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Truly Serving the Public -- With Web Tools

We journalists are fond of saying that journalism is constitutionally protected because of our critical role in providing information that people need to be citizens in a democracy. Which makes it all the more shameful that most newspapers -- in print and online -- have historically done such a lousy job of helping people navigate the core functionality of democracy: elections.


The Chicago Tribune's Election Center, developed by the team that includes the first two programmer-journalists (whose journalism educations were financed by Knight News Challenge scholarships), is a great example of what's possible. The site provides an essential guide to tomorrow's primary elections and dramatically simplifies the task of deciding whom to vote for. (If you're interested in seeing it live, you'll want to check it out before the polls close tomorrow, because once the election is over, the Tribune will shut down some of the key functionality -- and begin gearing up for the general election).

Here are the key elements of the Election Center (you can view screenshots in a Flickr slideshow):

  • Type in your address and you get information about your polling place and a sample ballot customized to where you live.
  • If you don't know whom to vote for in a given race, mouse over the candidate's name and you'll have access to his or her biography, relevant news articles, and endorsements from the Tribune's editorial board.
  • With a click, view all of the Tribune's endorsements.
  • View lengthy Q&A's with candidates in the most important races.
  • As you decide whom to vote for, click to check off your preferred candidate.
  • When you're done, produce a printable ballot you can take with you to the polls.
  • Share your choices via email, Facebook or Twitter.

Much as I like the Election Center, it's only fair to point out that there have been versions of this in the past. My Medill School colleagues Owen Youngman and Darnell Little tell me that as far back as 1996, the Tribune's Web site allowed people to type in an address and get a customized ballot. And in previous elections, many papers have made use of vendor-supplied technology (especially the ballot tools provided by thevoterguide.com) to provide similar capabilities. But I think the Tribune's site nails the combination of comprehensiveness and usability better than anything I've seen before.

When the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded scholarships to lure computer programmers into studying journalism, we were hoping to get coders excited about applying their skills to accomplishing the missions and goals of journalism. Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark, the first two scholarship winners, did exactly that, and helped launch the Tribune's "news applications team." A third team membrer, Joe Germuska, is featured in this news video about the Election Center.

There's one desirable piece of functionality I don't see on the Tribune's site: a tool pioneered years ago (I believe) by Rob Curley's team at the Lawrence Journal World and copied by others. It's basically a game where users register their opinions regarding key campaign issues, then are shown the candidates whose views are closest to their own.

I'd also point out that local media -- including the Tribune -- should do more to help educate voters about the election process. My Northwestern colleague Mary Nesbitt nicely captured some of the needs in a blog post last year about helping new voters.

One feature on the Tribune's site that I haven't seen before is the capability of sharing your ballot choices by email, Facebook and Twitter. I haven't seen anything quite like it before. But I have a feeling it's not going to be widely used -- in part because primary elections don't get much attention and in part because most people will be reluctant to share their voting intentions with people beyond their closest family and social circles.

Still, the concept of ballot sharing deserves further creative thinking and experimentation. What could be better for democracy than to have people telling their friends whom they're voting for and why, even if -- especially if -- that causes conversations to take place that would otherwise not occur?

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