A journalist’s job can be exciting: uncovering a critical lead for a new story or elbowing aside a gaggle of other media pros to question a government official. Many journalists must also attend city council, school board or other local meetings — often for hours, waiting for a newsworthy decision or statement. Reading the minutes can require even more precious time to find the kernel of the story or determine who best to interview.
Making that process easier is the goal of Agenda Watch, a new platform from Big Local News at Stanford University and with the support of the Reynolds Journalism Institute. The project is the brainchild of Cheryl Phillips, director and Hearst Professional in Residence, and Serdar Tumgoren, associate director for tools and Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor.
According to Phillips, the idea for Agenda Watch germinated in a class Tumgoren taught during his first year at Stanford — Exploring Computational Journalism — which attracted students from various academic programs, including computer science, engineering and journalism.
“Serdar and I pitched this as a potential project for the students, but we also did some user research and needs finding. Bay City News was one of our early partners. We worked with its publisher and staff to learn how it covers local government meetings and what information it needed to share on its newswire,” Phillips said.
Agenda Watch has a list of more than 90,000 government agencies nationwide. With his experience as a data journalist and lead news applications developer, Tumgoren and the Agenda Watch staff have already started by writing web scrapers capable of harvesting documents from over 2,000 public agencies.
“Cheryl and I remembered our days as local reporters, covering city hall, police and schools and their many meetings, often during a single evening. We wanted to create a platform to share the information generated at these meetings and give reporters who cover these beats advanced notification about their agendas,” said Tumgoren.
San Francisco is one of the first four regions where Agenda Watch is being tested; the others are Atlanta, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. A great use case would be news organizations with extensive government coverage, like Bay City News and its affiliated nonprofit site, LocalNewsMatters.org, which are owned and run by veteran journalist Katherine Ann Rowlands.
“Since 1979, we have been serving the media ecosystem in the Greater Bay Area. Bay City News is a 24/7 news operation covering breaking news, civic news, event coverage, court news and similar topics. Our stories are then sent to our network of clients, most of which are other Bay Area media organizations. Often, this is how they first become aware of all these news topics,” Rowlands said.
Rowlands added that Agenda Watch would help Bay City News and LocalNewsMatters.org to automate the process of identifying newsworthy topics appearing in agendas. She plans to embed Agenda Watch into the civic engagement hub of LocalNewsMatters.org so local citizens can access the same information.
“We can offer Agenda Watch free for standard users because of the generous support of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, Lenfest Foundation, The Associated Press and The Los Angeles Times. By early fall, we aim to add a few thousand agencies to the platform,” Phillips said.
Big Local News provides journalists other tools to access, analyze and publish data. These include Court Scraper, a Python library that downloads case information from U.S. county courts, and Layoff Watch, a centralized database of mass layoffs from dozens of fragmented government websites daily.
Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients during his 47 years in marketing and advertising. He has been a freelance/contract content researcher, writer, editor and manager since 2010. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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