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July 01 2013

14:57

Monday Q&A: Denise Malan on the new data-driven collaboration between INN and IRE

Every news organization wishes it could have more reporters with data skills on staff. But not every news organization can afford to make data a priority — and even those that do can sometimes find the right candidates hard to find.

A new collaboration between two journalism nonprofits — the Investigative News Network and Investigative Reporters and Editors — aims to address this allocation issue. Denise Malan, formerly a investigative and data reporter at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, will fill the new role of INN director of data services, offering “dedicated data-analysis services to INN’s membership of more than 80 nonprofit investigative news organizations,” many of them three- or four-person teams that can’t find room or funding for a dedicated data reporter.

It’s a development that could both strengthen the investigative work being done by these institutions and skill building around data analysis in journalism. Malan has experience in training journalists in skills of procuring, cleaning, and analyzing data, and she has high hopes for the kinds of stories and networked reporting that will be produced by this collaboration. We talked about IRE’s underutilized data library, potentially disruptive Supreme Court decisions around freedom of information, the unfortunate end for wildlife wandering onto airplane runways, and what it means to translate numbers into stories.

O’Donovan: How does someone end up majoring in physics and journalism?
Malan: My freshman year they started a program to do a bachelor of arts in physics. Physics Lite. And you could pair that with business or journalism or English — something that was really your major focus of study, but the B.A. in physics would give you a good science background. So you take physics, you take calculus, you take statistics, and that really gives you the good critical thinking and data background to pair with something else — in my case, journalism.
O’Donovan: I guess it’s kind of easy to see how that led into what you’re doing now. But did you always see them going hand in hand? Or is that something that came later?
Malan: In college, I thought I was going to be a science writer. That was the main reason I paired those. When I got into news and started going down the path of data journalism, I was very glad to have that background, for sure. But I started getting more into the data journalism world when the Caller-Times in Corpus Christi sent me to the IRE bootcamp, where it’s a weeklong, intensive week where you concentrate on learning Excel and Access and the different pitfalls you can face in data — some basic cleaning skils. That’s really what got me started in the data journalism realm. And then the newspaper continued to send me to training — to the CAR conferences every year and local community college classes to beef up my skills.
O’Donovan: So, how long were you at the Caller-Times?
Malan: I was there seven years. I started as a reporter in June 2006, and then moved up into editing in May of 2010.
O’Donovan: And in the time that you were there as their data person, what are some stories that you were particularly proud of, or made you feel like this was a a burgeoning field?
Malan: We focused on intensely local projects at the Caller-Times. One of the ones that I was really proud of I worked on with our city hall reporter Jessica Savage. She found out that the city streets are a huge issue in Corpus Christi. If you’ve ever driven here, you know they are just horrible — a disaster. And the city is trying to find a billion dollars to fix them.

So our city hall reporter found out that the city keeps a database of scores called the Pavement Condition Index. Basically, it’s the condition of your street. So we got that database and we merged it with a file of streets and color-coded it so people could fully see what the condition of their street was, and we put it a database for people to find their exact block. This was something the city did not want to give us at first, because if people know the condition of their street scores, they’re going to demand that we do something about it. We’re like, “Yeah, that’s kind of the idea.” But that database became the basis for an entire special section on our streets. We used it to find people on streets who scored a 0, and talked about how it effects their life — how often they have to repair their cars, how often they walk through giant puddles.

And then we paired it with a breakout box of every city council member and their score. We did a map online, which, for over a year, actually, has been a big hit while the city is discussing how they’re going to find this money. People have been using it as a basis for the debate that they’re having, which, to me, is really kind of how we make a difference. Using this data that the city had, bringing it to light, making it accessible, I think, has really just changed the debate here for people. So that’s one thing I’m really proud of — that we can give people information to make informed decisions.

O’Donovan: Part of your new position is going to be facilitating and assisting other journalists in starting to understand how to do this kind of work. How do you tell reporters that this isn’t scary — that it’s something they can do or they can learn? How do you begin that conversation?
Malan: [At the Caller-Times] we adopted the philosophy that data journalism isn’t just something that one nerdy person in the office does, but something that everyone in the newsroom should have in their toolbox. It really enhances eery beat at the newspaper.

