Thursday, October 18, 2007

Five important questions for B2B media: Part Four

This is the fourth installment in a five-part series in which I pose questions about the state of B2B media. You can read the earlier pieces here, here and here.

My friend Doug Fisher, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina, recently wrote about disagreements in the newspaper industry involving Caspio, a system that is designed to make it easier for journalists to publish database-driven information to the Web.
In brief, some of the best minds in journalism fear that when newspapers use Caspio they are missing an opportunity to develop database-programmer journalists of their own.
My first reaction to Doug's piece was this: I wish we had this problem in B2B.

Unlike the newspaper world, B2B media has long seen the value of providing data to customers. A good portion of B2B companies publish databases, directories, buyers guides, etc. But unlike the newspaper world, B2B publishing companies have not yet seen the value of having journalists interact with the data.
Or, to put it another way, B2B media hasn't fallen in love with the work of Adrian Holovaty.

If you're not familiar with Adrian's work, then you just haven't been paying attention. In just a few, short years he has been instrumental in three massive shifts in media -- ultra-local reporting, the creation of Django development software, and database-driven journalism (including his award-winning mash-up, He's gone from the Lawrence Journal-World in Kansas to the Washington Post. And he recently won a $1 million grant from the Knight News Challenge.
He is perhaps the most important person working in journalism today, although he's not yet 30-years old.
And most B2B editors have never heard of him.

Nearly everyone who writes about media has written about Adrian. But if you're new to the subject, I'd suggest you start by reading this profile in American Journalism Review. Then visit Adrian's site and read some of the pieces he's written himself.
What you'll find (and please forgive my simplistic explanation) is that Adrian urges newspaper reporters to recognize that the information they collect can be viewed as "structured data" that can be stored in databases and repurposed into new forms of journalism.
And increasingly, the smartest newspaper reporters and editors in the world have begun to follow his lead.

Although we B2B journalists are further behind our newspaper brothers in learning to see story elements (earnings, dates, names, events) as data, we do have a distinct advantage in mastering database-driven reporting: We are already awash in data. For many of us, there is an entire department of people down the hall who collect, store and sell data to our readers.
But many B2B reporters never even look at the stuff.

A year and a half ago I wrote a post about two very different experiences I've had with data at publishing companies. At one publisher, the very idea that a reporter like me wanted access to the data so that I could mine it for stories was seen as silly. But at another company, reporters were required to mine the data for stories.
You can read the details here. I don't think you'll be surprised to learn that the first company is now a shell of its former self; while the second company is arguably the most successful electronic publisher in history.

Over in Philadelphia, my friend Russell Perkins runs a group called InfoCommerce. It's a consulting and research firm for data providers. And each year Russell offers something he calls his "Models of Excellence Awards."
Take a look at this year's winners here. Then check out earlier winners here. What you'll find is that while some award winners are from B2B publishing companies, most of the best stuff comes from standalone data and search providers.

I cannot help but wonder if one way to improve B2B publishers' data products -- many of which are already quite wonderful -- would be to allow B2B journalists to experiment, mash-up, drill down and write about what they find in the databases. I have no doubt whatsoever -- because I have seen it in my own reporting -- that opening up the databases to journalists will lead to new, previously unimagined stories and graphics.

Which leads to today's question:
How can we create an environment at our companies where smart people in editorial and data can learn to build stories, products, databases and ideas together?

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