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July 01 2013


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.

January 11 2012


Daily Must Reads, Jan. 11, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Nathan Gibbs

1. Justice Alito: "It is not going to be long before [broadcast TV] goes the way of vinyl records and eight-track tapes" (New York Times)

2. Finding success through pay walls (Monday Note)

3. UK to reintroduce computer science teaching in schools (Geek) 

4. Patch triples traffic year-over-year, claims growth across network 'consistent' (Street Fight)

5. Piano Media wants national paywalls all over Europe (Nieman Journalism Lab)

6. Q&A with Nick Kristof on journalism in a digital world (Fast Company)

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December 20 2011


Daily Must Reads, Dec. 20, 2011

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Nathan Gibbs

1. Man sentenced to one year in federal prison for uploading X-Men movie (Deadline)

2. New York Times Co. negotiating to sell regional newspapers (Media Decoder)

3. Should computer science be required in K-12? (MindShift)

4. E-books as a digital news business strategy (Nieman Reports)

5. Winners and losers from the death of AT&T's T-Mobile deal (paidContent)

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September 09 2010


Columbia, Medill Training New Breed of Programmer-Journalists

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

Roughly two years ago, a group of prominent journalism educators, administrators and academics gathered in a room at Columbia University.

Attendees included Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism; Bill Grueskin, the school's dean of academic affairs; Clay Shirky, the noted author, academic and adjunct professor at New York University; Jonathan Landman, who was then a top New York Times editor overseeing the paper's online operations (he's now its deputy managing editor); and Duy Linh Tu, an assistant professor and the director of digital media at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Notably, the meeting also included representatives from Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

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"It was just a small room with eight or 10 of us talking about how we can work together and combine forces between the engineering school and our school," Tu said. "Part of the reason for it was that so much of journalism is online now ... there is a lot of potential that hasn't even been tapped."

That meeting, along with a lot of other discussions, planning and hard work, eventually led to Columbia's April announcement of a new Master of Science Program in Computer Science and Journalism. The program will kick off in fall of 2011 with an expected first class of roughly 15 people.

As MediaShift contributor Megan Taylor outlined in a post last year, many of today's programmer-journalists got to where they are thanks to self-directed education and hacking together courses and other educational opportunities to build their skills. But the new Columbia program, along with other initiatives, suggests that the next wave of programmer-journalists could be trained in specialized education programs that combine a traditional engineering/computer science degree with a traditional journalism education. Universities are working to either alter existing journalism programs or create new joint degrees to formalize the training of these workers.

Along with the Columbia program, Medill has been graduating programmer-journalists since 2008, and Georgia Tech is also home to a class in "computational journalism" taught by computer science professor Irfan Essa. It bills itself as "a study of computational and technological advancements in journalism with emphasis on technologies for developing new tools and their potential impact on news and information."

Along the same lines, former Washington Post database editor Sarah Cohen is now the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University where her focus is on computational journalism. She recently worked with engineers to create of a new kind of timeline tool built for investigative journalists. Cohen sees a need for programs that bring programming and journalism closer together in order to help change the way newsrooms operate.

"There's a problem with the way things are organized in newsrooms," Cohen said. "Editors are word people and until that changes it will be hard to get reporters to focus on anything but words."

As with any emerging area or discipline, many big questions remain with programmer-journalist degrees. Are there enough people with a background in engineering or computer science interested in pursuing a career that's at least somewhat related to journalism? How many jobs are there out there for graduates? And what role will they ultimately play in journalism?

Altering Journalism Classes at Columbia

One of the basic questions about the new Columbia program is exactly how it differs from multimedia journalism programs and instruction.

Duy.jpg"I've learned by having to do a bunch of interviews and explain the program that a lot of people confuse it with building websites or learning to use Flash," said Tu. "We have a great program that does that. The analogy I like to use is that our students in the digital media class in the regular program use Photoshop or Flash; people in this degree would invent Photoshop."

Here's what Julia Hirschberg, professor of computer science at Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science told Wired in the spring:

The IT Department [at a news organization] comes up with software programs that the journalists don't use; the journalists ask for software that is computationally unrealistic. We aim to produce a new generation of journalists who will understand both fields.

Applicants to the program are required to have a bachelor's degree in computer science or the equivalent. As for the journalism side of things, one of the most important qualifications is a passion for news and information.

"Someone asked what kind of programming languages the student will be learning and that's kind of missing the point: They already know the programming languages," Tu said. "They know C and Java -- they are nerds who want to turn their nerd knowledge into developing whatever technologies can help with the creation of journalism or the distribution of journalism."

To make that happen, the journalism school is altering some of its existing courses. The standard entry level reporting and writing class is being rejiggered for students in the dual master's program, but Tu said the students will absolutely learn how to report, even if that's unlikely to be their role in the workforce.

"The course is being revamped with an emphasis on the profession and teaching them how to be a journalist and [to get them] thinking of how they can apply what they just learned about the process of producing journalism to technology and how tech can make that better," he said. "They will learn to be journalists. There's no watching from the sidelines. They will go on their beat and find sources and have to understand that process."

He said graduates could end up in a range of workplace situations: at a news/information startup, as part of an in-house team at a news organization, or part of a team at an information-focused company such as Google.

