Geniuses such as Adrian Holovaty and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact can't change this principle.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Wander around the Big Data block long enough and you'll run into some dead ends. Take EveryBlock, the Chicago-based hyperlocal data news service recently acquired by Comcast (:CMCSA).
All my conversations about using data in news seem to lead to a kid named Adrian Holovaty. He's the University of Missouri journalism grad who created an easy-to-use, Web-friendly software framework called Django -- so easy that even I am breaking out my stat skills to create some Big Data models with the tool.
I know -- stand back! But the thing is, I'm not the only journalist inspired by Holovaty.
Back in 2007, a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) named Matthew Waite developed PolitiFact, an online database analysis tool that helped confirm what politicians actually said.
"The whole site is inspired by Adrian Holovaty's manifesto on the fundamental way newspaper websites need to change," Waite wrote on his blog back in 2007.
Not surprisingly, PolitiFact was money this election year. Online data tracker Quantcast said 2.3 million U.S. folks used the service since mid-September. It did not hurt that the service won a Pulitzer in 2009.
And not surprisingly, Holovaty snagged some media-biz love. He landed a $1.1 million Knight Foundation grant to ramp up his pet project, EveryBlock. Based on an earlier experiment called Chicagocrime.org, described by the Nieman Journalism Lab as a "map mashup," EveryBlock vacuums up police blotter events, real estate information and other open local data and renders it as news.
It's been owned by MSNBC since 2009. A professional CEO, Brian Addison, was brought in, and in March of this year he added a social media service, making it a sort of hyperlocal Twitter. The product rolled out to 19 cities and it seemed EveryBlock had PolitiFact written all over it -- a Big Data news property setting up on a nice piece of real estate here in Mediaville.
Problem is, my brief spin around the neighborhood tells me that not even geniuses such as Holovaty can code their way out of our digital media slum.
Not winning a Pulitzer Prize
After several months using this tool, it is clear turning news business hype into news business profits is still not well understood. Since my town of Harrison, N.Y., is not supported, I looked at the EveryBlock for where I was born: Hell's Kitchen. And honestly, the daily digest of hyperlocal, data driven, socially enabled news was barely that. Essentially news scraped from other media sources, geotagged Flickr pictures, Yelp reviews and lots -- and lots -- of real estate listings.
Any Web search engine or hashtag social search tool generates similar results.
So it was no surprise that, back in August, Holovaty left the firm. He was perfectly blunt about why.
"If EveryBlock were a product sold to journalists, the buzz we got would've been fantastic, " he said to The Verge back in August. "But it's a product for city residents who may or may not care about the Future Of News."
To Addison's credit, when I got him on the phone he was honest that EveryBlock is a work in progress. Though Holovaty and Addison say EveryBlock's traffic is "orders of magnitude" better than in its early days, when I asked Addison about current sales, his answer was not one investors want to hear.
"We have nothing to disclose," he said. "We are seeing the steps in the right direction. We are developing the roadmap to profitability."
No Big Data algo is required to see the blind alley EveryBlock is stuck in. Just look carefully at PolitiFact. Even with its near-magical tools, what makes PolitiFact work is not technology, but pure old-school human journalism.
"To create our lists of promises, our staffers pored through speech transcripts, TV appearances, position papers and campaign websites," is how the service describes what it does.
That's a pricey, professional human element that EveryBlock makes a point of not having. "We have made the conscious decision to put the responsibility in the user to develop content, rather than develop it ourselves," Addison told me.
More soberingly, even with PolitiFact's huge street cred I get a feeling there are issues with this business. The Knoxville News Sentinel announced this week that it will drop out the PolitiFact network. The editor there, Jack McElroy, said the reason was not strictly that election news is no longer front-page stuff.
"We are dropping because of limited resources," McElroy told me in an email. The time and money it takes to create what PolitiFact requires is steep, he said. "The rulings take a lot of work, and there are monthly fees."
It turns out that even after 15 years of brutal trial and error, the news business is no closer to navigating the vast wasteland between cheap automated digital content and pricey human-created analog stories.