I would do training sessions occasionally on Excel, Google Fusion Tables, Caspio to show everyone in the newsroom, “Here’s what’s possible.” Some people really pick up on it and take it and run with it. Some people are not as math oriented and are not going to be able to take it and run with it themselves, but at least they know those tools are available and what it’s possible to do with them.

So some of the reporters would be just aware of how we could analyze data and they would keep their eyes open for databases on their beats, and other reporters would run with it. That philosophy is very important in any newsroom today. A lot of what I’m going to be doing with IRE and INN is working with the INN members in helping them to gather the data and analyze it and inform their local reporting. So a lot of the same roles, but in a broader context.

O’Donovan: So a lot of it is understanding that everyone is going to come at it with a different skill level.
Malan: Yes, absolutely. All our members have different levels of skills. Some of our members have very highly skilled data teams, like ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity — they’re really at the forefront of data journalism. Other members are maybe one- or two-person newsrooms that may not have the training and don’t have any reporters with those skills. So the skill sets are all over the board. But it will be my job to help, especially smaller newsrooms, plug into those resources — especially the resources at IRE — the best they can, with the data library there and the training available there. We help them bring up their own skills and enhance their own reporting.
O’Donovan: When a reporter comes to you and says, “I just found this dataset or I just got access to it” — how do you dive into that information when it comes to looking for stories? How do you take all of that and start to look for what could turn into something interesting?
Malan: A lot of it depends on the data set. Just approach every set of data as a source that you’re interviewing. What is available there? What is maybe missing from the data is something you want to think about too? And you definitely want to narrow it down: A lot of data sets are huge, especially these federal data sets that might have records containing, I don’t know, 120 fields, but maybe you’re only interested in three of them. So you want to get to know the data set, and what is interesting in it, and you want to really narrow your focus.

One collaboration that INN did was using data gathered by NASA for the FAA, and it was essentially near misses — incidents at airports like hitting deer on the runway, and all these little things that can happen but aren’t necessarily reported. They all get compiled in this database, and pilots write these narratives about it, so that field is very interesting to them. There were four or five INN members who collaborated on that, and they all came away with different stories because they all found something else that was interesting for them locally.

O’Donovan: This position you’ll hold is about bringing the work of INN and IRE together. What’s that going to look like? We talk all the time about how journalism is moving in a more networked direction — where do you see this fitting into that?
Malan: IRE and INN have always had a very close relationship, and I think that this position just kind of formalizes that. I will be helping INN members plug into the resources of IRE, especially the data library, I’ll be working closely with Liz Lucas, the database director at IRE, and I’m actually going to be living near IRE so I can work more closely with them. Some of that data there is very underutilized and it’s really interesting and maybe hasn’t been used in any projects, especially on a national level.

So we can take that data and I can kind of help analyze it, help slice it for the various regions we might be looking at, and help the INN members use that data for their stories. I’ll basically be acting as almost a translator to get this data from the IRE and help the INN members use it.

Going the other way, with INN members, they might come up with some project idea where data isn’t available from the database library, or it might be something where we have to gather data from every state individually, so we might compile that and whatever we end up with will be sent back to the IRE library and made available to other IRE members. So it’s a two-way relationship.

O’Donovan: So in terms of managing this collaboration, what are the challenges? Are you think of building an interface for sharing data or documents?
Malan: We’re going to be setting up a kind of committee of data people with INN to have probably monthly calls and just discuss ideas, what they’re working on, brainstorming, possible ideas. I want it to be a very organic, ground-up process — I don’t want it to be dictating what the projects should be. I want the members to come up with their own ideas. So we’ll be brainstorming and coming up with things, and we’ll be managing the group through Basecamp and communicating that way. A lot of the other members are already on Basecamp and communicate that way through INN.

We’ll be communicating through this committee and coming up with ideas and I’l be working with other members to, to reach out to them. If we come up with an idea that deals with health care, for example, I might reach out to some of the members that are especially focused on health care and try to bring in other members on it.

O’Donovan: Do you foresee collaborations between members, like shared reporting and that kind of thing?
Malan: Yeah, depending on the project. Some of it might be shared reporting; some of it might be someone does a main interview. If we’re doing a crime story dealing with the FBI’s Uniformed Crime Report, maybe we just have one reporter from every property, we nominate one person to do the interview with the FBI that everyone can use in their own story, which they localize with their own data. So, yeah, depending on the project, we’ll have to kind of see how the reporting would shake out.
O’Donovan: Do you have any specific goals or types of stories you want to tell, or even just specific data sets you’re eager to get a look at?
Malan: I think there are several interesting sets in the IRE data library that we might go after at first. There’s really interesting health sets, for example, from the FDA — one of them is a database of adverse affects from drugs, complaints that people make that drugs have had adverse effects. So yeah, some of those can be right off the bat, ready to go and parse and analyze.

