Shop Notes

Interactive data and the future of news

Posted: May 6, 2010 | Tags: Aron Pilhofer, BankTracker, computer-assisted reporting, Derek Willis, interactive data, Jacob Fenton, Matt Waite, New York Times, Online News Association

Tons of ink -- both physical and digital -- have been spilled in recent years discussing the economic models that can be built to sustain, perhaps even revive, the business of journalism. It seems to me that somewhat less attention has been given to the topic of how to create new and better content models, which are just as surely needed.

Here at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, we are trying to tackle both sides of the equation. In the coming months, Executive Editor Charles Lewis will have a lot to say about new ways to finance and distribute investigative journalism.

On the content side, we are pretty sure that interactive data applications will be a key feature. While this is hardly a unique thought, I got another reminder this week of the power interactives have to connect with audiences and keep them coming back.

It came at the monthly meetup of D.C.-area folks associated with the Online News Association , hosted by the new American University student chapter of ONA.

The star attraction was Derek Willis, one of the journalist-developers at The New York Times. If you've never heard Derek talk about journalism and data, you have missed a treat. His blog on data-driven journalism is The Scoop. And you can follow him on Twitter: @derekwillis. (Disclosure: I have known Derek for many years. We have done presentations together for Investigative Reporters and Editors. While I was journalism division director at American University, I hired Derek as an adjunct professor. So, yes, I'm in the tank for Derek.)

And, I'm in the tank for The Times' interactive news development team, led by Aron Pilhofer. A few years ago The Times, in its own style, decided to really get with the Web and computer-assisted reporting. So it merely hired many of the best people doing computer-assisted journalism and turned them loose to work, play and learn. They've since augmented those foks with amazing graphic artists and real computer programmers to build an unparalleled group. 

Derek spent most of his time at the ONA meetup focused on the data and Web work behind Toxic Waters, a 2009 series on water pollution by Charles Duhigg that has won a bunch of journalism awards this spring, including the IRE Medal. Without taking anything way from Duhigg's determined and insightful reporting, I think it is safe to say that without the data and Web work done by Derek and others in the Interactive News team, the story would not have had nearly as much impact. And, in fact, IRE recognized Derek and many others on the interactive and graphics team for their contributions.

At the ONA session, Derek explained the ins and outs of aquiring, understanding and processing data from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Working Group and several states that formed the basis for the interactive presentation. In other words, he showed that the traditional journalistic skills are just as important as the technical skills in conceiving and executing interative data applications.

For all the well-intentioned clamor for government agencies to open more of their data and information to the public via Web postings, merely making data available won't give our audiences the context (and sometimes the caveats) they need to use and understand the information. The Times also does a great job of  telling the audience how it went about doing this elaborate analysis here and here.  Being willing to provide methodological explanations is a hallmark of good data-driven journalism.

Derek also made it clear that, done properly, audiences are hungry for data-driven applications.

We have found the same thing at the Workshop. People want data if you give it to them in clear and understandable ways. By far our top-viewed project is BankTracker, which provides information about the health of every bank and credit union in the nation. Our second most popular feature is an interactive application about airline safety built by Jacob Fenton, our director of computer-assisted reporting. It is our intent for nearly all of our projects to eventually include interactive data. So stay tuned.

If you are involved in data-driven journalism, you might want to connect to a new group, Hacks/Hackers. Next Wednesday evening on Twitter you could tune in to #wjchat. Matt Waite, who is the developer behind the St. Petersburg Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact and who built our BankTracker, among other projects, will lead the discussion and answer questions.

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