Thursday, March 19, 2009

The launch of a database

Months came and went. Friends told of a wild project. Superiors pitched an incomplete database. Idea transformed to reality.

Finally, a project, begun in September and continually undergoing updates, launched last Thursday in the form of the “Local athletes playing sports at the university level” searchable database. Every sport at every NCAA and NAIA member institution was meticulously checked. The information comes from the athletic department Web sites of more than 1,200 universities in the three divisions of the NCAA and more than 300 NAIA universities, with other sources filling in the gaps.

A user – be it a parent, athlete, athletic director or curious fan – can search among more than 1,500 former high schools athletes from the Sacramento area playing sports at the university level. Athletes are searchable by former high school, community college, current university, sport and/or last name. The first results page includes name, university, high school, sport and position of each athlete. The more details link displays hometown, class year, major, biography link and university division.

People have already taken to it – despite its plain look and lack of useful graphics to help disseminate what’s found within. The database is the fourth most-read “story” at for the month of March. I couldn’t be happier about its initial reception.

The database has already been helpful in offering color to three stories, including a list of Loretto High School athletes for a story about the effects of the school’s closure on its high school athletes, a list of men’s basketball players on teams selected for the NIT and a list of men and women on team’s selected to the NCAA basketball tournaments.

I wanted to blog about how I came up with the idea, how I found the information, how I pitched the idea and how the information can be applied as a news resource. No other Web site among the top 100 newspapers (based on page views) has anything like it. It can be duplicated with hard work and an unyielding curiosity. It also takes a lot of hometown spirit.

Let me explain what motivated me to collect this information.

When The Sacramento Bee, or McClatchy, decided to end my previous project,, a handful of us were absorbed into the newsroom. I was elated and disappointed at the same time. We really believed in the project. Sacramento is still without a go-to resource for nightlife. For all its flaws, was the best local Web site to find out what was going on around town, with more event listings than any other Web site covering the area. Still, my goal was to work in the newsroom, and maybe start writing again.

The new position brought full time status, after working as a temp and paid through an outside agency. Better pay came my way and a two-page job description for my new title of online content developer. My duties include posting daily stories, arranging stories on the front page and section front, monitoring Web site statistics, evaluating flagged comments, keeping an eye on local media and combining related stories, photos, graphics, videos and fact boxes.

Some days are slower than others and I wanted to start a project that I didn’t think anyone else would have. I thought it would be interesting to compile a list of every local athlete playing sports at the nation’s universities. I wanted to create something unique and capitalize on what newspapers do best – know the community and provide information from a local perspective. The information would benefit reporters and users. Stories could be generated and users would have a tool to play with.

What stories could you find? Is Sacramento a baseball town or a women’s soccer town? What are the powerhouse high schools? What would an all-Sacramento football team look like?

The idea had ties to a college pet project, my first foray into computer assisted reporting.

I was a part of a team of reporters and editors at The State Hornet that broke a story about hazing on the women’s soccer team at California State University, Sacramento. The Athletics Department wasn’t happy with our coverage of an unannounced investigation and our relationship soured. Media relations told our reporters they would not release player contact information. They said they had never so before, which was untrue. One reporter, working on a feature profile, was asked to conduct an interview with a softball player in the media relations office. Multiple reporters were told they couldn’t use audio recorders while conducting interviews with coaches and athletes. It didn’t help that we criticized the department by mixing audio files within the frame of a staff editorial in a groundbreaking auditorial format.

I was frustrated by the mistreatment of our reporters, many of whom had nothing to do with the hazing investigation, and I didn’t want media relations to dictate communication with players. I responded by creating a Sac State-specific database that included the name, sport, major, year, hometown, high school, e-mail address, AOL Instant Messager name, Facebook (open, private or non-existent) and the MySpace URL of all 402 athletes.

(As an aside: Parents’ names and hometowns found in media guides can be cross-referenced online for publicly available phone numbers. I didn’t get that far.)

The database information could be applied in many ways. Aside from being a resource to contact athletes through social media networks, trends emerge. Stories jump out if you know where to look. You can see where most of the recruits come from, which can be mapped at the state and city level in a comprehensive look at recruiting. Sac State is commonly referred to as a commuter school, meaning the majority of the students come from the area. The sole student from Alaska must have a compelling story. You look for similarities and rarities.

The database ended as unfinished business. Besides some use here and there, leading to a story to be told later, most of the profile and investigation potential didn’t make it to print. I wanted to do it all over again – this time for the Sacramento region.

No one asked me to make this and I still don’t think it looks as great as it could. It’s the beginning, a first draft, and I’m going to keep chipping away, making sure it’s the best resource available.

I’ll talk in my next blog about what you should do in preparation if you want to create your own version.