A Story that Would Benefit from the Web

When I read a news story, I’ve begun to ask, how is it reported and presented differently than it would have been  in 1993? How are the new approaches enabled by the web integrated into the story? This weekend, the Sun Times published a story on dirty restaurants, There’s Dirty and Then There’s Disgusting. Written by MARK J. KONKOL and ART GOLAB, it’s a summary of “Chicago’s Dirty Dozen– a collection of troubled eateries shut down by inspectors after posting the most critical health code violations in the city….A[n] analysis of 12,000 city health inspection reports found minor cleanliness trouble can strike just about any kitchen.” Nothing new here– a fairly standard list of gross health violations, such as this report on

Joe’s Bar-B-Q at 4900 W. Madison, which was closed down for having 10 critical violations… During five different inspections, officials found 30 pounds of spoiled beef, 50 pounds of cooked pork stored at 58.4 degrees and 120 pounds of chicken and perch thawing uncovered in a sink…and wastewater from a condenser line was dripping on food, according to reports.

This story is reported in the same way it would have been 1n 1996, 1986, or 1905, for that matter. The only difference is the fact that we can read, quote from and criticize it online. KONKOL AND GOLAB don’t tell us, for instance, that the food inspection reports maintained by the City’s Department of Health are available and searchable by the web. Happily, three of my favorite local Edgewater eateries passed inspections this year. The reports don’t share much, however. Why shouldn’t the city share the full inspection report online, along with summaries of each inspector’s reports? Such public transparency would be a check not only on the restaurants, but the on the inspectors as well. Better yet, what if the Sun Times took a page from local innovator Adrian Holovaty and overlaid the health department data over Google Maps, a la ChicagoCrime.org? If the Sun Times doesn’t do it, someone else will do it; if newspapers want to remain germane, they best leave 1993 behind and integrate the web and mobile devices into their reporting.

In a companion piece, Fran Spielman explores how the Health Department conducts its investigations. Alderman Tom Tunney, owner of the Ann Sather restaurants, opens the door to citizen food inspectors, “I find the consumer is as good of an inspector as anybody. At least in my community, they’re very educated and very on top of it.” How about it, Alderman? Why not create and publicize a way for us to grade restaurant cleanliness from our cell phones, for instance?

One thought on “A Story that Would Benefit from the Web

  1. Yes, this is a very good idea. And you’re absolutely right about publications not taking advantage of the Web enough. I remember about blogging about something related, although at a much more basic level.
    http://crookedtimber.org/2005/04/21/sources-please-it-just-requires-a-tag-and-careful-reporting/

    I was frustrated that even Wired couldn’t simply just link to some off-site sources in their stories.

    I like your idea of a map with that data set. The search functionality they have right now is not very good and I wonder how that reflects the underlying database and whether there are limits currently on how well it could be integrated with another system. But it would be nice to see someone give it a shot!

    It would also be interesting to add photos to accompany the addresses.

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