Research

Moving the Newsroom: Post-Industrial News Spaces and Places

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newsrooms

The Washington Post is inquiring whether to sell its downtown building, even under Jeff Bezos. The beleaguered The Star-Ledger is not just slashing employees, but its real estate too. Gannett is on a massive selling spree, shedding property for dollars.  Across the country, tiny newspapers and the crown jewels of newspaper chains are saying goodbye to their storied news homes.

Is this one more final, symbolic kick in the gut? After laying off people, are newsrooms going to pack up and leave their homes of glory, turning away from storied institutions that housed memories, legends, and recall back to a busier time and, at least in memory, a golden era?

Yes, this multimedia Tow Report concludes that symbols — buildings — matter. And that’s why reinvention in new places matter — when a news organization turns to a newer, smaller space, hoping that architecture might reshape a digital future.

Grand plans for news hubs have emerged to create systems for breaking news, a central manifestation for the organization of ideas, content and speed. But this seems like talk, right? It’s not, actually.

This is a detailed, extensive report. The overview will give you a quick hit, but look further: see what The Miami Herald, The Des Moines Register, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and The Seattle Times have done to turn from sadness to opportunity through a journey of physical space.

The official launch of the report is at 12pm, Thursday, April 10, 2014 at Columbia Journalism School. I will be moderating a panel discussion with Rick Hirsch, Managing Editor of The Miami Herald, Randy Brubaker, Senior News Director, Investigative Reporting, Des Moines Register, and Aurora Wallace, Clinical Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University. Lunch will be served. RSVP here.

Nikki Usher is a Tow Fellow working on the Tow Center’s Newsroom Places and Spaces in a Post-Industrial Age Project at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The Newsroom Places and Spaces in a Post-Industrial Age Project is a project made possible by generous funding from both The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Newsroom Places and Spaces in a Post-Industrial Age Project ourneys to newsrooms that show a prominent sign of an adaptation to a post-industrial world: newsrooms that have left their buildings for smaller spaces, often entirely designed around the idea of a digital-first model, or that have repurposed their space to make way for non-journalists, hoping for synergy and a way to fill empty spaces. Follow Nikki Usher on Twitter @nikkiusher. To learn more about the Tow Center Fellowship Program, please contact the Tow Center’s Research Director Taylor Owen: taylor.owen@columbia.edu.

 

Announcements

Submit Your Applications for the Innovation Showcase 2014

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The Innovation Showcase is a public open house event where publications and the public are invited to the school to see and experience the original and innovative reporting, publishing and presentation work being done at the school, and we want *your* work to be a part of it.

The application is minimal: ~200 words describing your piece and how it is innovative, a link to the work, and a faculty contact, if applicable. The deadline for submission is April 18. Please submit your application to towcentercuj@gmail.com.

The showcase will be held on May 12 and 13, and master’s projects, class projects, and pieces developed at school-related events are all welcome. We are looking for a range of media: video, audio, text, photo and visualization. We want to have a little bit of everything, so don’t worry that your piece isn’t “innovative” enough: we’re ready to be convinced! Group and individual work is eligible, and students may submit as many pieces as they like.

For more examples, take a look at projects from last year. Many of them were later published by major publications. http://towcenter.org/courses/innovation-showcase/

Selected works will be installed in the lobby, Stabile Center, and World room between 9am and 5pm on May 12, with reception and viewing from 6pm – 9pm on both May 12 & May 13. Applicants must be available to install and attend their work during these times.

Announcements

Tow Center Releases Report on Video Now

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The Tow Center for Digital Journalism has released a multimedia report on the state of video in journalism, “Video Now: The Form, Cost, and Effect of Video Journalism.” The report will be formally launched at a panel discussion at 6:30pm on Monday, April 14, 2014 at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. RSVP here or watch LIVE at http://cuj.tw/Rh1q9G and send your #towtalk questions via Twitter @TowCenter.

WATCH VIDEO NOW: THE FORM, COST, and EFFECT OF VIDEO JOURNALISM

From October 2013 until February 2014, Tow Fellow Duy Linh Tu and the Video Now film crew visited newsrooms across the United States to interview and observe reporters and editors producing video journalism. Video is an important editorial tool and a potentially large revenue source for newsrooms, but there seemed to be no consensus on how to produce or profit from it. With that in mind, Video Now, set out to answer three main questions: 1) How do news organizations define video 2) How do they produce video? 3) What is their return on investment?

For this report, Video Now called and emailed more than 125 news organizations to gather information about their editorial strategies, revenue models, and measures of success. We avoided established broadcast and cable news networks. Instead, we focused on newsrooms without a long history of video production.  We wanted to explore the opportunities and challenges facing newspapers, digital-first organizations, and long-form video producers as they compete for online traffic.

We visited FRONTLINE, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, The Detroit Free Press, Mashable, NowThis News, Vice News, NPR, MediaStorm, and the Chicago Sun-Times.  We acquired data when possible – page views, plays, viewer drop-off.  In all, we interviewed, on-camera, over 40 producers, editors, and reporters involved in video production.  Each interview ranged from 30 to 90 minutes.  We spent one to two full days in each newsroom and were given complete access to shoot the day-to-day activities of these organizations..

Newsrooms were surprisingly candid on the question of revenue and return on investment.  None of the newspapers we visited are making any profit on their videos, and most describe themselves as in a state of investment and development.  These newsrooms do earn some revenue on pre-roll advertising, but they are operating at a deficit when compared to the total cost of video production.  However, at this stage, newsrooms are more focused on building their under-resourced production teams with the intention of increasing content production.  The Seattle Times only has two video editors; the Chicago Sun-Times has four multimedia producers and will be hiring four more this spring; and Mashable, a successful and influential social-focused site, only had three full-time producers when we visited them.

Video Now is divided into five sections: Purpose & Methodology, Newspapers, Digital, Long Form, and Recommendations. One caveat: video news departments iterate constantly (sometimes monthly), so the information and analysis presented here will age quickly. But, as of Spring 2014, this is an accurate look at the video strategies of leading newspapers, digital organizations, and long form video news producers.

Duy Linh Tu is a Tow Fellow working on the Tow Center’s Video Now Project at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.  The Video Now Project is a project made possible by generous funding from both The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The goal of the Video Now Project is to examine the forms, costs, and effects of video journalism today. Follow Duy Linh Tu on Twitter @duylinhtu. To learn more about the Tow Center Fellowship Program, please contact the Tow Center’s Research Director Taylor Owen: taylor.owen@columbia.edu.

Past Events

Innovation Showcase 2014

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The Innovation Showcase is a public open house event where publications and the public are invited to the school to see and experience the original and innovative reporting, publishing and presentation work being done at the school, and we want *your* work to be a part of it.

The application is minimal: ~200 words describing your piece and how it is innovative, a link to the work, and a faculty contact, if applicable. The deadline for submission is April 18. Please submit your application to towcentercuj@gmail.com.

