Past Events

Publishers Can Afford Data Journalism, Says ProPublica’s Scott Klein


This winter, Scott Klein made a prediction at the Nieman Lab that that drew some attention: “in 2014, you will be scooped by a reporter who knows how to program.” As I noted at this blog, he was proven correct within the month, as enterprising journalists applied their data skills to creating scoops and audiences. Yesterday, The New York Times’ promising new data journalism venture,  The Upshot, published the most popular story at, confirming that original data and reporting presented with context and a strong narrative remains a powerful, popular combination. It’s still atop the most-emailed, viewed and shared leaderboards this morning.

scott-kleinSo, Klein was right. Again.

That’s not a huge surprise to me, nor anyone else in the data journalism world.

Klein, an assistant managing editor at ProPublica, draws on years of hands-on experience working with data, reporters and developers at one of the most important nonprofit news organizations in the world. Recently, his team has published projects like The Opportunity GapChina’s Memory Hole and Prescriber Checkup. Klein co-founded DocumentCloud with Aron Pilhofer, the New York Times editor whose perspectives on technology and the news we featured here earlier this month. Before he came to ProPublica, Klein directed editorial and business application development for the, and worked at The New York Times.

This spring, he spoke with me about what he sees in the industry and have an early read and review of the report that the Tow Center will publish next month. Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows.

Is data-driven journalism too expensive?

News organizations are contracting and budgets are going down. Times are still very tough. That said, I suspect that some newsrooms say they can’t afford to hire newsroom developers when they really mean that their budget priorities lie elsewhere – priorities that are set by a senior leadership whose definition of journalism is pretty traditional and often excludes digital-native forms. I also hear a lot from people trying to get data teams started in their own newsrooms that the advice that newsroom leaders get is that newsroom developers are “unicorns” whom they can’t afford. Big IT departments sometimes play a confounding role here.

I suspect many metro papers can actually afford one or two journalist/developers — and there’s a ton of amazing projects a small team can do. For years, the Los Angeles Times ran one of the best news application shops in the country with only two dedicated staffers (they still do great work, of course, and the team has grown). If doing data journalism well is a priority of the organization, making it happen can fit into your budget.

What’s changed today?

Lots, of course, has changed since Philip Meyer’s pioneering days in the 1960s. One is that the amount of data available for us to work with has exploded. Part of this increase is because open government initiatives have caused a ton of great data to be released. Not just through portals like — getting big data sets via FOIA has become easier, even since ProPublica launched in 2008.

Another big change is that we’ve got the opportunity to present the data itself to readers — that is, not just summarized in a story but as data itself. In the early days of CAR, we gathered and analyzed information to support and guide a narrative story. Data was something to be summarized for the reader in the print story, with of course graphics and tables (some quite extensive), but the end goal was typically something recognizable as a words-and-pictures story.

What the Internet added is that it gave us the ability to show to people the actual data and let them look through it for themselves. It’s now possible, through interaction design, to help people navigate their way through a data set just as, through good narrative writing, we’ve always been able to guide people through a complex story.

Is this new state of affairs really different?

It’s a tectonic change both in the sense that it’s slow and gradual, and in the sense that it’s reshaping the entire landscape.

Data was always central to journalism. In the oldest newspapers, from the 17th century, you can find data. Correspondents would write about the prices of commodities in faraway cities (along with court gossip) for the benefit of merchants doing international business. Commodity prices, the contents of arriving cargo ships, and even the names of visiting businessmen were a big part of the daily mission of newspapers as they started to become more common.

As technology got better in the late 18th century and readers started demanding a different kind of information, the data that appeared in newspapers got more sophisticated and was used in new ways. Data became a tool for middle-class people to use to make decisions and not just as facts to deploy in an argument, or information useful to elite business people.

The change we’re experiencing thanks to the web increases the role of presentation of the data itself, both in great data visualization and in great exploratory graphics like news applications. We can show people “the back of the baseball card” on a large scale. We’ve got the tools, and the readers can understand it and make use of it. I feel like that’s as big a change as we’ve ever experienced, but I’m biased.

