Empowering citizen developers with Zoho Creator: Customer Spotlight 5

In our previous blog, we had a candid conversation with Tom Langtry, founder and director of Myoko Snowsports, who uses Zoho Creator as a one-stop shop for running their business. This time around, we’re introducing you to the Boston Herald, a leading American daily newspaper that caters to readers in Boston, Massachusetts, and its surrounding area. It's one of the oldest newspapers in the United States and provides a range of options for reading—print, online, and mobile.

For this edition, we had a great chat with Joe Dwinell, the executive editor of the Boston Herald, and learned how they use Creator for a very special project called "Your Tax Dollars at Work". Let’s take a look at what Joe had to say.

Could you quickly tell us about the Boston Herald?

[Joe] We're a major metropolitan daily newspaper based in Boston, Massachusetts. It's a very competitive market, but we always strive our best to stay relevant. We stand out for our influential political, business, sports, and entertainment coverage. Boston is really well known for its academics. We have some major institutions here, like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It's also known for its health care system; we've got Boston Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital. So, we've got a combination of all these factors in a city—and we cover them everyday with a lot of pride and enthusiasm. We don't shy away from the tough issues, and people like that.

What sent you looking for a solution like Zoho Creator? Were you facing any challenges at the time?

[Joe] Before using Zoho Creator, we had a home-grown searchable database that was built using Javascript and HTML. Unfortunately, the developer who built the database got a tech job and left. That's when things got a little tricky. It became difficult for us to manage and maintain the system, as none of us had a technical background. There were times when the system would crash and we wouldn't know how to get it back up and running.

There was another instance, when I visited the Office of the Massachusetts State Comptroller to get access to payroll information for every public employee in the state. There were around 96,000 rows in their database. We loaded it up online, and the system crashed. Thousands of people were eager to know more about this data, but the system crashed. That first year of summer we got 7 million people visiting our website. I'll never forget it. So the biggest challenge is not crashing the system when we upload large amounts of data.

That's when we realized that we needed an online database that was easy to use and met our specific needs. We did try using Caspio for a short period, but it wasn't what we were looking for. I was desperate—I had to find a solution that was intuitive, scalable, and cost-effective. 

Do you consider yourself a citizen developer? Did you have a professional coding background or was the transition to Zoho Creator harder than you thought?

[Joe] Yes, it was difficult at first. But you know what? I didn't panic. With the guidance of your support team and the tutorials I was able to put together the database for the "Your Tax Dollars at Work" project. Slowly, I'm learning the platform and I know I can do more with the platform if I understand its key features.

I'm an editor—I'm not great at all this tech stuff—but your team is teaching me how to use the platform and its easy. I want to get better. That's why I stick with you guys, because I like what you got, and I like how you treat me. I'm pretty good with Excel, and your platform has the feel of Excel. It makes it easy for me to learn and adopt it. 

Could you tell us a little about the "Your Tax Dollars at Work" project? How was the idea born?

[Joe] I always believed that it's important for people to know how their money is being spent—the money they pay as taxes. We often hear questions like, "where are my tax dollars going? How is my money being used? What improvements are being made?" It was 2007, and that's when I started hunting for the information I needed to build this project. The goal was simple—to stay committed and provide people with transparent information.

The Boston Herald's "Your Tax Dollars at Work" project is a reader favorite, and it was given new life by Zoho Creator. This database holds information about all the state employees payroll in Massachusetts—from the governor to policemen to plow drivers to social workers to university professors and engineers—it has it all. A few of these people are paid $1 million or more.

The database currently has about 113,238 records. The report we set up in Creator includes the individual's name, designation, department they work for, and their gross income, base pay, and overtime pay. Our readers can use any of these filters and easily find the information they need.

All year long, when big stories break, we point to this database to give our coverage depth. Hosting this data on Zoho Creator means so much more. It gives the Herald a reputation of being the only source in the city trusted to expose abuse and prove it by posting the source material.  

We're going to grow this project using Zoho Creator and we recently updated our site using a WordPress page—your team helped me push all the data in Zoho Creator to the WordPress page using an iFrame.

What has been the biggest business gain you’ve seen after implementing a low-code platform like Zoho Creator?

[Joe] The key is that Zoho has allowed us to give readers what they want. That's the future of our business model. We point our investigative and enterprise reporting at the reader, giving them insights into how their taxes are spent and how lawmakers go about allocating those funds. This database illustrates how hard we will work for our loyal followers. We receive comments constantly about the data and that motivates us to find more.

If you were to recommend Zoho Creator to a friend or colleague, what would you tell them?

[Joe] I have recommended and I will recommend Zoho Creator. Zoho gets the job done and it helps you along the way.

For a journalist, failure is not an option; we've got to put out a newspaper every day, no matter what. So we can't fail. And if I've got a great story I want to show people the source material, and your platform helps me do that. Zoho Creator helps me succeed.

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  • Sejal Dattani

    Sejal Dattani is a Senior Marketing Analyst at Zoho. She likes to stay on top of the latest marketing trends and is always on the lookout for new ways to reach and engage audiences. Also, a young mother who engages her kid with DIY activities and is passionate about early childhood learning. When she is not planning marketing campaigns, Sejal spends her time cooking, reading, and fussing over home decor.

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