Some other data sets we might be looking at will be a little harder to get, will take some FOIs and some time to get. There are several major areas that our members focus on and that we’ll be looking at projects for. Environment, for example — fracking is a large issue, and how environment effects public health. Health care, especially with the Affordable Care Act coming into effect next year is going to be a large one. Politics, government, how money effects influences politicians is a huge area as we come up on the 2016 elections and the 2014 midterms. And education is another issue with achievement gaps, graduation rates, charter schools — those are all large issues that our members follow. Finding those commonalties and dealing with data sets, digging into that is going to be my first priority.

O’Donovan: The health question is interesting. Knight announced its next round of News Challenge grants is going to be all around health.
Malan: I’m excited about that. We have several members that are really specifically focused on healt,h so I feel like we might be able to get something good with that.
O’Donovan: Health care stuff or more public health stuff?
Malan: It’s a mix, but a lot of stuff is geared toward the Affordable Care Act now.
O’Donovan: Gathering these data sets must often involve a lot of coordination across states and jurisdictions.
Malan: Yeah, absolutely. One thing I am a little nervous about is the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Virginia case where they can now require you to live in a state to put in an FOI. That might complicate things a little bit. I know there are several groups working on lists of people who will put an FOI in for you in various states. But that can kind of just slow down the process and put a little kink in and add to the timeline. I’m concerned of course that now they know it’s been ruled constitutional that every state might make that the law. It could be a huge thing. A management nightmare.
O’Donovan: What kind of advice do you normally give to reporters who are struggling to get information that they know they should be allowed to have?
Malan: That’s something we encountered a lot here, especially getting data in the proper format, too. Laws on that can vary from state to state. A lot of governments will give you paper or PDF format, instead of the Excel or text file that you asked for. It’s always a struggle.

The advice is to know the law as best you can, know what exceptions are allowed under your state law, be able to quote — you don’t have to have the law memorized, but be able to quote specific sections that you know are on your side. Be prepared with your requests, and be prepared to fight for it. And in a lot of cases, it is a fight.

O’Donovan: That’s an interesting intersection of technical and legal skill. That’s a lot of education dollars right there.
Malan: Yeah, no kidding.
O’Donovan: When you do things like attend the NICAR conference and assess the scene more broadly, where do you see the most urgent gaps in the data journalism field? Is it that we need more data analysts? More computer scientists? More reporters with the fluency in communicating with government? More legal aid? If you could allocate more resources, where would you put them right now?
Malan: There’s always going to be a need for more very highly skilled data journalists who can gather these national sets, analyze them, clean them, get them into a digestible format, visualize them online, and inform readers. I would like to see more general beat reporters interested in data and at least getting skills in Excel and even Access — because the beat reporters are the ones on the ground, using their sources, finding these data sets or not finding them if they’re not aware of what data is. I would really like this to be a bigger push to at least educate most general beat reporters to a certain level.
O’Donovan: Where do you see the data journalism movement headed over the next couple years? What would your next big hope for the field be?
Malan: Well, of course I hope for it to go kind of mainstream, and that all reporters will have some sort of data skills. It’s of course harder with fewer and fewer resources, and reporters are learning how to tweet and Instagram, and there are demands on their time that have never been there.

But I would hope it would become just an normal part of journalism, that there would be no more “data journalism” — that it just becomes part of what we do, because it’s invaluable to reporting and to really helping ferret out the truth and to give context to stories.

October 14 2010

14:30

The Newsonomics of replacement journalism

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Finally, we’re seeing light on the horizon. Journalism hiring is picking up.

The second half of the year has so far produced TBD’s hiring of 50 in Washington, Patch’s push to pick up 500 journalists across the country, and the new alliance for public media plan to hire more than 300 journalists in four major cities, if funding can be found in 2011. In addition, the brand-name journalist market has suddenly flowered, as everyone from National Journal to the Daily Beast to Bloomberg to AOL to the Huffington Post to Yahoo compete for talent. These are bigger numbers — and more activity — than we’ve previously seen, though they build on earlier hirings from ProPublica to California Watch to Bay Citizen to Texas Tribune to MinnPost and well beyond.