Do people want to read the data?

If it’s done well, people have a really big appetite to see the data for themselves.

Look how many people understand — and love — incredibly sophisticated and arcane sports statistics. We ought to be able to trust our readers to understand data in other contexts too. If we’ve done our jobs right, most people should be able to go to our “Prescriber Checkup” news application, search for their doctors and see how their prescribing patterns compare to their peers, and understand what’s at play and what to do with the information they find.

There are ways to design data so that more important numbers are bigger and more prominent than less important details. People know to scroll down a Web page for more fine-grained details. At ProPublica, we design things to move readers through levels of abstraction from the most general, national case to the most local example.

Do you recruit or programmers to do DDJ? Or teach journalists?

Both. But culture matters a lot, too. People with the right mindset, who feel valued for their editorial judgment and creativity, and who are given real responsibility over their work, will learn whatever they need to learn in order to get a project done. The people on my team focus on telling great journalistic stories and don’t let not knowing how to do something stop them from doing so. They learn whatever skills, techniques and expertise they need to learn.

In terms of journalists learning how to program, I think there are some myths about what “programming” means. It doesn’t have to mean a computer science degree and it doesn’t have to mean what Google does. I know journalists who make incredibly complex scrapers for their reporting work who will tell you they don’t know how to program. Really, making tools to automate tasks is what a programmer does. There’s no magic threshold you have to pass between programmer and not-programmer.

Of course, there is a difference between knowing how to code and being a computer scientist. If you’ve learned about algorithmic efficiency and can express it mathematically, and if you’ve studied how compilers work, all under the guidance of a person who knows the subject very well in an academic environment, you’ve got skills that will help you write better, faster, more efficient code. That’s different than learning how to use a high-level programming language to get a task done.

Much of what we do in newsrooms is on deadline and meant to be put behind a caching system that makes efficient code much less important, so computer science is not a prerequisite for being a great newsroom coder. In newsrooms, most of us rely on frameworks like Rails or Django that already make great low-level programming decisions anyway.

Are there journalists picking those DDJ skills up?

Yes, it’s happening, and the pace is accelerating. A few years ago the NICAR conference was a few hundred people. This year it was almost 1,000 people. Next year, it will be even bigger.

On every desk in the newsroom, reporters are starting to understand that if you don’t know how to understand and manipulate data someone who can will be faster than you. Can you imagine a sports reporter who doesn’t know what an on-base percentage is? Or doesn’t know how to calculate it himself? You can now ask a version of that question for almost every beat.

There are more and more reporters who want to have their own data and to analyze it themselves. Take for example my colleague, Charlie Ornstein. In addition to being a Pulitzer Prize winner, he’s one of the most sophisticated data reporters anywhere. He pores over new and insanely complex data sets himself. He has hit the edge of Access’s abilities and is switching to SQL Server. His being able to work and find stories inside data independently is hugely important for the work he does.

There will always be a place for great interviewers, or the eagle-eyed reporter who find an amazing story in a footnote on page 412 of a regulatory disclosure. But, here comes another kind of journalist who has data skills that will sustain whole new branches of reporting.

Past Events

Takeaway: Moving the Newsroom: Post-Industrial News Spaces and Places


newsrooms launch 4-10-14

The Tow Center and Tow Fellow Nikki Usher launched Usher’s multimedia report “Moving the Newsroom: Post-Industrial Spaces and Places” with a panel discussion on her research for the Tow Center. The research was funded by The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Panelists included Rick Hirsch, Managing Editor of The Miami Herald, Randy Brubaker, Senior News Director, Investigative Reporting, The Des Moines Register, and Aurora Wallace, Clinical Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

Usher’s research focused on the the growing transition from iconic, large newsrooms to smaller, higher tech newsrooms. Usher visited The Seattle Times, Fort Worth Star-TelegramThe Des Moines Register, and The Miami Herald.

