Using Online Databases to Find Articles

The internet has created so many opportunities for journalists to extend their reach and find information for stories they otherwise might not have been able to write. One way the internet is helping journalists is through the various online databases that have popped up on newspaper and independent, non-profit news organizations websites alike.

The New York Times’ “Toxic Waters” project allows anyone to enter their home zip code and see which facilities in or near their home have permits to discharge wastewater. I chose to look at Bird Certain Teed in Norwood, MA, the town next to my hometown. Their facility review page from the Times search shows that the roofing company has been given 46 violations since 2004, yet have not been fined or received any enforcement actions.

If I were to write a story on this, my concern would be with finding out what chemicals are being dumped, and what the risks to the neighbors are. I could find this information by using the query results page the Environmental Protection Agency provides. I would also be interested in finding out why a company that has had 46 violations over five years, effluent and “other,” hasn’t been inspected in approximately 15 years.

Another database that has the possibility to be rich with story ideas, is ProPublica’s “Eye on the Stimulus” project. ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom whose slogan is “Journalism in the public interest,” has taken the stimulus information from the government’s recovery.gov website and then tracks the progress each posted project has made.

An interesting project I found near my hometown is a $1.24 million loan to Wicked Restaurant, a pizzeria and bar that recently opened a location in Dedham, MA. The loan was given from the Small Business Administration department last March. The reason given on the website is to “aid small businesses which are unable to obtain financing in the private credit marketplace.” I would look into why the restaurant couldn’t get credit in the first place, and see whether that was a reason why the restaurant delayed its opening in Legacy Place from late spring to this past fall. I would also look into how successful the restaurant has been since opening, and what the restaurant’s financial future looks like.

Finally, a fairly comprehensive website with links Massachusetts public records and databases is boston.com’s “Mass. Facts.” In the “Your town” section of the site, Boston Globe reporter Matt Carroll compiles information that gets posted online and printed weekly in the Globe’s regional sections.

Though Carroll has made graphs of an extensive amount of data, they tend to be in bar graphs or a graph of the state broken down by town. One new way of presenting the data might be through a scatterplot on IBM’s “Many Eyes” website. An example of a scatterplot might be using the newly revealed Census data to compare the median income per town to the number of “chain” restaurants in the town. Without the data I’m assuming that more affluent towns may have fewer chain restaurants, but it would be interesting to see what the numbers actually reveal.

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