around the world.

Risky Roads Traffic Map

Does it feel like there are more traffic accidents than normal happening in your area? Find out for sure with this interactive map that uses colored dots to display the frequency of fatal accidents across the U.S. The genius of this project is that traffic fatality numbers are often readily available to news organizations, but it is when they are displayed in this sort of interactive environment that the gravity of the numbers sinks in.

ZipWho has taken readily available census information and converted it into a database, searchable by zip code or by demographic information. A zip code search of a particular Kansas City neighborhood reveals that of its more than 14,000 residents, the median age is about 30 and 6.5 percent have a college degree. The latter statistic is low compared to the national average, as evidenced in the percentile column on the right.

Tampa Bay Mug Shots

Police mugshots as a group can be an unintentionally humorous collection which leaves the criminals exposed, which is perhaps why some reacted negatively to the St. Petersburg Times’ news project on its debut. The site culls what is already publicly available and brings to light common trends amongst area criminals, something a simple rehash of the police docket could not do. People may be tsk tsking now, but look for similar sites to pop up in the future.

More after the jump

Most mainstream media news sites have incorporated polls either on their front page or on individual stories. Usually they are built with the site’s CMS and thus aren’t visually interesting. OwnyourC flips the notion of what a poll can be by offering a stunning, Flash-based poll that incorporates animation but still makes the question the focal point. Lest you think the site is all razzle dazzle, the submitted answers can be broken down by age, gender and location.


GoodvBad isn’t exactly breaking new ground with its collection of polls, but it is worth noting here. Site visitors are presented with a subject and are asked if something is either good or bad. What’s remarkable is the collection of polls in one place and the simplistic manner of eliciting responses.

Toronto Star’s sexually transmitted disease maps

Knowing whether your neighborhood has a high rate a chlamydia is a little more alarming than knowing if the flu is going around, but if you need such information the Star has made it available. Neighborhoods are broken down into blocks and assigned a color on the heat map: the darker the color, the higher the chance your neighbor is harboring an unwelcome visitor. The map is even searchable by address. Disturbing? Yes. Useful? Absolutely.

Also on 10,000 Words

Innovative multimedia centered on the ordinary and everyday
News databases: Turning numbers into knowledge
Visual and interactive guides to the economic crisis
Tracking down criminals with crime maps
15 Ways to follow the 2008 election online

6 Creative uses for old newspaper boxes

If the response to this photo from The Big Picture is any indication, old newspaper boxes are a sign of the demise of newspapers, a sort of coffin for the medium. Inspired by the announcement that the Seattle P-I’s newsracks were on sale, here are some creative ways to transform the antiquated metal boxes.


If you think this photo of a news box turned into a grill is ‘shopped you’re wrong. Custom grill maker Steve Barker’s handiwork is highlighted in an issue of Make magazine and the creative cooker even comes with a propane tank attached to the back. If you need something a little more low tech, take a cue from this hollowed out video drop box-turned-oven spotted in Liberia.

Digital Newsstand

Scott Walker was on to something when he rigged an old newspaper box to deliver headlines digitally. The Alabama editor outfitted the box with a 17-inch monitor and rigged it to display headlines from The Birmingham News. Pretty cool huh?

Book Exchange

Newspaper boxes have long been used as a way to distribute information, albeit for a small fee. Some clever neighborhoods have transformed local news boxes into a place to share books or ideas, no quarters necessary. Community book exchanges (covered here and here) are a low involvement way to unite a neighborhood around an old metal box.


You’ll have the most unique fish tank on the block if you encase your little floaters in a repurposed newsstand. The window makes for great viewing and the coin slot makes for a convenient feeder/air hole.

Case Mod

The digital newsstand is pretty cool, but you won’t get much else out of it. Take a cue from Shaun McKinney and just put the whole computer network in the box. McKinney transformed the newspaper box into an awesome case mod, transforming it into a “Lan Party in a Box.”


Homer Simpson may just have discovered a new use for the newspaper box when he accidentally trapped little Maggie inside one. The space is just right for a small child to hang out or take a quick nap and the plastic door would keep them out of trouble (Kidding, of course. No angry emails please).

For even more creative or downright wacky suggestions for old news boxes, check out the comments in this article by the P-I’s @moniguzman.

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30 Must-have gifts for journalists
Spotted in L.A.: “Print Ain’t Dead.”
Crazy gadgets that are (possibly) crazy useful
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Do you have a multimedia emergency plan?

A news story that will make national or international headlines is breaking. Quick…what do you do? If you don’t have already have a game plan for how to report a crisis online, now’s the time to start making preemptive plans. Most newsrooms already have reporters to turn to for print stories and broadcast news coverage, but here are few multimedia components to consider so the internet audience is informed as well.


The first multimedia component that should be added to a breaking news story is a map that shows exactly where the incident occurred. This can be as simple as a computer-generated map created with Illustrator or mapping software, like the one included in this BBC News story to illustrate where Burma and its 2007 protests took place. Or it could be an uncomplicated Google Map like the one adjacent to a Record story on a bear attack.