While study participants Hirsch and Brubaker discussed what their physical newsroom transitions looked like and the emotional toll it took on staff morale, Wallace discussed the symbolism of large buildings.

“There was a real connection between what a building looked like, and what was coming out of it,” said Wallace. The strength of a news organization was conflated with their building sizes, she said citing The New York Times building as an example.

Hirsch talked about growing up as a kid in Miami and how he and other children in Miami grew up gazing at The Miami Herald building in downtown Miami, many like himself, dreaming of working in the storied building on Biscayne Bay.

“Everyone knew The Miami Herald building,” said Hirsch, but decades later, The Miami Herald and its newsroom have scaled down to a more intimate media entity.


While panelists fondly recalled their former large homes, they were also quick to discuss what their newsroom moves have meant for newspapers today.

“Today, we have a much more collaborative effort than what we had 10 years ago,” said Brubaker, whose new newsroom, located in a mall three blocks from its former home, features “mission control,” two concentric semi-circles in the center of the newsroom where each newsroom editor sits together.

“I think there’s a lot of regret by staff that we’re not in downtown, but we are in more of a news hub now,” said Hirsch whose new newsroom in Doral, Fla., features a Continuous News Desk, a U-shaped hub which lends itself to quicker and more accurate communication among staff including the day news editor, social media editor, social media reporter, photography editor, copy editor, and homepage editor during breaking news stories.

Both also discussed the cultural capital of “cool stuff” such as more more advanced equipment like video studios, and the use of video walls showing homepage stats via Chartbeat, trending news on social media sites like Twitter, and news from competing newspapers and media outlets like CNN.

The equipment is more than just symbolic, according to Brubaker.

“The other reality is that its really important to show that we are not your father’s newspaper anymore,” said Brubaker.

DOWNLOAD Nikki Usher’s Tow Report: Moving the Newsroom: Post-Industrial News Spaces and Places.


You can listen to a podcast of the panel here:


Shiwani Neupane is a Digital Media Associate at the Tow Center. You can find her on Twitter at @shiwanineupane

Past Events

Join Us for #TowTea on Thursday, April 24


The Tow Center’s Shiwani Neupane offers a quick skills session on Open Refine. Learn how to organize and analyze data with Open Refine.

Please bring your laptop; no prior experience necessary. Seating is limited; tea and cookies will be served. RSVP:

Past Events

Innovation Showcase 2014


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

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.

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



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):

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.

Past Events

Zeynep Tufekci Speaks at the Communications Colloquium


Past Events

Columbia Journalism School Now Accepting Applications for The Lede Program: An Introduction to Data Practices


Columbia Journalism School is excited to announce that it is now accepting applications for The Lede Program: An Introduction to Data Practices. This is a new post-bac certification program in partnership with Columbia’s Department of Computer Science. The program will offer hands-on training in data, code, and algorithms tailored specifically for investigative and creative work.


Applications are due April 27, 2014.

Classes start May 27, 2014 and run through August 26, 2014 (for Lede-12), and September 2, 2014 through December 19, 2014 (for Lede-24).

You can find more information here.

There will be two information sessions next week at Columbia Journalism School (lunch will be provided):

  • Monday, March 31, from 1-2pm, in the Stabile Center
  • Thursday, April 3, from 1-2pm, in the Stabile Center

All are welcome, so please invite your friends and spread the word. Please RSVP for the info session to:

Past Events

Tow Fellows Travel To Myanmar for UGC Research


The majority of journalism research, particularly high profile frequently cited research, focuses on practices within the UK and US news industries. In our current project – a study into the ways in which photographs and videos filmed by eyewitnesses are used by newsrooms – we wanted to ensure we didn’t fall into the trap of assuming that patterns at the large English speaking newsrooms represent global practices.

