The Wire and the web

With its complex yet penetrating arcs and careful unravelling of a fictionalised but well-rooted version of Baltimore, The Wire quickly became my favourite television show of recent years. So following its recent conclusion I’ve naturally been devouring every article I can find, not quite ready to let go.

The following paragraphs from a piece by executive producer David Simon struck me as an unintended example of why newspapers (his previous profession) have generally fared so poorly over the past few years, and a reminder of how easy it can be to miss the possibilities new technologies :

It would not have been easy for a veteran police reporter to pull all the police reports in the Southwestern District and find out just how robberies fell so dramatically, to track each individual report through staff review and find out how many were unfounded and for what reason, or to develop a stationhouse source who could tell you about how many reports went unwritten on the major’s orders, or even further — to talk to people in that district who tried to report armed robberies and instead found themselves threatened with warrant checks or accused of drug involvement or otherwise intimidated into dropping the matter.

These are areas that the technologies we use on the web should have helped papers become more effective. Improved scraping, syndication, and the tools that make sites like EveryBlock possible make it easier for people to track the data and offer new ways to identify potential grounds for investigation. The technology doesn’t remove the need for beat reporters, but it might let them find the leads more quickly, and help newspapers find the story. Instead, too many have simply looked to the short-term, aiming to raise ad revenue by becoming increasingly generic.

The story is the same outside the confines of the newspaper world. When approaching new web projects we need to make sure we’re not simply being reactive, but proactive. How can we take what we do well, and do it better?

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  1. Not everything is about your issue.

    Simon is talking about a story that to be obtained would require a singular review of every police report and then reporting on the outcome of those incidents. Moreover, while the public information laws require the Baltimore Police Department to turn over all of its incident reports to an inquiring reporter, they DO NOT require the BPD to do any computer runs on those incidents on behalf of a newspaper running an adversarial story. Meaning, of course Simon can use his own computer assets to collate and assess the raw data in the reports he receives, but he can’t access the BPD computer to do it on his behalf. You don’t seem to understand exactly what a newspaper reporter — a good one — is required to do in order to investigate something. Walking up to the police department and asking them to employ technology on your behalf — when the police department is hiding the dirt in the first place? That’s surreal.

  2. I think you’ve misunderstood me, or at least are taking my point further than I intended. I intended to use Simon’s comment as a jumping off point to suggest a more appropriate engagement with technology than that generally employed.

    Sites like (now retired) showed that there is a lot of data already published that can be represented in a variety of ways. Those visualisations don’t replace newspaper reporting, but they can provide indicators of where interesting or unusual things are happening.

    Obviously there’s a need to question the data to start with, but that side where there’s data already available in electronic forms, there’s a chance to better direct the leg-work. Not replace it, but perhaps more quickly see the oddities.