The showcase will be held on May 12 and 13, and master’s projects, class projects, and pieces developed at school-related events are all welcome. We are looking for a range of media: video, audio, text, photo and visualization. We want to have a little bit of everything, so don’t worry that your piece isn’t “innovative” enough: we’re ready to be convinced! Group and individual work is eligible, and students may submit as many pieces as they like.

For more examples, take a look at projects from last year. Many of them were later published by major publications. http://towcenter.org/courses/innovation-showcase/

Selected works will be installed in the lobby, Stabile Center, and World room between 9am and 5pm on May 12, with reception and viewing from 6pm – 9pm on both May 12 & May 13. Applicants must be available to install and attend their work during these times.

Past Events

Tow Center Presents ‘State of Video’ on Monday, April 14, 2014

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videonow

Join Tow Fellow Duy Linh Tu and special guests from FRONTLINE, Detroit Free Press, NowThisNews, The Seattle Times, VICE News, and Washington Post for a panel discussion and video presentation on the state of video journalism Monday, April 14, 2014 from 6:30pm to 9pm at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The presentation is the culmination of Duy Linh Tu’s Tow Center research project Video Now: The Forms, Cost, and Effect of Video Journalism which examined the editorial, production, and business strategies of newsrooms, ranging from The New York Times and Washington Post to startups and non-traditional video operations such as Vice.

Panelists include:

  • Raney Aronson-Rath, Deputy Executive Producer, FRONTLINE
  • Danny Gawlowski, Photo/Video Editor, The Seattle Times
  • Kathy Kieliszewski, Director of Photo and Video, Detroit Free Press
  • Jason Mojica, Editor-in-Chief, VICE News
  • Andy Pergam, former Senior Editor, Washington Post
  • Duy Linh Tu, Tow Fellow, Professor & Director of Digital Media, Columbia Journalism School

RSVP here.

Watch on LiveStream and send your #towtalk questions via Twitter starting at 6:30pm (EST): http://cuj.tw/Rh1q9G

About the Panelists:

Raney Aronson-Rath: As deputy executive producer for PBS’ flagship public affairs documentary series FRONTLINE, Raney Aronson-Rath guides the editorial development and execution of the series, from primetime television broadcasts to multiplatform initiatives. With Executive Producer David Fanning, she oversees all phases of production and runs the daily editorial management of the series, as well as FRONTLINE’s new monthly magazine program. Instrumental in spearheading the magazine launch, Aronson-Rath works to re-imagine long-form documentary while maintaining the excellence in journalism and production for which FRONTLINE is known. Since joining FRONTLINE in 2007, Aronson-Rath has expanded the series’ reach and reporting capabilities. Under her leadership, FRONTLINE has significantly grown its broadcast and digital audiences. Aronson-Rath has also developed and managed more than 20 in-depth, cross-platform journalism partnerships with some of the nation’s premiere news outlets, including ProPublica, American Public Media’s Marketplace, PBS NewsHour, CBC Television and Univision. Committed to exploring innovative approaches to long-form storytelling, Aronson-Rath has helmed a number of experimental, multiplatform projects, including the Polk Award-winningLaw & Disorder, a yearlong investigation into questionable police shootings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; Post Mortem, an exposé on death investigation in America; Big Money 2012, an examination of campaign finance following the Citizens United Supreme Court case; and, most recently, Concussion Watch, an interactive database tracking concussions in the NFL. Before helping to manage the series, Aronson-Rath produced, directed and wrote several award-winning FRONTLINE films, including News WarThe Last Abortion Clinic and The Jesus Factor. Prior to joining FRONTLINE, she worked on award-winning series at ABC News, The Wall Street Journal and MSNBC. Early in her career, while living in Taipei, she was a newspaper reporter for The China Post. Aronson-Rath has a bachelor’s degree in South Asian studies and history from the University of Wisconsin. She received her master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Daniel Gawlowski: Danny Gawlowski is a Photo / Video Editor at The Seattle Times. He studied photojournalism at Ball State University and documentary filmmaking at the Seattle Film Institute. He was a part of the team that was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for coverage of a police slaying and the ensuing manhunt. It was the first time that online coverage was specifically mentioned in a Pulitzer citation. Danny was awarded a 2011 National Edward R. Murrow Award for Video Feature Reporting for work done with photojournalist Erika Schultz documenting homelessness among Seattle-area families and children. The project was also awarded a 2011 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism for Multimedia Reporting. He was awarded the 2012 Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism for a data-driven video showing how more than 2,000 people in Washington State fatally overdosed on methadone, a cheap and unpredictable painkiller that the state steered people toward in order to save money. The overall project, led by Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong, was also awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting, the APME Public Service Award, the Global Editors Network Data Journalism Award and the 2012 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. The project lead to abrupt changes in state policy, ending the practice and ceasing plans for similar policies to be implemented across the country. He was awarded a 2013 National Edward R. Murrow Award for work done with investigative journalist Michael J. Berens showing elephants are slowly dying out in American zoos, with infant-mortality rate almost triple the rate in the wild. He learned most of what he knows working for great picture editors at The Seattle Times, The Bellingham Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The Concord Monitor, The Courier and Press and other great visual newspapers. Danny is a regular faculty member at The Kalish Visual Editing Workshop, the Northwest Video Workshop and the Bellingham Visual Journalism Conference. He is a board member of the Associated Press Photo Managers Association and helped judge the 2011 SND Best of Digital News Design competition. Danny’s photographic work has also appeared in several books. For “The Other Side of Middletown,” Danny produced a body of photographic and multimedia work that documented the African American community of Muncie, Indiana. His photographs illustrate several textbooks, including “Introduction to Anthropology,” “Cultural Anthropology,” and “Amours: Histoires des relations entre les hommes et les femmes.”

Kathy Kieliszewski: I made my first piece of “multimedia” with an 8-track player, a cassette tape, a vinyl record and a bunch of still pictures cut out of teen magazines. It was 1986 and I knew then I wanted to tell stories for a living. Fast forward through 27 years of being a journalism student, a photojournalist, a newbie picture editor and now as the Director of Photography and Video at the Detroit Free Press, I’ve told stories that delighted, angered and motivated people – all without an 8-track player.

Jason Mojica has been contributing to Vice since 2007. Before joining the company full time in 2011, he worked for Al Jazeera English as a producer on the network’s weekly media analysis program,The Listening Post, and as a field producer for Josh Rushing’s series, On War. Since joining Vice he has produced documentaries for the web and for the company’s Emmy-nominated HBO series in more than 30 countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, El Salvador, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jason was recently named Editor-in-Chief of Vice News. Jason holds a B.A. in Political Communication from George Washington University

Andy Pergam was, until recently, Senior Editor at the Washington Post, overseeing video. In addition to setting long-term strategy and product innovation, he led a large team of journalists focused on daily and long-form video storytelling, with an emphasis on emerging distribution platforms for video. During his tenure, The Post received more than 15 Emmy Awards, including top recognition for Overall Station Excellence, and five Edward R. Murrow Awards, including top recognition for Overall Excellence. Andrew is also a co-founder of Spark Camp, a next-generation convener that brings together journalism, media and technology leaders multiple times a year. He is now advising other media companies as they develop video strategies. Andrew earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he remains active as Vice Chair of the Board of Alumni, and graduated from Johns Hopkins University.

