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December 14 2011


NPR’s StateImpact project explores regional topics through focused, data-driven journalism

Scott Detrow heard a rumor, and like any good reporter, he set out to determine whether it was true. Detrow, who has spent several years covering state politics and government for seven public radio member stations in Pennsylvania, had been told anecdotal claims that the expansion of drilling wells in recent years has drastically increased the burden on emergency service providers in the state. But the drilling industry, which opened 4,000 new wells in 2009 alone, is a controversial topic in Pennsylvania, and Detrow said both the opponents and proponents rarely agree on even the most basic facts.

“I figured 911 records were a good place to take a look at that,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “So we got the 911 totals from the 10 counties with the most drilling and we saw seven of them did, in fact, see their numbers go up. And we did that as a framework to get into what that meant in a couple communities.”

“We had to focus on what story we were trying to tell.”

The end result was a two-part story. In the first, Detrow reported that 911 calls spiked by at least 46 percent in one of the counties after the introduction of new wells. “We’re see­ing more acci­dents involv­ing large rigs,” the head of one 911 call center told the reporter. “Trac­tor trail­ers, dump trucks. Vehi­cles — trac­tor trail­ers haul­ing haz­ardous mate­ri­als. Those are things, two years ago, that we weren’t deal­ing with on a daily basis.” In the second piece, Detrow explored the impact the increased burden on emergency services had on local county governments, many of which were having a hard time finding the funds to hire new EMS employees. “[County Com­mis­sioner Mark] Hamil­ton, who serves as the pres­i­dent of the County Com­mis­sion­ers Asso­ci­a­tion of Penn­syl­va­nia, sup­ports an impact fee on gas drillers to help off­set the cost of more resources,” Detrow wrote.

Compiling all this data took extensive man hours, and it paid off; Detrow managed to break a major story that settled a contentious dispute. But if he had tried to hunt down the data just a few months before, he would have run into a significant barrier: time. That’s because, up until recently, the reporter had spent the majority of his work week reporting on lawmaking in the state’s capitol building. “[Drilling] is something I’ve been covering over the last few years and it’s something that’s steadily become more of a main issue that I was spending more time on, but I was doing so through the framework of multiple stories a day on my beat and also having to cover everything else in state government.” Much of his reporting involved simply recounting what lawmakers were saying — and there were few opportunities to dive deeper into longer-term issues.

In late June, though, Detrow joined NPR’s StateImpact. Billed as “station-based journalism covering the effect of government actions within every state,” StateImpact essentially takes the extensive resources of a national news organization and applies them to the local level. For its initial iteration, NPR member stations from around the country sent in applications, and from those eight were chosen to receive grants. The grants, in part, funded the hiring of two reporters for each state: one for broadcast and another for the web. NPR also hired a team of project managers, designers, and programmers to work at its D.C. headquarters; this team collaborates directly with each of the participating states to create platforms and other tools to mine deeper into a given topic. Because every state differs in its most important issues, each participating team focuses on a particular topic. The Pennsylvania StateImpact reporters, as you may have guessed, focus on energy, with a concentration on the impact of drilling. Three of the states (Florida, Indiana, and Ohio) cover education while the remaining ones (Idaho, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Texas) report on issues ranging from the local economy to state budgets.

“Why don’t we work together so we can get something that’s easy for us to use but also know it’s going to be accurate?”

To understand what the D.C.-based team brings to the equation, I visited them one morning at NPR’s headquarters. They started off the day with a meeting in which each member listed off his or her task for the week. In order to ensure the meeting didn’t stretch any longer than absolutely necessary, they all conducted it while standing. Afterward, I sat down with Matt Stiles, the database reporting coordinator, who walked me through a data-driven tool he and his colleagues had created to track the natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. The map allowed one to drill down (no pun intended) into individual counties and wells to determine both how much fuel is derived from an area and the number of regulatory violations a particular well has seen. From start to finish, it took about three weeks to build out. “I spent time with Scott figuring out what data was available,” Stiles told me, and then worked with Detrow to determine the overall scope of the tool. “We had to focus on what story we were trying to tell.”

Stiles has worked with government data for years, and so knew how to navigate the seemingly insurmountable barriers that can arise when trying to put it to use. “All of the data is available on the well,” he explained. “But it’s in these sort of awkwardly-formatted spreadsheets. There was a process of me looking at that, Scott looking at it, and then going back to the state and saying, ‘This format doesn’t really work for us. I could clean this data up and make it work with a lot of blunt force data cleansing, but why don’t we work together so we can get something that’s easy for us to use but also know it’s going to be accurate?’”

Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s senior vice president and general manager of digital media, said in a phone interview that NPR is launching StateImpact at a time when there’s an erosion of media coverage at the state level. “At the same time that a growing number of significant issues are moving through state governments as things have gotten somewhat more gridlocked at the federal level, we’re seeing a variety of issues — environmental regulation, education, and so forth — [becoming] the subject of state legislation,” he told me. While he sees a particular need for in-depth reporting around some of those issues, NPR didn’t simply want reporters to conduct statehouse legislative coverage: Plenty of local news outlets are still devoting resources to that. Instead, the network saw an opportunity with issues of consequence in selected states.

“We’ve armed them with skills that they’ll be able to use for the rest of their careers, we hope.”

