What’s the Upshot? A promising data-driven approach to the news.

This morning, The New York Times officially launched its long-awaited data-driven news site, “The Upshot.”

David Leonhardt, the site’s managing editor, introduced The Upshot in a long note posted to Facebook and then to nytimes.this morning, explaining how the site aspires to help readers navigate the news.

Leonhardt shared two reasons for The Upshot’s launch. First, help people to understand the news better:

“We believe we can help readers get to that level of understanding by writing in a direct, plain-spoken way, the same voice we might use when writing an email to a friend. We’ll be conversational without being dumbed down. We will build on the excellent journalism The New York Times is already producing, by helping readers make connections among different stories and understand how those stories fit together. We will not hesitate to make analytical judgments about why something has happened and what is likely to happen in the future. We’ll tell you how we came to those judgments — and invite you to come to your own conclusions.”

Second, make the most of the opportunity afforded by the growth of the Internet and the explosion of data creation.

Data-based reporting used to be mostly a tool for investigative journalists who could spend months sorting through reams of statistics to emerge with an exclusive story. But the world now produces so much data, and personal computers can analyze it so quickly, that data-based reporting deserves to be a big part of the daily news cycle.

One of our highest priorities will be unearthing data sets — and analyzing existing ones — in ways that illuminate and explain the news. Our first day of material, both political and economic, should give you a sense of what we hope to do with data. As with our written articles, we aspire to present our data in the clearest, most engaging way possible. A graphic can often accomplish that goal better than prose. Luckily, we work alongside The Times’s graphics department, some of the most talented data-visualization specialists in the country. It’s no accident that the same people who created the interactive dialect quiz, the deficit puzzle and therent-vs-buy calculator will be working on The Upshot.

The third goal, left unsaid by Leonhardt, is the strategic interest in the New York Times has in creating a media entity that generates public interest and draws the massive audience that Nate Silver’s (now departed) FiveThirtyEight blog did, as the 2014 midterm elections draw near. In the fall of 2012, 20% of the visitors to the sixth-most-trafficked website in the world were checking out 538. Many were coming specifically for 538.

First impressions

My aesthetic impressions of The Upshot have been overwhelmingly positive: the site looks great on a smartphone, tablet or laptop, and loads quickly. I also like how each columnist’s Twitter handle is located below their headshot and the smooth integration of social sharing tools.

My impression of the site’s substance were similarly positive: the site led off with a strong story on American middle class and income inequality based upon public data, an analysis of affirmative action polling, a data-rich overview of how the environment has changed in the 44 years since the first Earth Day, a look at what good marathons and bad investments have in common, a short item on how some startups are approaching regulated industries, political field notes from Washington and a simple data visualization of Pew Internet data that correlates an appreciation for Internet freedom with Internet use. Whew! internet-use-freedom-nyt-graphic The feature that many political junkies will appreciate most, however, is a clever, engaging interactive that forecasts the outcome of the 2014 election in the U.S. Senate.

A commitment to showing their work

What really made me sit up and take notice of The Upshot, however, was the editorial decisions to share how they found the income data at LIS, link to the dataset, and share both the methodology behind the forecasting model and the code for it on Github. That is precisely the model for open data journalism that embodies the best of the craft, as it is practiced in 2014, and sets a high standard right out of the gate for future interactives at The Upshot and for other sites that might seek to compete with its predictions. They even include those estimates: leaderboard-upshot Notably, FiveThirtyEight is now practicing a more open form of data journalism as well, “showing their work”:


Early reviews

I’m not alone in positive first impressions of the content, presentation and strategy of the Times’ new site: over at the Guardian Datablog, James Ball published an interesting analysis of data journalism, as seen through the initial foray of The Upshot, FiveThirtyEight and Vox, the “explanatory journalism” site Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell and Matt Yglesias, among others, launched this spring.

Ball’s whole post is worth reading, particularly with respect to his points about audience, diversity, personalization, but the part I think is particularly important with respect to data journalism is the one I’ve made above, regarding being open about the difficult, complicated process of reporting on data as a source:

Doing original research on data is hard: it’s the core of scientific analysis, and that’s why academics have to go through peer-review to get their figures, methods and approaches double-checked. Journalism is meant to be about transparency, and so should hold itself to this standard – at the very least.

This standard is especially true for data-driven journalism, but, sadly, it’s not always lived up to: Nate Silver (for understandable reasons) won’t release how his model works, while FivethirtyEight hasn’t released the figures or work behind some of their most high-profile articles.

That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity: sharing this stuff is good, accountable journalism, and gives the world a chance to find more stories or angles that a writer might have missed.

Counter-intuitively, old media is doing better at this than the startups: The Upshot has released the code driving its forecasting model, as well as the data on its launch inequality article. And the Guardian has at least tried to release the raw data behind its data-driven journalism since our Datablog launched five years ago.

Ball may have contributed to some category confusion by including Vox in his analysis of this new crop of data journalism startups, and he’s not alone: Mathew Ingram also groups Vox together with The Upshot and 538 in his post on “explanatory journalism.”

Both could certainly be forgiven, given Leonhardt’s introduction expressed a goal to help readers understand and Nate Silver’s explicit focus upon explanation as a component of his approach to data-driven journalism. The waters about what to call the product of these startups is are considerably muddied at this point.

Hopefully, over time, those semantic waters clarify and reveal accurate, truthful and trustworthy journalism. Whatever we call them, there’s plenty of room for all of these new entrants to thrive, if they inform the public and build audiences.

“I think all of these sites are going to succeed,” said Leonhardt, in an interview with Capital New York. “There is much more demand for this kind of journalism right now than there is supply.”

In an interview with Digiday, Leonhardt futher emphasized this view:

“I don’t think this is about a competition between these sites to see which will emerge victorious,” he said. “There is more than enough room for any site that is providing journalism of this kind to succeed. Given there’s a hunger for conversational journalism and database journalism, as long you’re giving people reporting that’s good, you’re going to succeed.”