Duy Linh Tu: Duy Linh Tu is a Professor and Director of Digital Media. He teaches the Reporting class, video modules, and the Multimedia Storytelling Workshop. His courses focus on producing video for cinema and the Web. Duy is a co-founder and the Creative Director of Resolution Seven, a documentary and commercial production house. He is a cinematographer, photographer, writer and multimedia consultant. Prior to forming Resolution Seven, Duy founded and was the Chief Operations Officer of Missing Pixel, an award-winning interactive production company. Duy has shot and produced for broadcast networks, cable channels, independent production houses, and Web properties. He is the director of photography and producer of the award-winning documentary “deepsouth.” Duy is currently in production on two films, one focusing on children with a rare, life-threatening disease and another on violence against Native American women. He received his M.S. degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Events

Join Us for a Data Journalism #TowTea

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Join the Tow Center for a Q&A on data journalism with writer and economist Allison Schrager and writer and editor Malcolm Harris on Thursday, April 10, 2014 from 4pm to 6pm.

Tea and cookies will be served. Space is limited. RSVP here.

Allison Schrager is a writer and economist. She worked in finance where she designed investment strategies for the average person. She has written for the Economist, Quartz, Reuters and National Review and has a PhD in economics from Columbia.

Malcolm Harris is the writer and editor for The New Inquiry. Harris is also known for the Twitter subpoena case, where Harris and Twitter had opposed a subpoena of Twitter for Mr. Harris’s postings.

Research, Tips & Tutorials

Applying data science to all the news that’s fit to print

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Over the past year, an important element of my research into data journalism’s past, present and future has been interviews with young journalists like Jeremy Bowers or Dan Hill and (relatively) hoary veteran practitioners like Aron Pilhofer. Their experience has provided invaluable evidence for debugging debates about the topic.

chase-davis-headshotThat was certainly the case with Chase Davis, an assistant editor on the Interactive News Desk at the New York Times. I first me Chase in 2011 at the first Newsfoo, in Phoenix, Arizona, where he gave an Ignite talk on three news problems data science can help solve. Davis followed up in 2012 with an Ignite on using data to explore the evolution of data journalism. Both 5 minutes videos are well worth watching if you’re even remotely interested in journalism and technology. (Davis also open sourced his data journalism Ignite on Github, if you’d like to explore that way.)

Today, Davis teaches an advanced data journalism class at Mizzou, where he helps transfer his skills and perspective (treat data a source). Our interview, lightly edited for clarity, content and [bracketed] and hyperlinked for context, follows.

What is a day in your life like?

I help supervise the developer/journalists who build many of our cool Web projects. I have a background as a reporter, primarily doing investigations and covering politics, so I try to dabble in that world as well. I also teach a class in advanced data journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism and do some consulting on the side.

How did you get started? Did you get any special degrees or certificates? Quantitative skills?

I got started in data journalism almost by accident. I started learning to program for fun in middle school, then fell in love with journalism and ended up at Mizzou. I lived a typical j-student life for a few years, writing a bunch for the student paper and doing internships, then applied (based on a total misunderstanding) to start working for NICAR. The couple years I spent there really tied those two skillsets together.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

Too many to list, but I’ll name a few. Jacquee Petchel, Lise Olsen and Mark Katches for schooling me in the ways of capital-J Journalism. Brant Houston and Jeff Porter for taking me in at NICAR and showing me how journalism and data can work together. And, really, the entire IRE and NICAR community, which is outrageously giving of its collective time.

What does your personal data journalism “stack” look like? What tools could you not live without?

I’m pretty minimalist: a terminal window and some type of text editor. The only place I splurge is on a database GUI (I like Navicat). The one tool I couldn’t live without is Python, which is the best Swiss Army knife a data journalist can have.

What are the foundational skills that someone needs to practice data journalism?

The same core skills you need to practice any kind of journalism: curiosity, skepticism, an eye for detail and a sense of a good story. [They] also [need] numeracy, or at least conceptual mathematical literacy, which is still unfortunately too rare. Also important are databases and spreadsheets, statistics, and some kind of programming language — doesn’t matter which one. Being your own worst critic doesn’t hurt. And intellectual courage. You need to be motivated, not intimidated, to learn new and difficult things.

Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

Personal projects. I always have at least one on the backburner, and I make sure it stretches me in a new direction. Working on something I care about is the best way for me to stay motivated. I get bored learning from books.

What are the biggest challenges that newsrooms face in meeting the demand for people with these skills and experience? Are schools training people properly?

The oversimplified explanation is that most journalism students can’t code or do math, while most computer science students don’t know storytelling.

Hybrids on either side are rare, and we’re scooping them up as fast as we can.

Journalism schools could be doing more, but it’s not all their fault. It takes intellectual agility and natural curiosity to effectively develop hybrid skills. I don’t think that’s something we can teach solely through curriculum. That’s why I don’t think every journalism student should “learn how to code.” Being able to write a few lines of Javascript is great, but if you let your skills dead-end with that, you’re not going to be a great newsroom developer.

Folks on our interactive and graphics teams at the Times have remarkably diverse backgrounds: journalism and computer science, sure, but also cartography, art history, and no college degree at all. What makes them great is that they have an instinct to self-teach and explore.

That’s what journalism schools can encourage: introduce data journalism with the curriculum, then provide a venue for students to tinker and explore. Ideally, someone on faculty should know enough to guide them. The school should show an interest in data journalism work on par with more traditional storytelling.

Oh, and they should require more math classes.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

Hard question, but I’ll offer up pretty much anything that my old team at the Center for Investigative Reporting has done. That was my first turn at being a boss, and the fact that they haven’t all been fired suggests that I didn’t mess them up too bad.

What data journalism project created by someone else do you most admire?

Look at the Philip Meyer Awards every year and you pretty much have that answer. Anyone who can take a spreadsheet full of rows and columns, or a bunch of code, and turn it into something that changes (or starts) the conversation about an important topic is the whole reason many of us got into this game in the first place.

How has the environment for doing this kind of work changed in the past five years?

It’s night and day. Five years ago, this kind of thing was still seen in a lot of places at best as a curiosity, and at worst as something threatening or frivolous. Some newsrooms got it, but most data journalists I knew still had to beg, borrow and steal for simple things like access to servers.

