By Tom Meagher, data editor at The Marshall Project,
Emily Yount, interaction designer at The Washington Post,
Matt DeLong, national digital projects editor at The Washington Post
and Ted Han, lead developer at IRE/DocumentCloud
On Aug. 3, The Marshall Project, a new nonprofit journalism organization focused on criminal justice issues, published an investigation in partnership with The Washington Post that revealed new evidence raising doubts about a high-profile Texas execution.
TOM: Our reporter, Maurice Possley, began working on this story months before most of the rest of our newsroom at the Marshall Project was even hired. By the time we were able to start helping, the story was mostly reported, so we dove into the documents to bring ourselves up to speed.
The case against Cameron Todd Willingham — who was executed in Texas for the murder of his three daughters — had been written about extensively over the last 22 years, but a lot of new information was uncovered, and it was all in the documents. We knew we wanted to be able to explore and highlight the correspondence that cast this case in an entirely new light. DocumentCloud was clearly the answer.
In the course of his reporting, Possley, who has covered this case for more than a decade, was given access to copies of dozens of primary source documents that tell the backstory of Cameron Todd Willingham and the informer who helped convict him. In filing its grievance with the State Bar of Texas against the former prosecutor in the case, the Innocence Project had acquired these documents and assembled them into a series of appendices. They gave us eight PDF files that added up to nearly 400 pages. We used DocumentCloud to stitch them all back together into one large file.
We then combed through the appendices and dozens of other records of court testimony and correspondence. As we saw the various typefaces and handwriting styles that made up the key passages, we knew we wanted to use DocumentCloud notes to present excerpts directly in the story.
Matt: I started working on the story in earnest a couple of weeks before it published. We were very excited about having so many primary-source documents to enrich the narrative. The Post has been using DocumentCloud for years, but we’ve long been frustrated by one of its biggest limitations: it isn’t mobile-friendly. This isn’t really DocumentCloud’s fault; these scanned documents are a set size, so when you scale them down, at some point words will become too small to read.
We had seen how the New York Times addressed the problem, by putting up the text and linking to the original document in DocumentCloud. That’s totally logical and fine if the words are all that you care about, but in this case we have official letters and handwritten notes between the characters in the story. The pages themselves are interesting, and many readers will want to see them with their own eyes.
We decided at the outset that however we ended up displaying the documents we included in the story, they had to be responsive. But this meant we’d have to come up with our own hack. Emily and I had both been thinking about this problem individually for a while, and we had some time to work on it, so we decided to try to figure out a solution that we could use in this project.
Emily: At the time of publication, DocumentCloud’s note embed code already resized and repositioned the note based on the width of the DC-note-container div, so I knew we only needed to solve for when the note is wider than the note embed and the right side of the note is cut off (see image below).
The original coordinates, width and height allow us to determine how wide the note is in relation to the document image and resize the document just enough to make the note 100% of the embed, instead of the document image 100% of the embed. This helps with readability by making the text as large as it can be. At times, depending on the width of the note and the size of the text, there will still be readability issues, so cropping the annotations carefully and testing to make sure they are readable is really important.
Here’s an example from the Willingham story of a responsive note on an iPhone 5:
Ted: We were thrilled when Ben Chartoff (OpenNews fellow at the Washington Post) reached out to put Emily in touch with us.
We believe deeply in DocumentCloud as an open source project as well as the service to which journalists post documents relevant to the public interest. Emily and Matt’s motivation to extend the behavior which DocumentCloud already provides and to share their code back is exactly the kind of effort we love to see and encourage.
Technology in the world of news is a means toward the end of better reporting. Especially in competitive industries like ours, an open source ethos around the tools we all share is an avenue for us work together to improve the state of all reporting. Anyone who solves an issue for their own needs can help to solve that issue for everyone.
In that spirit we were excited to incorporate Emily’s code into our own. To do so, we spun our note code off into its own repository to make it easier for anyone to contribute (you can find the code on Github as documentcloud-notes). Then with the Washington Post’s & Marshall Project’s stories as a basis we began incorporating the changes. Ultimately, we ended up rewriting much of Emily’s code in the process, but what she had written served as the design criteria to anchor the code we wrote.
Our responsive notes code is already live on DocumentCloud now, and journalists needn’t take any additional steps to use it. Any embedded note from DocumentCloud will now behave responsively.