Showing posts with label online journalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label online journalism. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Being a More Versatile Journalist: Data Journalism Veteran Steve Doig Wants Journalists to Know Statistics

Aerial photograph of the devastation from hurricane Andrew in 1992. Steve Doig, who was a reporter for the Miami Herald at the time, used his data journalism chops to survey the damage and write a Pulitzer-prize winning expose on construction malpractice. Earlier this year, I asked him what aspiring data journalists should be learning.

I cringe when bloggers begin a post by apologizing to readers for a lack of updates. This is partly because most people do, or should, understand that the gig doesn’t pay. But mostly, every word you waste on explaining your absence is one more chance for a reader to lose interest and go somewhere else. So I’ll just say it’s been an eventful couple of months, and tell you why it’s actually relevant to this blog.

Having just finished a master’s in journalism at the University of Illinois, I was extremely lucky to find a National Science Foundation grant that is training better K-12 science teachers.

At the grant, we do this by teaching lessons in entrepreneurial leadership to science teachers. That translates into experiences like students constructing their own spectrophotometers, or high school students manufacturing their own biofuel, or even collaborations where high school students set up demonstrations on electricity for grade school students to work through.

It’s a radical, but practical approach that hopes to improve the nation’s competitiveness in science teaching. In January, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress report card on teaching showed that 47 percent of all high school seniors in the country are deficient in the sciences.

Why would an NSF grant want a journalist? For one, I understood their language. Being a former undergraduate student of mechanical engineering, I had taken chemistry, physics, calculus, and statistics courses. Secondly, they wanted someone experienced in the ways of conducting interviews (i.e., collecting data) and translating the information into an easily digestible form (i.e., not only help write reports for the NSF but also write for public dissemination).

That was all they were looking for initially, until I mentioned I had worked with NodeXL, a template that turns Microsoft Excel into a tool for analyzing social networks. I was introduced to the program by Brant Houston, in his investigative reporting class at the university. The Excel plug-in comes in handy during an investigation when you need to do things like plot like the flow of money or political influence within organizations or among groups of people. As it turns out, the grant was conducting a first-of-its kind analysis of teaching networks and needed someone with my expertise.

The moral of this story could be that if you develop skills beyond traditional journalism in undergraduate/graduate school, it’s easier to parlay your skills into a new career when the journalism jobs market tanks. But the fact is I’m still practicing journalism, albeit during my off-hours.

I recently submitted an investigation of a local church with more than $100,000 in tax liens to, a Knight foundation-funded community news website. The investigation required digging up and looking through nonprofit tax records, federal tax liens, city ordinances, and even credit union call reports. The investigation stemmed from a legal notice I stumbled upon in the aforementioned investigative journalism class.

Rather, this is why a journalist should learn data journalism: to become a more versatile investigator.

When I was teaching introductory journalism classes to freshmen and sophomore university students, I wanted them to know exactly why it’s useful to have computer and data journalism skills. So I put together a presentation on data journalism for a lecture of about 100 students, and asked data journalism veteran Steve Doig, who is currently the Knight Chair at the Walter Cronkite school of journalism, for a few bits of advice.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Google scholarship signals growth in data journalism field

Google announced Monday that it would give $20,000 to journalism students who can mash-up computer science and enterprise reporting.

The scholarship program is a joint venture between the Associated Press (AP) and Google, and will be administered by the Online News Association (ONA).

“The AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship program will provide $20,000 scholarships for the 2012-13 academic year to six promising undergraduate or graduate students pursuing or planning to pursue degrees at the intersection of journalism, computer science and new media,” Google and the AP wrote in a press release. “The program is targeted to individual students creating innovative projects that further the ideals of digital journalism.”

On the official Google blog, ONA executive director Jane McDonnell said the goal of the scholarship was “to shine a light on the hidden treasures in schools across the country—the digital-minded journalists who will be the future of our industry.”

More information is available at

The AP-Google scholarship is one of the latest initiatives to bolster the ranks of journalists with data specialists who can use computer skills to sort, filter and describe important trends hiding in a sea of public data. Those trends can be a springboard to launch investigations into a wide variety of issues, including poverty, health, crime and social justice.

The need for those types of computer and analytical skills is only increasing as governments begin to publish on the internet troves of documents that were previously difficult to access.

Brant Houston, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation chair for enterprise and investigative reporting at the University of Illinois, wrote in the summer 2010 Nieman Reports that data journalists could help improve the nation’s investigative reporting strength.

 “Digital media’s capabilities might provide ways to hold public agencies accountable while expanding journalists’ role as community watchdogs,” he wrote.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Visualization shows expansion, peak and fall of the American newspaper

A new visualization from Stanford University charts the expansion of printing presses as early settlers headed west, as well as the peak and decline of the American newspaper.

It’s also highly interactive, letting users scroll back and forth through the American history of newspapers, pausing for textual markers at historically significant times. Users also get a breakdown of the publications serving a particular town, and can filter papers by the language they were published in or by publication frequency.

This was a major undertaking from the Rural West Initiative of Stanford University, which involved tapping into a directory of some 140,000 American newspapers at the Library of Congress.

“It would be fairer to call this a ‘database’ visualization than an omniscient creator’s-eye view of the growth of American newspapers,” the Rural West Initiative writes on an introduction to the visualization. “There are known (and surely unknown) omissions from this list, as well as duplicate entries, and entries that are similar and can appear duplicative.”

The visualization accompanies a report by the Initiative which indicates that while metro journalism has been on the decline for decades, rural journalism is still alive and thriving, although the job makes for “a lean living” for rural journalists and most papers are “an advertiser or two away from red ink.” Many reporters and some editors are fresh out of J-school.

Geoff McGhee, the Bill Lane Center creative director, and Judy Muller, a contributing editor at the Rural West Initiative, will both be on the Salt Lake City NPR station KUER to discuss the report August 8, at 10 a.m. pacific time (12 p.m. central, 1 p.m. eastern). It will also be simulcast on the SiriusXM Public radio channel.

Listeners can call the station at (801) 585-WEST or submit questions at The station website has a live stream and will archive the show as a podcast.

The Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University lab tweeted of the interactive map, “How cool (or sad?) is this?” That’s because the dots peak at about 1920, and decline to the number we see today. Most news begins life in a newspaper news room, according to a 2009 Pew study on the Baltimore news ecosystem.

“Fully eight out of ten stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information,” Pew wrote. “Indeed the expanding universe of new media, including blogs, Twitter and local websites—at least in Baltimore—played only a limited role: mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places.”

The Initiative’s report seems to support Pew’s conclusions.

For some original reporting about the St. Louis newspaper market, including several visuals about the rise and fall of newspapers in the city, along with a report about a nonprofit newsroom trying to buck the trend, read “Funding Challenges, Long-term Aspirations of a Nonprofit Newsroom.”