Solid programming practices were unheard of — version control? What’s that? If newsroom developers today saw Matt Waite’s code when he first launched PolitiFact, their faces would melt like “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Now, our team at the Times runs dozens of servers. Being able to code is table stakes. Reporters are talking about machine-frickin’-learning, and newsroom devs are inventing pieces of software that power huge chunks of the web. The game done changed.

What’s different about practicing data journalism today, versus 10 years ago?

It was actually 10 years ago that I first got into data journalism, which makes me feel old even though I’m not.

Back then, data journalism was mostly seen as doing analyses for stories. Great stories, for sure, but interactives and data visualizations were more rare.

Now, data journalism is much more of a Big Tent speciality. Data journalists report and write, craft interactives and visualizations, develop storytelling platforms, run predictive models, build open source software, and much, much more. The pace has really picked up, which is why self-teaching is so important.

Is data journalism the same thing as computer-assisted reporting or computational journalism? Why or why not?

I don’t think the semantics are important. Journalism is journalism. It should be defined on its own merits, not by the tools we use to accomplish it. Treating these things as exotic specialties makes it too easy to pigeonhole the people who practice them. And I hate that.

What’s the one thing people always get wrong when they talk about data journalism?

That data journalists are unicorns.

Or wizards. Or that they can somehow pull swords from stones in a way that mere laypeople can’t. That kind of attitude is dangerous — not because it mythologizes tech skills, or demonstrates willful ignorance on the part of technophobes (both of which are sad), but because it drives a cultural wedge between data journalists and the rest of the newsroom.

[Imagine hearing] “I’m a conventional reporter, so my specialty is reporting. You’re a tech person, so you write code.”

I think that’s crap. I know plenty of reporters who can code, and plenty of data journalists who can report the hell out of a good story. By dividing them culturally, we almost let people see the “journalist” in “data journalist” as secondary. We turn them into specialists, rather than letting them bring journalism and technology together in new and creative ways.

Why are data journalism and “news apps” important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

Numeracy is important. A more universal appreciation of technology in our industry is important. A culture of rapid, constant experimentation is important. To the extent that data journalism has encouraged those things in newsrooms, I think it’s been hugely important.

The actual product of data journalism — news apps, visualizations, stories — those will all continue to evolve, but data journalism’s continuing contribution to newsroom culture is something that I hope is permanent.

How It's Made, Research, Tips & Tutorials

Oakland Police Beat applies data-driven investigative journalism in California

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One of the explicit connections I’ve made over the years lies between data-driven investigative journalism and government or corporate accountability. In debugging the backlash to data journalism, I highlighted the work of The Los Angeles Times Data Desk, which has analyzed government performance data for accountability, among other notable projects. I could also have pointed to the Chicago Sun-Times, which applied data-driven investigative methods to determine  that the City of Chicago’s 911 dispatch times vary widely depending on where you live, publishing an interactive map online for context, or to a Pulitzer Prize-winning story on speeding cops in Florida.

oaklandpb

This week, there’s a new experiment in applying data journalism  to local government accountability in Oakland, California, where the Oakland Police Beat has gone online. The nonprofit website, which is part of Oakland Local and The Center for Media Change and funded by The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and The Fund for Investigative Journalism, was co-founded by Susan Mernit and Abraham Hyatt, the former managing editor of ReadWrite. (Disclosure: Hyatt edited my posts there.)

Oakland Police Beat is squarely aimed at shining sunlight on the practices of Oakland’s law enforcement officers. Their first story out of the gate is pulled no punches, finding that Oakland’s most decorated officers were responsible for a high number of brutality lawsuits and shootings.

The site also demonstrated two important practices that deserve to become standard in data journalism: explaining the methodology behind their analysis, including source notes, and (eventually) publishing the data behind the investigation. 

To learn more about why Oakland Police Beat did that, how they’ve approach their work and what the long game is, I contacted Hyatt. Our interview follows, lightly edited and hyperlinked for context. Any [bracketed] comments are my own.

So, what exactly did you launch? What’s the goal?

Hyatt: We launched a news site and a database with 25 years worth of data about individual Oakland Police Department (OPD) officers who have been involved in shootings and misconduct lawsuits.

Oakland journalists usually focus (and rightfully so) on the city’s violent crime rate and the latest problems with the OPD. We started this project by asking if we could create a comprehensive picture of the officers with the most violent behavior, which is why the OPD is where it is today. We started requesting records and tracking down information. That eventually became the database. It’s the first time anyone in Oakland has created a resource like this.

What makes this “data-driven journalism?”

Hyatt: We started with the data and let it guide the course of the entire project. The stories we’ve written all came from the data.

Why is sharing the data behind the work important?

Hyatt: Sharing is critical. Sharing, not traffic, is the metric I’m using to gauge our success, although traffic certainly is fun to watch, too. That’s the main reason that we’re allowing people to download all of our data. (The settlement database will be available for download next week.)

How will journalists, activists, and data nerds use it over time? That’s going to be the indicator of how important this work was.

[Like ProPublica, Oakland Police Beat is encouraging reuse. The site says that "You’re welcome to republish our stories and use our data for free. We publish our stories under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License."]

Where do you get the data?

Hyatt: All of it came from city and court documents. Some of it came as .CSV files, some as PDFs that we had to scrape.

How much time and effort did it take to ingest, clean, structure and present?

Hyatt: Almost all of the court docs had to be human-read. It was a laborious process of digging to find officer names and what the allegations were. Combining city settlement data records and court docs took close to five months. Then, we discovered that the city’s data had flaws and that took another couple of months to resolve.

Some of the data was surprisingly easy to get. I didn’t expect the City Attorney’s office to be so forthcoming with information. Other stuff was surprisingly difficult. The OPD refused to give us awards data before 2007. They claim that they didn’t keep that data on individual officers before then. I know that’s completely false, but we’re a tiny project. We don’t have the resources to take them to court over it. Our tools were very simple.

Did you pay for it?

Hyatt: We used PACER a ton. The bill was close to $900 by the time we were done. We mainly worked out of spreadsheets. I had a handful of command line tools that I used to clean and process data. I ran a virtual machine so that I could use some Linux-bases tools as well. I heart Open Refine. We experimented with using Git for version control on stories we were writing.

“ A used chemical agent grenade found on the streets in downtown Oakland following Occupy demonstrations in 2011. Photo by Eric K Arnold.

Will you be publishing data, methodology as you went along?

Hyatt: The methodology post covers all of our stories. We’ll continue to publish stories, as well as some data sets that we got along the way that we decided not to put into our main dataset, like several hundred city attorney reports about the settled cases.

What’s the funding or revenue model for the site? Where will this be in one year? Or 5?

Hyatt: Everyone wants grant-funded journalism startups to be sustainable, but, so often, they start strong and then peter out when resources run dry.

Instead of following that model, I knew from the start that this was going to be a phased project. We had some great grants that got us started, but I didn’t know what the funding picture was going to look like once we started running stories. So, I tried to turn that limitation into a strength.