So as well as including in our sample of eight 24 hour news channels, non-English speaking newsrooms based outside London and New York, we have actively sought interviews with journalists from a range of countries. While Skype has been invaluable, we also knew we had to find ways to reach those parts of the world where an unprompted impersonal email is unlikely to end in success. So we decided to attend the East-West Center International Media Conference in Yangon, Myanmar last week.

We suspected there would be quite a range of attendees, and we were right. We were able to speak to a wide variety of editors from across the region.  We interviewed the Waziristan bureau chief of Dawn TV in Pakistan who recognises the use of UGC to help him cover stories on his conflict-torn region.  For his channel, there are clear guidelines to use UGC because of the difficulty of verification – and the need to get it right.  Their system of verification focussed very much on working as a team across their bureaux to fact-check.  He was also very aware of the need for trauma training.

As for many other channels, the Baghdad correspondent of Radio Free Iraq UGC to help him tell the stories for which no other pictures existed.  He said that, without UGC, there was no way he could tell the story of Syria to his audience. Crediting, however, was not an issue for him, as he guiltily admitted Iraq has no sufficient copyright law to stop him using the content.  Reciprocity of use between organisations was crucial to ensure continued use.

We also talked to Maria Ressa from Rappler, an incredible example of a newsroom where collaboration with the audience is at the core of their news-gathering and storytelling. They actively train people across the Philippines in journalism practices, and they draw frequently on their output. They also scour social networks looking for original stories and eyewitness accounts. The importance placed on training was impressive to say the least, particularly how to use audience content ethically.

We also interviewed Byron Perry, the founder of Coconuts Media, a network of local city websites in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Singapore. They rely heavily on UGC, but as many news organisations find, often straggle to encourage people to send content straight to them, finding that people are more likely to upload to their favourite social network. Like many of our interviewees he was honest about the mistakes that can occur when it comes to seeking permission and crediting under pressure, and the training new staff receive about handling UGC.

The title of this conference was the Challenges of a Free Press – fascinating for a country that, in the past two years, has emerged from half a century of military dictatorship, a military dictatorship in which all dissent or public opinion was repressed.  With this opening up to the wider world (we didn’t even have to apply for visas ahead of travelling to Yangon, purchasing them simply at the border) has come immense challenges.  One of the conferences keynote speakers was Ethan Zuckerman, the Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, who noted that Myanmar has had to understand the internet in two years, as opposed to the 20 the rest of the world has had.

This trip was therefore a real chance to discover and listen to the challenges Myanmar is facing in this accelerated development while, at the same time, trying to assist and give advice where possible.  To this end, Sam appeared on a panel at the conference with Alan Soon of Yahoo! Asia, Maria Ressa and Asha Phillips of the social media news agency Storyful, to discuss the challenges of using UGC.

This gave us an opportunity to present the findings of the first, quantitative phase of our research – as well as discuss some of the requirements of verification and the responsibilities journalists have when integrating UGC into their output. The first report will be published very soon, but there was huge surprise and interest in the crediting aspect of UGC.

The first phase of our research demonstrated that UGC is used by most broadcasters on a daily basis – both on air and online. The data also showed that broadcasters are poor in telling their audiences that the content is UGC and who it came from. In our sample of eight news channels analysed over three weeks, 81% of the UGC content used by the broadcasters did not credit the person who had filmed the footage or taken the photograph.

Now that we are in the qualitative phase it will be interesting for us to discuss these finding with news managers and editors of the channels we analysed. In the interviews we have conducted so far (although it’s important to note that only one of the interviewees was from one of the 8 channels we analysed), many of the managers were adamant that their organisation verifies and credits all UGC it uses, that they have guidelines and that, on many occasions, senior editors have to sign off before journalists use uncertain content. These claims were certainly not supported by the quantitative research.

After Myanmar and our now wider understanding of how UGC is used in a wide variety of different newsrooms, we are progressing with our interviews. Editors of the channels we analysed are next on our list, as well as the news agencies as we realise just how much UGC is distributed by them and the different challenges that creates in the processing and use of eyewitness footage.


