A thousand attendees at an annual conference for data-loving journalists packed the halls of a Marriott in Baltimore earlier this month, reveling in the overflowing job postings and employers’ sudden embrace of their obsession.
Data-centric journalism, once the domain of a few computer geeks hunched over in remote corners of the American newsroom, is coming to the forefront. With easier-to-use technology available, more data-savvy journalists are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in their niche. Heartened by social media buzz over such stories and prodded by competition hungry for unique content, news organizations are pouring money into recruiting talent and expanding their menu of stories derived from a mix of sophisticated number crunching, explanatory narratives and interactive graphics that weren’t possible in the old days of print.
“There’s more information now available through more people faster than ever before,” says Almar Latour, executive editor of The Wall Street Journal. “There is a lot more flexibility in displaying and telling stories.”
Data crunchers have been part of newsrooms since the 1980s, as “computer-assisted reporting” gained traction among editors looking to gain an edge. But the lack of computing power, dearth of talent who could handle data and heavy costs kept the endeavor in check.
“Many tried to make all of their staff more data-literate, but found limited success,” says Rich Gordon, a journalism professor at Northwestern University who has launched a program to lure software-savvy students into journalism.
But a confluence of factors has helped mainstream this arcane branch of journalism. The recovering economy is spurring more news business investment, with venture capitalists pouring money into digital journalism and creating lots of openings for savvy data geeks.
Software that processes data and turn them into attractive graphics is cheaper if not free online. Cloud technology — storing information on remote servers — has lowered the price of storing massive loads of data.
Among the competitors with data-mining in their mission statements:
• FiveThirtyEight.com. Nate Silver, the journalist best known for this pursuit, on Monday plans to launch his new ESPN-backed site, a byproduct of the fame earned for his eerily accurate prediction of President Obama’s victory in the 2012 election.
• The Upshot.The New York Times, which hosted Silver’s site until they parted ways last year, will replace it with The Upshot, a policy and economic analysis blog that will emphasize data and graphics and will be headed by the paper’s former Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt.
• Vox.com. A brainchild of former Washington Post uber-policy blogger Ezra Klein and published by Vox Media, Vox will launch later this year as an explanatory site that aims to make news more digestible by roasting it “to perfection with a drizzle of olive oil and hint of sea salt,” according to its website. Data and graphics will be integral parts of the storytelling. Vox Media raised about $40 million in venture capital shortly before signing Klein.
• The Washington Post, which rejected Klein’s request for a reported eight-figure budget to create his own site there, will deal with his departure in part by launching an economics blog by reporter Jim Tankersley. “We’re going to tell stories about big things in people’s lives that demand policy response,” Tankersley says. “Data (will) help us animate those stories.”
• The Wall Street Journal, which has always seemed more comfortable with math than its rivals, has several data journalism initiatives on tap. Mike Siconolfi was named investigations editor to preside over a new group that will combine investigative reporters and data reporters under one roof. “Expanding our data reporting capability in a data-rich age is a priority,” wrote Gerard Baker, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, in announcing Siconolfi’s appointment.
Path to product differentiation
The Internet enables news entrepreneurs to launch sites quickly and without burdensome upfront investment. And the success of Web-based organizations that have carved out a market with a unique approach — investigative force ProPublica is a good example — have encouraged others to follow suit.
That the Internet is awash with mindless click bait and the noise of the chattering class creates running room for news outlets to make their marks by offering journalism steeped in evidence, says Alexander Howard, a data journalist who is a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “A lot of people still want to know facts,” he says.
The push to ease handling of data has enhanced other layers of storytelling. A small but growing number of newsrooms are assigning teams of reporters and coders to create “data applications” — software written to allow readers to manipulate and handle data on their own. In a well-received project, NPR tasked its team to comb through data and create an application for parents of disabled children to locate wheelchair-friendly playgrounds.
Once an afterthought of editors and reporters preoccupied with flashy leads and story structure, the task of presenting massive data in engaging graphics — data visualization, in industry speak — has also moved up on the priority list.
“You’d have these investigative teams of reporters and editors who talk a lot about (the stories),” says Miranda Mulligan, executive director at Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, which teaches digital journalism. “But when the time comes to involve photographers and graphics, a lot of the decisions were already made.”
Editors are pushing for those conversations to take place earlier in the process, and designers have help from a wide array of new software that makes it easy to produce maps, timelines and audio-embeds relatively quickly.
“The more you see that readers understand it and share it,” Mulligan says, “and you see more and more of it go viral, newsrooms put more resources into it.”
Contributing: Paul Overberg