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Our news timeline/mock-wiki project won a 3rd-place SPJ award

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My coworker Dennis Box and I took home a third-place SPJ honor for Online Innovation over the weekend for our coverage of a scandal that enveloped the City of Black Diamond offices for the latter part of last year:

SPJ2010awardwin

I’m particularly proud of the award for two reasons: (1) We’re in great company—the Helena Independent Record’s first-place piece is a well-crafted overview of one of their big stories and Gabriel Campanario’s work speaks for itself on a daily basis—and (2) ours was an extremely basic, anyone-can-do-it type project.

To clarify: Dennis came to me a few months back with an extremely complex story that involved the city of Black Diamond being possibly over-billed by a contractor. In investigating the over-billing, a bunch of other drama unfolded and muddled what was already a confusing situation. Dennis got in touch with me mostly to make sure the story would get the face time it deserved (I run an aggregate site for our company and promote our content on Facebook and Twitter), but in wading through the dense text, I thought his readers could benefit from an “in plain English” type of page. We both knew the story would continue to unfold for weeks, probably months, and since I’d previously bitched about how news sources don’t do enough to prevent confusion in their reporting, I went to work designing a page to sort everything out.

The result was simplistic—a wiki-looking layout with some HTML (for an overview and timeline) and an embedded Publish 2 JavaScript widget—but my only goal was to create something that new readers could use to get on board with our reporting. Once the page was up, we linked to it every time there was a new story to post—that way, if said story was a particular reader’s first time hearing about the event, he would have a place to get up to speed.

A few things I’d add or do differently:

  • A “cast of characters” section with mug shots/descriptions of each person in the story;
  • A more elegant timeline, perhaps using Dipity, Google Wave or some kind of homegrown build;
  • Give the page its own section on our site, as opposed to building it on a story page template.

Two last things I’d like to mention: The project wouldn’t have been possible without (1) a company culture that’s hands-off and allows its employees to experiment and (2) a colleague who was open to learning and experimenting with new media. That may sound gushy, but too few newsrooms have those elements at their disposal and the ones that refuse or are unable to adopt them are going to remain stranded in the 20th century.

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