It’s a dizzying quilt of hiring, in some ways hard to make sense of, as business models (how exactly is Patch’s business model going to succeed? what happens when the foundation money dries up?) remain in deep flux. Yet, amid the hope, now comes this question: Are we beginning to see “replacement journalism” arriving?

Replacement journalism, by its nature, is a hazy notion. We won’t see some one-to-one swapping for what used to be with something new. Replacement journalism will though give us the sense that new journalism, of high quality, is getting funded, somehow, and that the vacuum created by the deepest cut in reporting we’ve ever seen is starting to be filled. It is an important, graspable question not just for journalists and aspiring journalists welling up in schools across the country, but also for readers: Are we beginning to see significant, tangible news coverage in this new, mainly digital world?

So, let’s assess where we on, on that road to replacement journalism. Let’s start with some numbers. Take the most useful census of daily newspaper newsroom employment, the annual ASNE (American Society of News Editors) census, conducted early each year and next reported out at its April 2011 conference. ASNE’s most current number is 41,500. That’s down from 46,700 a year earlier, from 52,600 in 2008 and from 55,000 in 2007. So, over those three-plus years, that’s a loss of 13,500 jobs, a 25-percent decline.

As we consider what’s been lost and what needs to replace it, we’ve got to look as much at possible at reporting. That news-gathering — not commentary (column or blog) — is what’s key to community information and understanding, fairly prerequisite in our struggling little democracy. While we don’t know how many of those 13,500 jobs lost are in reporting, we can do some extrapolation. Using that same ASNE census, we see that a little less than half (45 percent or so) of newsroom jobs are classified as reporting, while 20 percent are classified as copy/layout editors, 25 percent as supervisors and 10 percent as photographers and artists. So — while not undervaluing the contributions of non-reporters — let’s say, roughly, that half the jobs lost have been reporters. That would mean about 6,750 reporting jobs lost in three years.

Okay, so let’s use that number as a yardstick, against a quick list of journalist hiring:

  • Investigative and extended enterprise reporting: It’s tough to come up with any one number for investigative or long-form reporting in newspapers or in broadcast. We know that many newspapers and broadcasters have cut the investment in staff here, though, through the carnage of staff reduction. (One indication: “The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009″, according to Mary Walton in the American Journalism Review.) Into this breach have come the new ProPublica, the restyled Center for Investigative Reporting (with its California Watch, most notably) and the growing Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. They are joined by smaller centers from Maine to Wisconsin to California. Loss: Probably in the high hundreds. Gain: Probably in the small hundreds. Net: We’ve seen real high-quality replacement journalism, but need more, especially on the community level.
  • Washington, D.C. reporting: Dozens of D.C.-based reporting positions have been lost over the last several years, certainly, and the number may stretch into the hundreds. For awhile, the biggest news was that the Al Jazeera bureau was among the fastest-growing. Now, of course, there’s the goldrush in government-oriented reporting as the newly emboldened (and funded) National Journal group and Bloomberg Government add a couple of hundred positions, and join Politico in the D.C-based fray. With both new efforts still in formation, we’re not clear what kind of reporting they’ll do. If it’s mainly government-as-business (Bloomberg’s seeming model) and/or if it’s mainly behind pay wall, then then this new stuff will be less replacement-like. Covering public policy implications for all of us nationally, and the particular impacts on those of locally, is a key, yawning need. Loss: Significant. Gain: Substantial. Net: Unclear we see the words on our screens in 2011.
  • Hyperlocal reporting: The biggest news here is Patch, of course. With 500 sites in various stages of rollout, we can’t yet assess how much new reporting — and of what quality, what depth — will be added back, replaced. Add in the redeployment of many metro staff reporters from Hartford to Dallas to L.A., and the fact that smaller community dailies and weeklies have weathered the storms better than bigger papers. Loss: Uncountable, but real across the country. Gain: With Patch and with the re-attention of metros to smaller communities through staff redeployment and blog aggregation, it’s now substantial. Net: One of the most promising areas in replacement journalism.
  • Metro-level reporting: The devastation seems clearest here, with newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News cut to 125 newsroom staffers from 400 a decade ago, and many other dailies down by 50 percent or more. The bulk of cuts, as well chronicled by Erica Smith at Paper Cuts, appear to be at metros — and they are continuing; witness recent job losses in Sacramento and Miami and at USA Today. On the positive end of the ledger, the TBD-Bay Citizen-Voice of San Diego-MinnPost-Texas Tribune-Chicago News Cooperative parade has added real journalistic depth in selected markets. Yet, unless they grow substantially from the dozens they are — the public media push, though only in formation, is the most promising here — there’s a low replacement ratio. This is the biggest conundrum in front of us: how do we maintain current newsroom staffing of 340 at The Boston Globe or 325 at The Dallas Morning News, against the ravages of change? Loss: Huge. Gain: Spirited and of noteworthy excellence. Net: Biggest gap to fill — and the gap may be widening still.