Claire Wardle and Sam Dubberley are Tow Fellows working on the Tow Center’s AMATEUR FOOTAGE: A Global Study of User Generated Content in TV News Output at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.  The Single-Subject News Network 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 AMATEUR FOOTAGE: A Global Study of User Generated Content in TV News Output is a global study into the integration of User Generated Content (UGC) in news output in television broadcasts and online. Follow Claire Wardle on Twitter @cward1e and follow Sam Dubberley on Twitter @samdubberleyTo learn more about the Tow Center Fellowship Program, please contact the Tow Center’s Research Director Taylor Owen:

Past Events

Tow Tea Takeaway: On Collaborative Projects in Technology and Journalism


On Mar. 13, Larry Birnbaum of Northwestern University and Narrative science discussed student projects in technology, media, and journalism developed at Northwestern over the past few years in a Tow tea held at the Columbia Journalism School.

Birnbaum spoke to a group of 20 people about all aspects of producing a collaborative project: from investigation, content creation to distribution and finally audience interaction.

“Narrative science too was born out of one of our class-rooms,” he added.

Birnbaum said joint projects from students and faculty from both engineering and journalism is what has led to projects being successful. Birnbaum himself is unique in this aspect, and teaches Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Journalism.

The student work he discussed on Thursday came out of the Knight Lab, an interdisciplinary center for innovation in news and media technology at Northwestern. He is also the founder of the lab.

“We give them 10 weeks and we don’t let students pick projects because they either choose something too easy of something too hard,” he said, and acknowledged quickly that 10 weeks were not enough to complete a project.

Most of the projects are completed and refined by an in-house developer, possible through the generous funding by the Knight Foundation, he said.

He discussed projects such as TwXplorer, a project that allows journalists to explore Twitter’s search results in depth; Hamtracker, that allows users to see where their tax money is going; and MusicRx, an application that makes music recommendations based on Twitter activity.

Other projects are available at the Knight Lab’s website.

Birnbaum later spoke at the Computational Journalism Lecture Series on Computational Storytelling. The panel on Computational Storytelling was live- streamed, and is available online.

Shiwani Neupane is a Digital Media Associate at the Tow Center. 


Past Events

Demystifying Data: A Takeaway from NICAR 2014


As a first-time participant at the annual National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference held in Baltimore this year, I wasn’t sure of what to expect. A glance at the schedule indicated that data would play a central role, which was both exciting and intimidating considering I was only seven weeks into my first and only data class. I had an idea of how data might be used in stories to achieve deeper insights, but no real concept of how this worked in news organizations.

Attending NICAR changed that.

The ten sessions I participated in taught me quite a few things, such as where to begin when covering disasters, how to use the Tor network and Tails operating system for anonymous browsing and communication and how to find people. Though many of the data visualization sessions assumed prior knowledge of programming, it was interesting to see what mapping services and techniques were trending in newsrooms and how they were used to contextualize data-driven stories. While I cannot replicate most of the projects presented at NICAR, I was nevertheless able to explore a wide range of data-centric approaches in journalism — and that’s sort of the point.

But more than that, it was the people I met that made the conference special. I met a journalist who used public records to visualize the amount of ammonium nitrate, the chemical that caused the West Fertilizer Company explosion last year, in chemical processing plants around Texas. I met a South Korean journalist who exposed the misuse of governmental resources to fund a political campaign by analyzing thousands of tweets on Twitter. In addition to investigative journalists, I met students, teachers, researchers, computer scientists and developers, and they all had interesting things to say about journalism, data and everything in between.

It was in the diversity of the attendees that I realized how data could be useful for just about any profession—and so if I had to name one takeaway from NICAR, it would be that data isn’t all that intimidating. Instead of considering data analysis as something that requires years of study, I’ve come to think of it as a skill set that can be tailored to anyone’s needs, which fits quite nicely with the often mentioned “jack of all trades, master of none” idiom that defines our profession.

Karim Lahlou is a student at the Columbia Journalism School.