We’re publishing eight weeks worth of stories and data. We’re going to cram as much awesome into those weeks as we can and then, if needed, we can step away and let this project stand on its own.

With that said, we’re already looking for funding for a second phase (which will focus on teens and the OPD). When we get it, we’ll use this current data as a springboard for Phase 2.

Could this approach be extended to other cities?

Hyatt: The OPD and its problems are pretty unique in the USA. This was successful because there was so much stuff to work with in Oakland. I don’t think our mentality for creating and building this project was unique.

Research, Tips & Tutorials

Profile of the Data Journalist: Dan Hill

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Part of my research into data journalism’s past, present and future has been interviews with veteran practitioners like Aron Pilhofer, given the insight that those talks offers for debugging debates about “what it all means,” and younger journalists like Jeremy Bowers or Dan Hill. Their recent paths to the profession should offer insight and inspiration to others who would follow in their paths.

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Hill was kind enough to discuss his work with me this spring. Our interview follows, lightly edited for clarity, content and hyperlinked for context.

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

I joined The Texas Tribune as a full-time news apps developer in January. Our team is responsible for both larger-scale ”explorer” apps and what I’d call “daily interactives.” My day often involves writing and processing public information requests, designing interactives and working on Django apps, depending on the scale of my project.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special degrees or certificates? What quantitative skills did you start with?

I’ve always wanted to be a reporter, but the work of Phillip Reese at The Sacramento Bee and The Chicago Tribune’s news apps team inspired me to enhance my storytelling with data. I was a student fellow for the Northwestern University Knight Lab and studied journalism and computer science, but an internship with The Washington Post taught me how to apply what I was learning in a newsroom.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

I’ve had awesome mentors. Bobby Calvan and Josh Freedom du Lac were the first to treat me like a real reporter. Jon Marshall helped me explore my interests. Phillip Reese showed me how to find untold stories in spreadsheets and Brian Boyer encouraged me to learn Python. Serdar Tumgoren and Jeremy Bowers showed me how a team of news developers operates. Travis Swicegood taught me how todeal with real world data.
My mentors remind me to always be learning and asking questions.

What does your personal data journalism “stack” look like? What tools could you not live without?

I use Excel, OpenOffice, GoogleDocs, Django and iPython notebooks for data analysis. R is creeping into my workflow for exploring datasets and experimenting with visualizations. We use d3 and chartjsfor web graphics and Mapbox for web maps. I could probably survive without Backbone, but we use it a lot.

What are the foundational skills that someone needs to practice data journalism?

I think a data journalist needs news judgment and attention to detail in order to identify the newsworthiness and limitations of datasets.
Statistics can help explain a dataset’s strengths and weaknesses, so I wish I paid more attention during my stats classes in school.
In addition to finding the stories, data journalists also need to be able to explain why data is significant to their audience, so visual journalists need design skills — and, of course, reporting and writing.

Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

I check Source, the Northwestern Knight Lab blog and the NICAR listserv for new ideas. Lately, I’ve been teaching myself statistics and R with r-tutor and Machine Learning for Hackers.

What are the biggest challenges that newsrooms face in meeting the demand for people with these skills and experience? Are schools training people properly?

I think the differences between the developer and newsroom cultures make it hard for newsrooms to find people with tech and journalism skills ,and to coordinate projects with developers and reporters.
As a student in journalism school, I was inspired to learn more about data when professor Darnell Little showed how it could enhance my reporting and help me find stories hidden in datasets.
I learned more developer-journalist skills like database management and web design from meetups, tutorials and classes outside the j-school, but the journalism school exposed me to what journalists with those skills could do.
I’ll add I’m impressed with data literacy of the Texas Tribune newsroom, where reporters request spreadsheets and use data to verify claims on their beats. Even if reporters don’t have the programming chops to make an interactive graphic, for example, they’re great about identifying potential data stories.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

My summer intern project at The Washington Post, a study of every Washington D.C. homicide case between 2000 and 2011, was my first experience making news app in a newsroom. I was honored get to work with the investigative reporters as a newbie intern and learned a ton from building the database and doing analysis with Serdar. All of my contributions were on the backend, but I was thrilled to work with that dataset as an intern.

What data journalism project created by someone else do you most admire?

Propublica’s Message Machine was my favorite project from the 2012 presidential election, because it took a unique approach to identify trends in email metadata.
I’m excited for more stories that collect everyday metadata or use sensors to explore the data around us.
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How has the environment for doing this kind of work changed in the past five years?

I’d never heard of a “news apps team” five years ago. I knew I wanted to be an investigative reporter but never thought I would write code every day. I admired reporters like Phillip Reese who were working with data and making interactive graphics, but I didn’t see as many teams of specialized developer-journalists.

What’s different about practicing data journalism today, versus 10 years ago?

I wasn’t even a teenager 10 years ago, but I would gander… THE INTERNET. Online data portals, open government and open Web stuff are important to the data journalism I do. I’m not sure they were as common a decade ago.

Is data journalism the same thing as computer-assisted reporting or computational journalism? Why or why not?

I think of “data journalism” as an umbrella term that refers the use of data in reporting or presentation, whereas I think of CAR and computational journalism as subsets of data journalism that involve analyzing a dataset.

Why are data journalism and “news apps” important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

I’m excited to work with data because of its widespread use in decision making. I think news apps can help people understand meaningful data and uphold accountability for people who create and make decisions with data.
Be A Newsnerd has better answers

What’s the one thing people always get wrong when they talk about data journalism?

Although the web plays a big role in the growth of data journalism, I don’t think you need to be online to do data journalism.

Research, Tips & Tutorials

Profile of the Data Journalist: Jeremy Bowers

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As in 2012, when I published a series of profiles of data journalists at Radar, I’ve conducted a series of email interviews after the annual conference of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR). They’re part of my research into data journalism’s past, present and future, helping me to debug debates about “what it all means.

jeremy_bowers_headshot
The following interview is with Jeremy Bowers, a news application developer at NPR. (He also knows a lot about how the Internet works.) It has been lightly edited for clarity, content and hyperlinked for context.

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

I work on the Visuals team at NPR.

Our team adheres to modified scrum principles. We have a daily scrum at 10:00am for all of the members of our Visuals team. We work on projects in one-week sprints. At the end of each sprint we have an iteration review and a “ticket shuffle” where we decide what tickets each of us should work on in the next sprint. Our typical projects rarely exceed four sprint cycles.

Our projects involve minimally four people: One developer, one designer, one project manager and one stakeholder . Some projects add more designers or more developers as necessary. And sometimes we have a lot of stakeholders.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special degrees or certificates? What quantitative skills did you start with?

I started in data journalism at the St. Petersburg Times. I’d been working as the blog administrator for our “online” team and was informally recruited by Matt Waite to help out with a project that would turn into MugShots.

