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Dec. 16, 2009, 12:10 p.m.

KNC 2010: NewsGraf wants to slap a search box on journalists’ brains

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Knight News Challenge closed submissions for the 2010 awards last night at midnight, which means that another batch of great ideas, interesting concepts, and harebrained schemes gave their chance to convince the Knight Foundation they deserve funding. (Trust us — great, interesting, and harebrained are all well represented at this stage each year.) We’ve been picking through the applications available for public inspection the past few weeks, and over the next few days Mac is going to highlight some of the ideas that struck us as worthy of a closer look — starting today with NewsGraf, below.

But we also want your help. Do you know of a really interesting News Challenge application? Did you submit one yourself? Let us know about it. Either leave a comment on this post or email Mac Slocum. In either case, keep your remarks brief — 200 words or less. We’ll run some of the ones you think are noteworthy in a post later this week. —Josh]

The most eye-catching thing about the NewsGraf’s proposal is its price tag; $950,000 over two years. That stands out in a sea of $50,000 and $100,000 requests.

But if you spend a little time digging into the intricacies of NewsGraf, that big price becomes downright reasonable. Cheap even. That’s because with NewsGraf, Mike Aldax and John Marshall want to digitally duplicate the knowledge, connections and synapses of a veteran journalist. That kind of audacity doesn’t come cheap.

Technologically speaking, NewsGraf ventures into the murky world of semantic tagging and social graphs. Unless you’ve got a computer science degree, it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what NewsGraf is. It’s a database, it’s a search engine, but it’s also a connectivity machine.

It’s easier to compare NewsGraf to a person — think of it as a veteran reporter. Someone who carries around a vast collection of interviews, research, and general knowledge gleaned from years working a beat. All this info is tucked neatly into her memory, and she taps this personal database whenever she’s assembling a story. It searches for red flags, patterns, and relationships. It’s an editorial sixth sense.

But there’s a big problem with this brain-based model: It disappears when the brain — and its associated owner — get laid off. With news organizations already running smaller and faster, how can they possibly overcome this growing knowledge gap?

Enter NewsGraf. The project is still on the drawing board, but the idea is to capture all that connective information in a format that’s accessible to anyone with a web browser. A visitor can enter the name of a local newsmaker and see the threads that bind that person to others in the community. It’s like Facebook, as designed by a beat reporter.

Data will come from government databases, local newspapers, blogs, and other sources. After running a query, a user can click through to the originating stories for deeper information. NewsGraf is merely the conduit here; Marshall said they want to send users to the information, not keep them locked within NewsGraf’s walls. As the application puts it:

As newspapers find it increasingly difficult to send reporters to monitor local politics and public discourse, communities will need alternative mechanisms to ensure transparency and good government. Local journalists and citizens will be able to draw upon NewsGraf’s data as a starting point for further investigation, uncovering important relationships that may be influencing decisions being made in their community.

The team behind the idea combines journalism (Aldax covers city hall for The San Francisco Examiner) and tech (Marshall is a software developer and a former VP at AOL). NewsGraf will focus on San Francisco and the Bay Area if it wins a News Challenge grant. But if funding doesn’t come through, Aldax hopes someone else runs with the idea. “We just want to see this happen,” he said.

POSTED     Dec. 16, 2009, 12:10 p.m.
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