“Replacement journalism,” of course, is a tricky term, and maybe only an interim notion — a handle that helps us from there to here to there. By the very nature of digital and business disruption and transformation, we have to remind ourselves that the future is never a straight line from past to future, and that it will offer us great positive surprises as well as continuing disappointments. William Gibson’s enduring line sums that up: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Photo by Matt Wetzler used under a Creative Commons license.

March 24 2010

14:00

Len Downie: For-profit news orgs won’t create enough journalism

By any measure, former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie epitomized success in the traditional, subscription-and-advertising model of newspaper journalism: With a staff that once topped 900 and an annual budget of $100 million, his newsroom hauled in 25 Pulitzer Prizes over 17 years and wielded influence from Congress to the darkest recesses of the nation’s capital.

Since stepping down from the Post’s top newsroom job at age 66, Downie has taken on a professorship at Arizona State University. But behind the scenes, he also is lending his experience to help shape the practices and prospects for the burgeoning nonprofit sector in journalism.

Why? Simple: Downie says the for-profit model alone no longer can support the kinds of investigative, explanatory, and accountability journalism that society needs. As the for-profit sector shrinks, journalists and interested readers must explore new ways to underwrite their work.

“There are going to have to be many different kinds of economic models,” Downie said in an interview at the Post’s offices. “The future is a much more diverse ecosystem.”

Downie has made himself an expert on the nonprofit model, and wrote about its possibilities in his recent report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” with Michael Schudson.

Less known, perhaps, is that Downie casts a wide net as within the nonprofit sector of journalism. He’s a board member at the Center for Investigative Reporting, which recently launched California Watch to cover money and politics at the state level. He also chairs the journalism advisory committee at Kaiser Health News, which has provided niche explanatory reporting to leading newspapers, including the Post. And he’s also on the board of Investigative Reporters and Editors, which has incorporated panels on the nonprofit model into its conferences. (I should note that I am a part-time editor for the Washington Post News Service.)

Looking across the sector, Downie sees great potential — and some big, unanswered questions.

On the upside, nonprofits are helping journalism move toward a more collaborative model, Downie said. In the old days, newspapers resisted ideas and assistance from outside. But in the new news ecosystem, collaboration is a way of life. “All of our ideas have been changed about that,” he said.

Also a plus: Big foundations and the public at large are warming to the idea that news organizations are deserving of their support, just like the symphony or any other nonprofit that contributes to society’s cultural assets. “There’s a question of whether there’s enough public realization,” Downie said. “I think we’re heading to that direction. Awareness is growing steadily.”

But a lot of questions still must be sorted out, Downie said.

High on the list, he said, is the most basic of all: Where will the money come from? Like other nonprofits, nonprofit news organizations will have to find the right mix of foundation money, grassroots support, advertising, and perhaps additional government support, he said.

That leads to the other big question of sustainability: It’s not clear that all the nonprofits that have launched in recent years will survive. “How many will succeed and for how long?” Downie wondered. A related question: How will the collaborative model will settle out, and where nonprofits will find productive niches?

Downie said he also has been watching nonprofits wrestle with the issue of credibility — how to achieve it and how to keep it.

The answer begins with editorial independence and transparency about financial supporters, Downie said. But when it comes to painting a bright line between journalism and ideology, advocacy or spin, there are no magic formulas to assure readers — just the experience of trial and error.

“It’s one of these things that’s proven by its exceptions,” Downie said. “When there’s an exception, it’s a scandal.”

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