Interactive Google map mashups can be created fairly quickly with a number of online programs, the easiest of which is likely FM Atlas. Addresses and locations can be plotted on a map and made ready to embed within minutes. Just be sure to verify the location before posting it online to avoid the Georgia/Georgia screwups that happened last year.

Flash animation/timeline

If a major catastrophe occurs, people want to know how it happened. A very basic interactive graphic or even a flat infographic should be built to better internet readers understanding of the crisis. Examples include’s interactive explanation of the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse and the Press & Sun Bulletin’s illustration of last week’s Binghamton shooting. Flash graphics can be overwrought and complicated if you allow them to be, but sometimes it just takes a simple illustration to communicate a story. The interactive can be embellished later when time is less of a factor.

Audio slideshow

As disasters occur, telling photos come streaming in from staff photographers or from wire services. Creating an audio slideshow that combines these photos with raw or edited audio collected by field reporters is a fast way to showcase both the story and the emotion behind it. Also, interactive slideshows are often the most popular stories on any news site.

A simple slideshow, with or without audio, can be created using a pre-existing template or with slideshow maker Soundslides. Examples include Reuters’ slideshow of reporter David Gray’s response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and its recent encapsulation of the Italian earthquake.


Once readers are informed of how a disaster happened, it’s up the news outlet to provide resources to victims and their families. Post-Hurricane Katrina, MSNBC put together message boards and useful links, as well as comprehensive list of ways readers could donate to relief efforts. In the midst of the fires that raged through California, the Los Angeles Times created a Google map of evacuation centers that showed exactly where victims could go for help.

Landing page

Most importantly, all the print stories, multimedia, interactive graphics and blog posts should be aggregated on one page to serve as a single destination for those looking for information related to the crisis. Not only does a landing page make content easily accessible but it makes the hunt for the latest news less of a struggle when time may be a factor.

Also on 10,000 Words

5 Ways to create a Google Map in minutes
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How to quickly track natural disasters online

Beyond Twitterfeed: Innovative uses of Twitter in the newsroom

As many newsrooms have discovered, Twitter is a great way to break news as it happens and to share stories with a large audience as they are made available. However, many news organizations fall into the trap of simply posting links to stories with no context and no interaction with their followers, thereby turning Twitter into a glorified RSS feed. That is the old media way of disseminating the news, one that won’t survive. What follows are examples of newsrooms embracing Twitter as a new media, Web 2.0 way of spreading and sharing the news and listening in return.

One of the simplest ways to increase reporter interaction with communities is to sign up as many as are willing for Twitter and have them cover and share news on their beat with Twitter followers. In order to make it easier for readers to find their favorite reporters, many news organizations, including the Austin American-Statesman, Cincinnati Enquirer, Grand Island Independent, and Des Moines Register (pictured below) have set up landing pages for potential followers to find every tweeting journalist or news section in one place.

NBC4 Columbus takes the landing page a step further by also showcasing tweets about the city that aren’t necessarily directed to the news staff, in addition to recent tweets from anchors, reporters and staff. The Telegraph has reversed the notion, by displaying Twitterfall, an online interface for viewing recent tweets, on a large screen in its newsroom.

Many traditional and nontraditional news outlets have also embraced Twitter as a means of crowdsourcing, or gathering information from the community on a story or topic. Twitter makes it easy to ask questions of many people at one time who may have information that would have otherwise gone unheard. 10,000 Words has done so for several posts, including this one and this one. ReadWriteWeb explains how they crowdsource in the post “How We Use Twitter for Journalism”.

Sites like TweetBeep, which provides alerts based on keywords selected by the user, can also be used to stay on top of breaking news as it happens on Twitter. If you’re looking for news on a specific area, CityTweets aggregates Twitter mentions of various cities around the world in one place. Breaking Tweets is also worth a look — the news site is powered by information and photos shared on Twitter.

Because the journalism conference season is coming up, it would be interesting to see something like this, a list of attendees who are on Twitter (looking at you @ONA09). With so many seminars and happenings being shared on Twitter at SXSW for example, it would be useful to have those names on hand to increase interaction among attendees.

You can find even more ways to merge Twitter and journalism in the comments section of this Online Journalism Blog post and this post by Meranda Watling.

It’s time to turn off Twitterfeed, and embrace Twitter’s many uses for many improving journalism. For a list of newspapers on Twitter, check out this exhaustive list and also ReporTwitters, a collection of online journalists using Twitter as a tool for innovation.

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Multimedia Picker: Choose the right medium for your message

With all the different ways to present a news story online, many often ask how they should select the multimedia tool that is best for a particular story. There is never any concrete answer, but with the multimedia picker embedded below, you can at least have an idea of which technology will work best to showcase a story or idea.

Again, the results are not steadfast solutions, but rather an idea generator for multimedia storytelling. For even more ways to visualize an online story, check out the periodic table of visualizations.

Also on 10,000 Words:

What is…? A handy guide for the new media novice

Where to find the best in Flash journalism

News databases: Turning numbers into knowledge

8 Ways of visualizing the news