Medill's Scholarships

Google also came up in a discussion with Rich Gordon, a professor and the director of digital innovation at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He said it was the launch of Google News that got him thinking about the need to create what he calls "bilingual" people who are equally versed in journalism and programming/engineering.

Rich Gordon

That resulted in Medill applying for and receiving a grant from the Knight Foundation to create scholarships for programmers to study journalism at the school. To date, nine students have received the scholarships, of which four have already graduated. They study at Medill for 12 months and exit with a master of science in journalism. Since they already have the programming skills, the focus is on building out their knowledge and journalism skills.

(Full disclosure: Medill is a longtime sponsor of MediaShift, and the Knight Foundation provided funding for MediaShift Idea Lab, where Gordon blogs about the scholarship program.)

"It I can have a really great programmer and make them literate in journalism, or take a journalist and give them some literacy in programming, then that's great," Gordon said. "The more we work on both sides of this gap, the more impact it can have. The premise is that we think it will be interesting to have bilingual journalist-programmers and they will come up with ideas, answers, programs and innovations that someone not equally proficient in both would not."

One similarity between the Medill and Columbia programs is that both are looking for people who already have programming skills. In each case, they say it seems easier to add journalism skills to a programmer, rather than the other way around. Brian Boyer was the first journalist-programmer to graduate from the Medill program, and he's now the Chicago Tribune's news applications editor. He agrees with this approach.

"Not to knock journalism, but I think it's probably easier to teach journalism to programmers than vice versa," he said via email. "It takes years of practice to become great at either, but the tools we use to make journalism -- words, etc. -- are generally accessible to a programmer. Whereas programming concepts are not general knowledge. Of course, we also use phone calls and other human contact to make journalism -- so the programmers do have much to learn."

Gordon said the challenge for these programs is to find programmers with a passion for journalism. After all, they may have to accept a lower salary in the world of news than what's offered to engineers in other industries.

"The biggest challenge is to find programmers for whom this would be a good fit," Gordon said. "All have done quite well in our program. I was dreading picking up the phone and having one of my colleagues say, 'Oh this guy who you admitted just can't hack it.' And that has not happened at all. In fact, it's been the opposite: My colleagues said it's one of best things we've done at Medill. They bring a new perspective to classes."

Future Prospects

The Medill scholarship recipients have so far had no trouble pursuing a career in line with their degree. Boyer has even hired a fellow Medill grad to join him at the Tribune. In another example, two other grads have launched a start-up, Stats Monkey. It remains to be seen where Columbia's grads will end up, but Tu is confident that they will not go wanting for work.

For the educational world, however, the question is whether these kinds of programs should become an essential part of journalism schools, or if they will remain niche programs at a small number of institutions. How many advanced programmer-journalists will be needed in the present and future? Will the tens of thousands of dollars spent by the Columbia grads be worth it in terms of their career prospects?

"The question I have is, is there a market for it?" Gordon said about the intensive dual degree being pitched by Columbia. "I suspect that without significant financial support for students there isn't a market for it. But if there is a market for a two-and-a-half or three-year joint degree ... and if Columbia proves they can make that work, that would be fabulous."

As much as these are academic programs, they are built to graduate students that can have an impact in the workforce. On that point Boyer, the first programmer-journalist to graduate from Medill, seems fairly optimistic.

"In the last six moths, I've run across job descriptions from a number of news organizations -- at several old-school/printy shops, at AP and Reuters, and at the new-wave web-centric non-profit shops like California Watch and Texas Tribune," he said. "This last bunch ought to be especially interesting to the hacker journalist. From what I've heard, they're getting a lot of traction out of their news applications, relative to their written work."

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author, and the managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is founder and editor of Regret the Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and BusinessJournalism.org. He also serves as digital journalism director of OpenFile, a collaborative news site for Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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August 05 2010


From automation to abstraction, or “How we think about journalism”

Don’t be put off by the title of this post from Poynter – “How journalists can incorporate computational thinking into their work”. It takes some basic principles linked to computational thinking and applies them to how the industry could be thinking about journalism:

  • Automation: How can we automate things that need to be done manually each time?
  • Algorithms: How can we outline steps we should take to accomplish our goals, solve problems and find answers?
  • Abstraction: At what different levels can we view this story or idea?

The post also talks about how computational thinking can improve corrections in journalism. But it’s not about forcing the rules of computation thinking on journalism, rather seeing what applications of this mindset could be useful.

Full post on Poynter at this list…Similar Posts:

April 08 2010


Wired.com: Columbia to offer joint computer science and journalism degree

US university Columbia has created a new masters’ degree combining computer science and journalism.

The Columbia programme, which will accept its first 15 students (tops) in the fall of 2011, seeks to attack the barrier between journalists and the increasingly important IT professionals whose web and digital savvy are crucial to any form of newsgathering, reporting and delivery. The problem: users really don’t know what to ask developers for (or how), and developers have no real idea what their software will need to do in the hands of the users.

The cross-disciplinary programme will equip journalists with vital data mining skills, technology to make their work more efficient and ideas for “new storytelling media using 3D photography and other methods”.

Full story at this link…

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