Q&A With Online Innovator Adrian Holovaty

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By: Jay DeFoore

A newspaper junkie trained at the University of Missouri, Adrian Holovaty in many ways embodies the future of online journalism, even though much of his time is spent deep inside lines of code.

ChicagoCrime.org, a free, public service Web site Holovaty developed in his spare time, recently won a $10,000 grand prize in the University of Maryland’s Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism. In giving the prize to Holovaty, the group’s advisory board said, “It’s a knockout for one journalist to see all the pieces and put them together.”

As lead developer at World Online, the Web-based news operation for the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal World, Adrian Holovaty helped LJWorld.com, KUSports.com, and Lawrence.com win just about every online journalism award in existence.

Holovaty recently joined Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive as editor of editorial innovations, a position that allows him to work from his home in Chicago. He answered the following questions via e-mail, touching on everything from the citizen-journalism movement to open-source software development.

How did the idea for ChicagoCrime.org come about?

I’m always hacking on side projects. Usually they’re small-scale things, such as bits of code that I hack on for an evening or two and release open-source on my Web site. Many of them languish on my laptop, never seeing the public eye. They’re mostly intellectual challenges or specific solutions to annoyances on various Web sites.

So, with chicagocrime.org, it was that philosophy on a larger scale. Earlier this year, I stumbled upon the Chicago Police Department’s Web site, which lists all reported crimes in the city and updates regularly. The amount of data there, all freely available in machine-readable format, got me really excited — and, although it was great to see all of the data available to the public, I felt like its value could be improved if it were presented in more of a journalistic fashion.

Plus, around that time, Google Maps had launched, and I’d been tinkering with reverse-engineering it. Things fell into place, and I put together chicagocrime.org, with my friend Wilson Miner making design refinements.

Are newspaper Web operations in a good position to develop new and innovative forms of online journalism? If not, what advice can you give them?

I don’t see newspaper Web operations as particularly innovative. (I’ve considered leaving the industry a couple of times, for that reason, but a passion for journalism and freedom of information keeps me coming back.)

My advice to newspapers is to hire Web programmers — particularly those with a journalism background. A Web site without programmers is like a newspaper without pressmen. I may be off on this analogy, because I don’t know much about pressmen, but it seems newspapers don’t skimp on pressmen because they realize how vital pressmen are to running the operation. It doesn’t make sense to skimp on programmers.

To innovate, it’s important to know what’s possible, and it takes technically minded folks to know what’s possible.

Are there any other open-sourced technologies similar to Google Maps people should be experimenting with? Have you come across any especially interesting results?

Every Web developer who’s interested in content management and presenting information should check out Django (www.djangoproject.com), which is an open-source Web framework that I’m intimately involved with developing. We created it when I worked at the Web operation in Lawrence, Kansas, and we open-sourced it in the hopes that it would help the Web development community and have the side-effect of getting the right people interested in our commercial CMS product, Ellington. Response has been super.

If you’re a Web developer working for a content-providing organization, Django is the best tool for the job.

What do you think about the whole citizen-journalism movement? I get the feeling that some people are just doing it because it’s trendy. Which sites out there are really doing it the right way?

It’s certainly trendy, but I love the idea of getting people more involved with creating and shaping news and information. “Our readers know more than we do” is more than a light guideline: It’s a hard fact.

Citizen journalism is an opportunity for local news to be created by people who actually care about a community. That sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve consistently been surprised at how few journalists — at mid- to large-market newspapers — are “from” the town they’re covering. Reporters, from my experience, seem to go to the towns whose newspapers have reporter openings, not to the towns they know or care about.

I can’t think of any great examples of “pure” citizen journalism sites; those are hard to find, because they’re so community-focused that they seem rather dull to outsiders. (That’s not a dig, it’s just an observation.)

Can you talk about what kinds of projects you’ll be working on in your new position? What does WashingtonPost.com do well and what can it improve on?

I’ve already started on a cool project, and I’m very excited about it. I’m not comfortable giving details, but let’s just say it’s something that leverages some really cool databases and, we hope, will provide a great public service.

After that, there’s a long list of interesting things to tackle.

Generally, I’ll be working with the team to come up with new ways of presenting news and information online — from the idea stage to the implementation stage. Specifically, I’ll be tasked with brainstorming ideas with people, contributing some of my own, and actually doing implementation (that is, doing the computer programming, database work, or whatever’s needed).

I’m excited to bring to the table some of our key philosophies from Lawrence: rapid, iterative Web development; as little red tape as possible; out-of-the-box thinking and a general excitement about “building cool s–t.”

As for what washingtonpost.com can improve on: Honestly, I already think it’s one of the best news sites in terms of quality content and well-edited presentation. What I hope to bring to the table is more of a focus on using technology to augment the already-stellar Post content.

I also want to encourage our reporters and information gatherers to add value to the information they collect, by organizing it in ways that are more easily deciphered by machines. Derek Willis — who, coincidentally, is now a co-worker of mine at the Post — has written an outstanding series on this topic. It’s at www.thescoop.org/thefix, and everybody in the industry should read it.

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