StateImpact also signals a shift in how local NPR member stations operate. For years, they offered some local programming, but mostly acted as distributors for national NPR content. “In the digital era, if they are to continue to thrive and reach the kind of audiences they reach today, they’re by necessity going to have to offer a news package more directly relevant to their audience,” Wilson explained. “The national coverage can be obtained at any number of outlets directly, so the big picture in this effort is to help stations extend their local relevance. They’re uniquely positioned to do so. They’re among the few remaining genuinely locally-owned news institutions in most communities. They have real connections in the community.”

Elise Hu sees other benefits to the StateImpact platform. Hu, the editorial coordinator for the team, oversees the digital editorial vision for all the participating states, and also ensures that the project’s content management system aligns with the organization’s goal to “[give] our readers the Wikipedia-like introduction to the topics that they might be encountering.” Part of her job involves traveling from state to state to meet with reporters directly. In fact, when I spoke to her, she was sitting in an airport, about to head to Indianapolis for a convening of StateImpact’s three education states — Indiana, Florida, and Ohio.

“I think one of the great takeaways of this project, even if StateImpact goes away — which I hope it won’t, but even if it does go away — is that there are 17 member station reporters that might not have otherwise been exposed to this sort of training or this data-driven reporting,” she said. “We’ve armed them with skills that they’ll be able to use for the rest of their careers, we hope.”

Scott Detrow agreed with this notion. “My knowledge of Excel beforehand was pretty minimal, and we had several training sessions on just using that as a reporting tool,” he said. “That is just really helpful in covering an issue where there are all these enormous spreadsheets you have to go through with the reporting.”

Earlier today, Detrow and the team released an interactive web app that focuses on the state’s Mar­cel­lus Shale. An app like that, he said, is “not something we would have thought to have done beforehand, and being able to work with people who have the skills to put that together is just great.”

It will be interesting to see how StateImpact develops, especially as it opens up to more states. (It hopes to operate in every state in the country.) But perhaps even more interesting is seeing how NPR will continue to incorporate the lessons learned from this experiment into the rest of its news coverage. With the changing digital media landscape in journalism, fraught with declining revenues and fleeting audiences, no experiment is carried out in a vacuum. And, as Hu pointed out, many of the issues covered in these individual states are of national relevance. “StateImpact is essentially acting as a lab to see how agile we can be, how quickly we can churn out an app,” she said. “And the fact that we were able to go from concept to deployment within a month will be a good story to tell for other members of the digital team at NPR to push that forward as an organization in data app development.”

December 08 2010


Oxford study: What’s the future of foreign reporting?

Are foreign correspondents redundant?

Our friends across the pond, at Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, ask that provocative question in a report they released this morning: a rigorous study of a globalized (er, globalised) ecosystem of news.

“All news organisations are undergoing turbulent change and must ask where the risks and the opportunities are,” the report notes. “And against this background, where does the primary public interest rest in ‘bearing witness’?”

If you’re at all interested in the changing shape of global journalism — and, in particular, the effect of technology’s sources-go-direct empowerment of world citizens on the news landscape — then I highly recommend reading the report in its entirety. It’s long, but worth it: It’s chock full of illustrative state-of-the-landscape overviews, personal anecdotes, and economic analyses, all placed in helpful historical context. (Plus, it’s written by Richard Sambrook, currently of Edelman and formerly of the BBC, and one of the smartest thinkers you’ll find on the effects of globalization on news production and consumption.)

So: read it! In the meantime, though, here are a few highlights:

The days of information centralization may be over.

“The model of a foreign correspondent, working from a fixed overseas bureau, is well established across all forms of international newsgathering – newspapers, wire agencies, broadcasters. It is a feature which grew from the industrialisation of news production in the late nineteenth century, when a limited number of organisations had sufficient resources to gather and distribute news, with owners seeking the prestige and influence that reporting international events brings.

However, here was news from abroad before there were correspondents and bureaux. And we are now entering a new era where they may no longer be central to how we learn about the world. A wide range of pressures are undermining the role of foreign correspondent and providing opportunities – and imperatives – for news organisations to adopt a very different approach to reporting international news.”

The downward spiral in the amount of foreign news coverage we’re familiar with in the U.S. is primarily a Western phenomenon.

“In Asia, with the prospect of major economic growth, news organisations may be set for an era of expansion. And in the developing world countries and continents are building their own journalistic capacity – with long-term consequences for the global flow of information and the character of public debate.”

Social media help reporting…but can also hurt it.

“Social media are leading, supplementing and complementing what professional news organisations offer, providing fresh source material for reporters, but also competing with them for public attention. Many other organisations have taken the opportunity to contribute directly to public debate by introducing their own information services – from governments, to NGOs to commercial companies – speaking directly to the public in favour of their own interests. This challenges the capacities of news organisations to sort, verify and contextualise a torrent of digital information.”

Globalization helps reporting…but can also hurt it.

“Globalisation has also led to significant changes in how the world is reported. In multicultural societies the notion of ‘foreign’ is more complex. International and domestic news agendas have merged to a significant degree. More organisations are relying on local staff – with advantages and risks attached.”

All this would seem to suggest that the real title of the report, rather than “Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?”, might have been: “Are Foreign Correspondents Obsolete?” But the answer in either case would be no. This isn’t a matter of extinction, Sambrook concludes; it’s a matter of evolution. “Are foreign correspondents redundant? By no means,” he writes. “But they will be very different from their predecessors and work in very different ways to serve the digital news environment of the twenty-first century.”

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