I have no special degrees or certificates. I was a political science major and I had planned to go to law school before a mediocre LSAT performance made me rethink my priorities.

I did have a background in server administration and was really familiar with Linux because of a few semesters spent hacking with a good friend in college, so that’s been pretty helpful.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

Matt Waite from the St. Petersburg Times got me started in data journalism and has been my mentor for as long as I can remember. I don’t call him as much anymore now that he’s “Professor Waite,” but I still use a lot of our conversations as guidelines even now.

I also owe a debt to Derek Willis, though we’ve never worked together. I’m pretty much daily inspired by Ben Welsh and Ken Schwenke at the Los Angeles Times. They build apps that matter and make me look critically at what I am building. Finally, my co-worker Chris Groskopf is a great source of inspiration about keeping my code and work habits clean and professional.

What does your personal data journalism “stack” look like? What tools could you not live without?

I live and die with three tools.

First, a terminal emulator. Right now, I’m using iTerm2 with a customized Solarized theme.

Second, a text editor. Right now, I’m using Sublime Text 3 with a ton of installed packages.

Finally, I need a Web browser. Right now, I’m using Chrome.

At NPR Visuals, we’ve documented our stack so that anyone can code like we do.

What are the foundational skills that someone needs to practice data journalism? Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

I think the foundational skill for data journalism is curiosity. Rabid, all-consuming curiosity has done more for my career than any particular skill or talent.

I also think that good data journalists are passionate about their projects. Unlike many tech or newsroom jobs, it’s difficult to punch a clock and work 9-to-5 as a data journalist. I’m constantly pulling out my laptop and hacking on something, even when it’s not directly tied to a work project.

What are the biggest challenges that newsrooms face in meeting the demand for people with these skills and experience? Are schools training people properly?

The easy answer would be to say that there aren’t enough data journalists to go around. But that’s not exactly true. With Knight and Google fellowships, recent college graduates, interns, and proto-news-nerds miscast in other roles, media companies are surrounded by possibilities. Our challenge, as I see it, is building an environment where hackers and the hacker ethic can thrive. And that’s a tough thing to do at any large company, let alone a media company. But we’ve got to make that our personal mission and not be confounded by what feels like an impersonal bureaucracy.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

Without a doubt, PolitiFact is the most exciting project I’ve worked on. I also really enjoyed working on the Arrested Development app for NPR — so much so, that I binge-watched the fourth season and coded up the jokes over 24 hours the day the episodes were released!

What data journalism project created by someone else do you most admire?

I love everything about the Los Angeles Times’s data desk. Their homicide and crime apps are nothing short of miraculous.

How has the environment for doing this kind of work changed in the past five years?

I released my first news app to the wild in April of 2009. At that time, there were only a handful of groups that I knew of writing code in newsrooms — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and Ben Welsh at the Los Angeles Times. About 300 people attended NICAR that year, and it was focused on print CAR reporting.

This year, NICAR hosted 997 people and had well-attended sessions on JavaScript and D3, tools that basically only work on the Web. There are probably 20 teams writing code in newsrooms today, and there are entire college classes dedicated to producing hacker journalists. So the environment has gotten much richer and larger in the last five years.

What’s different about practicing data journalism today, versus 10 years ago?

I can’t speak generally since I only started doing “data journalism” about five years ago. I hesitate to argue that what I’m currently doing is really data journalism as opposed to newsroom product development.

As not to cheat you out of an answer, I can say that my job now involves much more rigor. When I first started writing code at the St. Petersburg Times, we didn’t use version control. We didn’t sandbox our code. We didn’t have automated deployment tools. These days, we have GitHub to store our code, tons of command-line tricks to keep our code in separate virtual environments, and we have fantastic deployment tools that make updating our code a snap.

Additionally, my organization is much more aware of what I’m doing. My manager and his managers are much more cognizant of data journalism generally and specifically about how our work fits in with the organization’s strategy. When I started, we basically worked invisibly on products that almost nobody really knew or cared about.

Is data journalism the same thing as computer-assisted reporting or computational journalism? Why or why not?

I’m terrible at semantic differences. I’ll take the broad view on this one: If you’re writing code in a newsroom, you’re probably committing acts of journalism. I don’t feel terribly strongly about what we decide to call this or how we decide to slice up what an investigative journalist, a news librarian or a news apps developer might be doing every day. If they’re writing code and making journalism, I want them to have every opportunity to succeed. I don’t feel any need to give them labels or have their titles prevent them from writing code to get their jobs done.

Why are data journalism and “news apps” important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

I think that Scott Klein said it best, and I’ll paraphrase: If you’re not using algorithmic or computational methods to analyze data, someone is scooping you on your beat.

There’s hardly a beat in journalism anymore that doesn’t involve structured data, which means that there’s hardly a journalist that wouldn’t benefit from automated methods for analyzing that data. Folks who are passing up that aspect of their jobs are just handing that opportunity over to someone else.

Print and radio are so time- and space-limited. If you’re not using the Web to tell all of the stories rather than just one story, you’re probably doing that wrong as well.

What’s the one thing people always get wrong when they talk about data journalism?

I don’t like it when people talk about how “organizations don’t get” data journalism, and I don’t like it for a very specific reason: The inability to create a news hacker culture doesn’t rest on the shoulders of some amorphous “organization.”

We should place that blame where it belongs: Squarely on the shoulders of individuals in your newsroom.

What we’ve got is a people problem. Editors and other newsroom opinion leaders should be making an environment for their reporters or others to participate in hacker journalism.

The same ethics that Eric Raymond elucidated in the Hacker How-To should guide journalists in newsrooms everywhere:

  • The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
  • No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
  • Boredom and drudgery are evil.
  • Freedom is good.
  • Attitude is no substitute for competence.

To make your organization a place where hacker ethics are practiced requires positive action — it won’t just spring into being because of a memo. So, don’t blame your company because there’s no room to operate like a hacker. Instead, blame your boss or your boss’s boss. It’s most effective when you discuss this with them personally. But make sure you give those people an opportunity to correct their wrongs. Few people are actually hostile to the hacker ethic; most are just unfamiliar.

Research, Tips & Tutorials

Profile of the Data Journalist: Serdar Tumgoren

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As in 2012, when I published a series of profiles of data journalists at Radar, I’ve conducted a series of email interviews after the annual conference of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR). They’re part of my research into data journalism’s past, present and future, helping me to debug debates about “what it all means.

The second interview with Serdar Turmogren, co-creator of the Knight News Challenge-funded OpenElections project, follows. It has been lightly edited for clarity, content and hyperlinked for context.

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

serdarThe Associated Press. As a member of the relatively new Data Team, it’s a pretty mixed bag: devops/server work; newsroom tool-building, such as our in-house install of DocumentCloud; data wrangling and analysis for sundry investigative and spot stories.

