Inform your readers, and make the net profit

The net gives journalists the chance to present information in new ways, but it also gives

new headaches.

Rather than taking up acres of newsprint with school league tables, let’s give people the chance to search for the schools they are interested in and compare them. Or plot them on a map so they can see their local schools at a glance.

With events like the recent budget announcement, papers would traditionally give examples of how it affects ‘typical families’– while this would always have been a bit of an oxymoron, with today’s fractured society it’s even less likely to be accurate.

Wouldn’t it be better to use our websites to allow people to give people the chance to pop in their own details and get a personalised response that is useful and accurate?

Keep it short and simple

It’s that old KISS rule that should be familiar to any reporter. Just because you can work out someone’s entire tax bill, or plot their child’s descent into delinquency by totting up the ‘added value’scores on the Key Stage league tables, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Ditto for plotting readers’ comments on a map when geography is irrelevant to the story.

Our budget calculator didn’t even try to work out tax credits – the user ends up with a nightmare form, and if the HM Revenue and Customs can’t get it right, what chance do we have?

Prepare your data carefully

To handle information, computers need it to be broken down into reliable, identifiable sections. This makes it easy for computers to handle information, but means you might need to do some donkey work to transform the information you start off with.

One popular format is XML, which uses ‘nodes”, so a phonebook might look something like this:

<phonebook>

<entry>

<name>Jack Smith</name>

<number>01632 567890</number>

</entry>

</phonebook>

Test, test, and test again

A misplaced comma or ampersand can throw the whole thing out and leave you – or worse, your readers – with a very unfriendly error message.

Some errors are less obvious. I checked our budget calculator against figures from a local accountant and found that I was £500 out on a tax bill because I’d forgotten to update some allowance figures.

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