Calculators — for journalism?

tn_philip-merrill.jpg Philip Merrill School of Journalism at University of Maryland

The University of Maryland’s J-Lab sent out its latest project update including a reminder about the Knight Citizen News Network, a great and evolving online catalog of tips, tricks and tools for creating and managing local news sites.

Included was a calculator that allows anyone to assess “the likelihood that a 9th grader will complete high school on time.” The calculator is searchable by school district. I used it to determine how the  2005 on-time graduation rate of my district, San Leandro Unified (76.2 %) compared to that of California (63.3%) and the nation (71.3%).

Shocking in a high-tech state in a knowledge economy one in three of young adults start their working lives without this minimal credential. In any event the calculator, called the Finish Line, was was funded by a New Voices grant, one of several idea-seeding programs run by the J-Lab. This notion of adding a data service to reported work is taking hold as an expectation of what journalists should deliver. If the objective of journalism is to help people understand and thereby control the world, then stories, even those gussied up with pictures and sounds, are not the only tools available. We have databases, animation, conversation and community input as the new methods for creating not merely the awareness but the sense of civic engagement that makes change possible.

(As an aside, when I visitied U of M on a junket I met J-Lab director Jan Schaffer — and found the her offices in humbler off-campus quarters rather than the stately brick building above.)