I also help reporters hunt down and navigate data sources for stories, and help them apply budding technical skills when I don’t have the time to get involved on a project myself.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special degrees or certificates? What quantitative skills did you start with?

I started as a print reporter but was bit early on by the investigative journalism bug. The document chase quickly broadened to include data, and led me down a traditional “CAR path” of spreadsheets to databases to programming languages and web development. When I first started programming around 2005, I took a Perl class at a community college. My grade in that class shall remain hidden under lock and key.

…but seriously, you don’t need a computer science degree to master the various skills of “data journalism.” I learned how to apply technology to journalism through lots of late-night hacking, tons of programming books, and the limitless generosity of NICARians who shared technical advice, provided moral support, and taught classes at NICAR conferences.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

Dave Sheingold at The (Bergen) Record. Derek Willis and Aron Pilhofer at NYT. Troy Thibodeaux at the AP.

Unbiased technical knowledge and advice that always brought the focus back to journalism. It’s easy to get obsessed with the tech side, something Phil Meyer warned us about.

What does your personal data journalism “stack” look like? What tools could you not live without?

Python, Ruby, Linux, spreadsheets and databases, QGIS, and myriad command-line tools for wrangling data.

If I could only keep one tool (and all of its libraries), I’d have to say Python. Nowadays, it can handle most everything you’d need, from general data wrangling to analysis to visualization to Web frameworks.

Ruby is a solid alternative, so I’m not looking to start any flame wars here. In my case, I’m still partial to Python because it’s the first programming language in which I gained a degree of fluency.

What are the foundational skills that someone needs to practice data journalism?

Same as a good investigative reporter: Curiosity and doggedness.

Mastering a programming language requires the same curiosity and persistence as unravelling a bureaucratic maze. You have to be willing to put in the hours and not give up when you hit a dead end.

Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

IRE/NICAR, PythonJournos, colleagues past and present.

What are the biggest challenges that newsrooms face in meeting the demand for people with these skills and experience? Are schools training people properly?

Sometimes. news organizations see us as an amorphous group of nerds who can be plugged into an org chart, and out will come Data Journalism! Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.

My skill set is wildly different than those of the next “data journalist.” I think schools are making a better effort to train young journalists in many of the skills that fall under the umbrella of data journalism: data wrangling, analysis, visualization; statistics; digital literacy (how does the Web work?); Web development.

But very few journalists are actually master of all of these skills. (I can’t name one). The real question is, do news organizations know what they want or need? If you understand the goals of your organization, you can go out and find the right kinds of nerds. Otherwise, you’re hiring in the dark.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

Rebuilding the elections data system for The Washington Post’s Web operation. It was a monumental — and some would say foolhardy — undertaking, but we ultimately created a system that helped power many Web and mobile interactives/graphics during the 2012 primaries and presidential election.

What data journalism project created by someone else do you most admire?

Congress Votes, an app at The Washington Post created by Derek Willis. This is the first big political news app (that I’m aware of) that tried to provide an interactive experience of such a high-profile government data set, with a high degree of back-end automation. It also tried to have a little fun. (Zodiac signs for Congress critters, anyone?)

It inspired many of us to start thinking about how we could be more creative and engaging on the web with government data. While we’ve seen many advances in the years since, I think Congress Votes stands out as a milestone in the history of news apps development.

How has the environment for doing this kind of work changed in the past five years?

The tools and knowledge have exploded. Powerful open source tools are increasingly available, along with countless free books and tutorials online. Cloud computing platforms are providing cheap or free ways to experiment with data tools. It’s had a massive democratizing effect, and that’s a good thing.

What’s different about practicing data journalism today, versus 10 years ago?

There are way more nerds at NICAR conferences. Seriously, the tent has grown bigger to include programmers, Web developers, data scientists (I’ll leave it to others to debate whether that’s a new name for stats geeks), and sundry other nerds.

Is data journalism the same thing as computer-assisted reporting or computational journalism? Why or why not?

Yes. Ultimately, we’re trying to marshal technology to bring context to people’s lives. The tools and methods and specialties evolve, but the goal remains the same: Keep the public informed.

Why are data journalism and news apps important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

Data journalism is vital, because we’re confronted with a growing ocean of information in electronic form.

A data journalist is anyone, in my book, who can fluently work with this primary source. It’s the same as a traditional reporter, who should know how to hunt down human sources and interview them.

News apps are harder to pin down, and I often find folks don’t have quite the same definition. If we’re talking about telling data-driven stories in a digital context (mobile, Web), well, then yes, I’d say news apps are an important piece of the puzzle for informing people in a different medium.

What’s the one thing people always get wrong when they talk about data journalism?

That it’s new. Ben Welsh and “KRS One” summed that one up quite nicely at NICAR 2014.

Research

Aron Pilhofer on data journalism, culture and going digital

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When it comes to computer-assisted reporting and the ways media companies are using technology, there are few people in the U.S.A. as knowledgeable as Aron Pilhofer. He runs a newsroom team at The New York Times that combines journalism, social media, technology and analytics, co-founded the open source DocumentCloud.org project, is a two-time grantee of the Knight News Challenge, and co-founded Hacks & Hackers, a network of people focused on applying development and digital innovation to the method and practice of journalism. Happily, part of my research into data journalism’s past, present and future has been interviewing people like Pilhofer, given the insight that those talks offers for debugging debates about “what it all means.” He was kind enough to talk to me earlier this month. Our interview follows, lightly edited for clarity, content and [bracketed] for context.

Aron Pilhofer

How do you feel about the term “data journalism” supplanting computer-assisted reporting (CAR)?

When someone can tell me what is meant by “data journalism,” maybe I would start to feel strongly about it.

I think there’s a lack of specificity, with various definitions. It tends to be almost geographically based. In Europe, when you talk about data journalism, you’re almost always talking about data visualization. In the United States, it’s sometimes data visualization, sometimes old school computer-assisted reporting.

While I prefer the term data journalism, because it’s much less goofy [than computer-assisted reporting], I think there’s a lack of precision. You do need to define your terms. The way I see it, it is a continuum where the work that Phil Meyer, Barlett and Steele were doing 30 years ago [continues] all the way to today, with people like Sarah Cohen and John Keefe, all sharing kind of the same elements. You treat data as a source [in your reporting].

What’s happening with the market for data journalists and your ability to hire for these skills?

In some ways it’s easier. In others, it’s harder today. There’s way more competition now. We’re losing people to really good newsrooms. We are not the only game in town, which we used to be. There was a time when there was us and there was the Washington Post, and that was kind of it.

What are you working on now that’s new and potentially important?

We just started a newsroom analytics team. The kinds of projects we’re doing there are entirely editorial. They are not tied to advertising at all.

