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Oct. 29, 2010, 11 a.m.

Roanoke Times wikifies a series about a highway

When a newspaper decides to dedicate months of a reporter’s time, plus the efforts of the tech team, to a project, there’s usually a whiff of scandal in the air. But in the case of The Roanoke Times’ package on Interstate Highway 81, I-81: Fear, Facts and the Future, it was more or less reporting for the sake of reporting.

“There is a rock in the field, let’s turn over the rock and see what’s under there,” reporter Jeff Sturgeon explained to me, describing how he approached the story. “We simply said, here’s this major community asset — how well is it working?”

The four-lane highway bisects the community of about 300,000 people. Almost 60,000 people drive the route everyday, 1 in 4 of whom are truckers — a source of anxiety for lay commuters. “Many people are scared to drive on the Interstate,” Sturgeon said. “Our goal was to find something newsworthy to tell our readers about our road.”

In the end, Sturgeon’s data-driven reporting revealed that, despite fears, the road is statistically safe and truckers are some of the best drivers on it. Where perhaps just a few years ago Sturgeon’s story would have come and gone in the print edition of the paper, it now lives on at its own context-rich online home. The Times created a hub for the series that lets users interact with the data, read all the stories easily, and leave comments. The web component is a finalist for a Knight Public Service Award, presented by the Online News Association. The winner will be announced Saturday at ONA’s annual conference.

The project is a traditional piece of journalism in the sense that it ran as a series in the print edition of the paper, written by a trained reporter. But both the topic and online presentation are ideal for a news environment steeped in the web. Sturgeon’s story isn’t a scandal-driven, passing tale, but a systematic look at an important local topic, updated as new public data is released. Rather than scattering information across the site, URLs are grouped alongside video, user comments, and an interactive map of accident data. It’s a nice example of the type of journalism Matt Thompson might call Wikipedia-style journalism.

Building the story overtime was valuable for readers and for Sturgeon as well. “We wanted the site to sort of grow with the series,” he said. “The commenters had several impacts on me. They were sort of cheering me on. They, in part, sustained me, over the almost one year to get this project done. It created a connection that kept me going as I slopped through months and months of research and writing and everything it takes to get a package together.”

As new accident data becomes available, Sturgeon says they’ll continue to publish it on the interactive and let users comment. “This road is in our future,” he said.

POSTED     Oct. 29, 2010, 11 a.m.
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