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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Open records showcase the value of information

By Tom Warhover
March 11, 2011 | 4:41 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Want to know the seventh most-read article on ColumbiaMissourian.com last Halloween?

It wasn’t a ghouls and goblins story. The piece that took seventh that day had this sexy headline: "Birth and death certificates."

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How about the No. 1 ranked article on Feb. 7? "Missouri's largest lost and found." The article was all of 121 words.

In fact, between those two days, there was just one Monday in which Show Me the Records finished out of the top 20. Show Me the Records was No. 1 twice in January.

That’s pretty good for a bunch of information that wasn’t announced in a press release, lobbied for in Jefferson City or responded to by the Columbia Fire Department. So much for the definition of news.

•    Infection rates at local hospitals, and how they compare across the state and nation.

•    How many are unemployed in every county in the state.

•    The number, type and outcome of discipline incidents in Columbia for the past five years.

•    The NCAA’s list of athletic departments and their revenue sources.

None of these chunks of information make for “stories” in the traditional sense. But they allow you to create your own story — to find the news that’s relevant or interesting to your life.

Newspapers need to think beyond narrow definitions. Through the Internet, you have access to billions of pieces of information, which is the problem. A newspaper, though, holds a tremendous search engine: the journalists who spend every day trying to sort the wheat from the chaff.

In a piece I wrote last year, I put it this way: Journalism’s niche is in sense-making.

We have all this information at our fingertips. And yet we're still hungry for someone to make sense of our world.

That still means providing up-to-date news about the earthquake in Japan or personal profiles that illuminate the human condition.

It also means providing info-nuggets like Show Me the Records or historical context like the CoMo You Know.

That’s particularly true in the digital world, where the possibilities aren’t constrained by space.

“For the first time,” writes journalist Matt Thompson, “we have a medium perfectly equipped to capture and deliver both episodic and systemic information.”

In other words, an episode like the delivery of the next proposed budget for the city of Columbia can be matched with news of the system-like financial reports dating back 10 years.

Too often we only think of the Web as a source for instant news: it’s up-to-the-second. Thompson, though, refers to the “Timeless Web,” where you can fetch information that’s days or years old in an instant.

While Show Me the Records isn’t completely timeless, it certainly has a long shelf life.

I think the Missourian needs more systemic items like it. For instance, news editor Laura Johnston is working on a chart for gas prices that would run every week, not just when prices spike at $3 (or $4 or $5) a gallon.

As always, I’m open to your suggestions.

Tom