Right now, many newsrooms are stupid about the way they publish. They’re tied to a legacy model, which means that some of the most impactful journalism will be published online on Saturday afternoon, to go into print on Sunday. You could not pick a time when your audience is less engaged. It will sit on the homepage, and then sit overnight, and then on Sunday a home page editor will decide it’s been there too long or decide to freshen the page, and move it lower.

I feel strongly, and now there is a growing consensus, that we should make decisions like that based upon data. Who will the audience be for a particular piece of content? Who are they? What do they read? That will lead to a very different approach to being a publishing enterprise.

Knowing our target audience will dictate an entirely differently rollout strategy. We will go from a “publish” to a “launch.” It will also lead us in a direction that is inevitable, where we decouple the legacy model from the digital. At what point do you decide that your digital audience is as important — or more important — than print?

This sounds similar to the approach that many online outlets are pursuing.

There’s not a digital property on the planet that isn’t doing this kind of thing — or a smart one, anyway. Medium has its own metrics. Upworthy has attention minutes that reflect engagement.

[The Interactive News] team can build just about anything now to scale to a ridiculous amount of traffic, tying into every New York Times system. That isn’t the problem anymore. We can make everything work [from a technical standpoint] on David Leonhardt’s project, which is our answer to 538, but it still may not find an audience.

This is a product build, where we take a particular flavor of journalism and find an audience. We find a way for the audience that would want that to find it. It is really hard to think about when you really only know one tune: Your homepage. It is really powerful, but that alone isn’t going to do it. How does that change what we’re building? How can we consistently get that audience to return?

Building one-off interactives isn’t that important. When you’re starting to build persistent features, like what John Keefe has done with his Cicada Project, or Scott Klein has built with Dollars for Docs, you’ve got to think about these things more deeply. Who in the newsroom is better positioned than a data journalist to do that?

How many data journalists do you have on staff at the Times?

It depends on your definition; we could be anywhere from 5 to 50. We have a computer-assisted reporting team, which is 5-6 people. We have a graphics desk, which is probably 15 primarily or largely dedicated to digital. On my team we have 21 developers. Then there’s our research and development department, and design team.

Is there anyone you’d call a computational journalist?

Maybe Chase Davis. Amanda Cox is a statistician by training. Sarah Cohen was a former statistician before she went into CAR. We have data scientists on the business side. R&D has a couple, like Mike Dewar, who used to be at Bitly. These are people who are applying data science techniques to actual journalism, stories, infographics and data visualizations.

Would you agree with an estimate of several hundred data journalists currently working in the USA?

Absolutely. NICAR has 850 people registered, with a healthy walkup expected. [The final attendance at NICAR 2014 was 997 people.] Five years ago, the conference was on life support, with maybe 250 people. Now, this number of people showing up has changed it a lot, I think for the better. It has become the “must-go “conference for folks who are doing what my team does, for the John Keefes & Scott Kleins of the world.

Is there a mismatch between the supply and demand for people with the skills you’ve referenced?

It’s true. I have two openings now.

What was your path to the profession?

I was a political reporter, but always used data in my reporting. I just started doing it in college. I just started messing around. I had a history professor who was not well known then. Now, he’s borderline famous from doing quantitative methods in history. He’d do statistical sampling of historical census data that had just been paper records before that. Suddenly, you could do queries on the 1930 Census. You were not just basing a historic analysis on papers or on interviews with people, or what you could glean from anecdotes. You were looking at data. It was incredible.

That’s not that different from a data journalist does, on the CAR side. Instead of a person, you’re using data as a source. Over time, I shifted from being a reporter who does CAR to being a specialist at the Center for Public Integrity to a CAR editor at the New York Times and then started this team.

How did you start learning to program?

I can thank an IRS story on 527 committees, which were then the campaign finance loophole du jour. They were previously unregulated and Congress, in its wisdom, put the IRS in charge of regulating them. It was idiotic. The IRS is not a disclosure agency. They put together the world’s worst disclosure website. There was basic data there, but you couldn’t aggregate it or access it in a meaningful way. It would have taken thousands of mouse clicks to get all of it.

I talked to a public information officer, after they denied my FOIA request for the database underlying the site. He said it was all on the website.

So, I created the world’s worst Web scraper in PHP. It ran from the browser. I didn’t know the command line well.

Is “Silent Partners” still on the Web?

Parts of it are long gone, though bits remain at the Center for Public Integrity. What you won’t find is the massive searchable database. We did what IRS should have done. We took all the paper filings and got a grant to do data entry. We sent them to a company in Virginia. We spent $80,000 to create what was then the only searchable database of political donor contributions. It’s completely out of date now. The Center for Responsive Politics has been continuing to do this.

I discovered that I really enjoyed the coding part in addition to reporting. The art of it. That’s how I ended up shifting into my current job.

Have you seen more coders move into data journalism, or journalists learn how to code?

I’ve seen far, far more move the outside in, from non-journalism roles.

Do you have any sense of why that might be?

Journalism is one of the few professions that not only tolerates general innumeracy but celebrates it. I still hear journalists who are proud of it, even celebrating that they can’t do math, even though programming is about logic. It’s hard to get a journalist to open up a spreadsheet, much less open up a command line. It is just not something that they, in general, think is held to be an important skill.

It’s baffling to me. Look at The Sun-Sentinel, which just won another Pulitzer for a story on speeding cops that you could only do with data analysis. You would think you wouldn’t have to make the case that this is core to what journalists should know.

It’s a cultural problem. There is still far too much tolerance for anecdotal evidence as the foundation for news stories.

So this is endemic?

I don’t know how to solve it. Look at NICAR being around as long as it has. Early on, they had the naive belief that if you could train enough people, they could make the organization irrelevant. Now, when you look back, it’s hilarious. Obviously, that’s never going to happen for practical purposes. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the point where you could say, given enough training and time, that you would not need a specialist in the newsroom. We’re so far away from that.

Are there cultures where this is changing? Maybe ProPublica?

It’s as far along as it is is because of Scott Klein. It took years before they put Jeff Larson on news stories. That just happened this year. There are newsrooms making this a significant project. Look at the L.A. Times, or WNYC. I think John Keefe is a fricking genius. I wish I were doing the work he is.

What others would you highlight?

Check out Nicolas Kayser-Bril [of Journalism++] and De-Correspondent, out of the Netherlands.

Given time, given urgency, we will forge something new from the old models. Given how much time we have had, I would have hoped we’d be further along. Maybe I’m just impatient. When do you treat digital as your primary platform?

We are launching three subscription products this year. If all goes well, we will have more subscriptions on pure digital than in print [at the end of 2014]. We have to think about where the eyeballs are. From the perspective of the newsroom, over time, we have to think primarily digital. That’s the cultural change that isn’t happening fast enough.

There needs to be a strategy, where all the things we considered “nice to have” in a newsroom — from analytics to coders to designers — all of a sudden, they’re building our core product. Text only takes you a certain distance in digital sphere. That’s the part that I’m excited about building.

[Image Credit: Knight Foundation]