Posts Tagged ‘data journalism’

I led three workshops Thursday for the staff of the Penny Hoarder in St. Petersburg, Fla.

First I led a workshop on coming up with original story ideas. I used many of the tips in my blog post on story ideas. Here are the slides:

My next workshop dealt with interviews. I used some of the tips in these posts:

Shut up and listen

Getting personal

Interviewing advice from veteran journalists

When it’s good (and bad) to be ‘stupid’ in interviews

Tips for persuading reluctant news sources to talk

Eric Nalder’s advice on interviewing reluctant sources

‘Uh-huh’: Does it ruin audio or keep a source talking (maybe both)

Here are my slides for the interviewing workshop:

I didn’t have any slides for the third workshop, on using data to find and support stories, but I showed the data available at these sites (thanks to Tom Meagher and Maryjo Webster for steering me to some of them):

Census Reporter

American Fact Finder

Census Bureau


Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Pew Research Center

Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research

The workshop used some of the tips in my post on mining the data on your beat.





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Image linked from BrutallyHonest.org

A journalist doesn’t need superpowers. But if you excel in a particular skill that’s in short supply, you won’t be one of those journalists whining about pay. Or if you do whine, that will be just to maintain your secret identity.

Mark Stencel and Kim Perry produced an outstanding (but perhaps daunting) report for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurialism, Superpowers: The digital skills media leaders say journalists need going forward.

The report could be intimidating or discouraging for a senior journalism major still looking for a job as graduation approaches or for a veteran journalist still stinging from a layoff and wondering what’s next.

The report notes the skills desired in an ad for a multimedia reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, an Illinois newspaper with print circulation of less than 60,000 and just over 9,000 Twitter followers. The ad, Stencel and Perry noted, sought:

someone capable of ‘shooting videos and learning how to produce interactive graphics,’ plus a willingness ‘to use social media as part of the daily beat routine.’ Oh, and ‘database journalism skills are a plus’ too, the editors added.

And I’m going to speculate that the position pays less than Jimmy Olson makes.

I have a little experience hiring journalists in the digital age, as well as looking for jobs. I don’t have any super powers. I don’t think I could leap over my suitcase in a single bound. But I’ve assessed the value of journalists with impressive but incomplete skill sets, and I’ve managed to maintain some value in the job market. So I want to share some thoughts on “Superpowers,” both the Tow-Knight Center report and the job skills it addresses. (more…)

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This is an updated version of a handout for a reporting workshop I used to present more than a decade ago. I have updated it for my Advanced News Gathering class this semester at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. Many of the tips here came from my World-Herald colleagues, Paul Goodsell, Joe Kolman, Nichole Aksamit and Cindy Gonzalez, with whom I collaborated on the original workshop. Other colleagues, perhaps most notably former Digital First Media colleagues Tom Meagher and MaryJo Webster (who will address my class remotely Thursday), taught me things I used in updating that old handout to use now.

No competent reporter would consider doing the job without knowing how to interview or take notes or to dig for records. In 21st-Century journalism, using data is not a specialized skill. It’s an essential skill.

Even if you haven’t mastered high-level analysis and visualization skills (just as some reporters are better than others at interviewing or working sources), every reporter needs to use data at least at a basic level to find answers and tell stories. Whatever your level of ability, you should seek to learn more about the data sources on your beat and how to access and use them.

Ask for electronic records. When an agency you cover releases a report or some annual statistics, ask for the report in a digital format. We can incur significant expenses when we ask public agencies to sort data for us (though often much less than they might tell you initially). But every report already exists in an electronic file that should be easy and cheap to obtain. Whether you use the data immediately or not, you should have it on hand electronically.

Pursue the data. Ask for data as aggressively as you insist on access to any other public record. You must not be intimidated when it comes to asking for electronic information. When someone cites facts in an interview, you already are used to asking, “How do you know that?” and asking for copies of any reports the source is citing. Ask for an electronic copy as well. Often the source would rather e-mail you the report rather than find an envelope anyway. Don’t ask just for the report itself, but for the raw data on which it was based.

Consider different uses. As you learn about data sources, consider what stories you might pursue based primarily on this data. Consider how you might use this data for information to support other stories you might do. Consider how you might use the data routinely. Consider how the data might be useful to colleagues on other beats.

Use the Internet. Visit the Web sites of public agencies and private organizations on your beat and learn what data sources are available readily online. Learn what reports and statistics are posted online. Learn whether the agencies post searchable databases online or pdf files that are more cumbersome to use online. (Various tools can help you extract data from pdfs, and a pdf can also identify electronic records you could obtain to sort and search yourself). Browse the databases to learn what information they offer and consider how that information might be useful in stories.

Get budgets. Obtain the budgets and spending records of public agencies in electronic form so you can use a spreadsheet to look for trends, changes, irregularities.

Get directories. Learn what sort of basic information the agencies on your beat might have in electronic form: personnel rosters, payroll records, government board rosters.

Get an updated version of the payroll records periodically — say quarterly — and you’ll have a good way of tracking government raises. It’s searchable and, thus, a nice way to double-check a name spelling and job title and salary, a good way to know who’s been with the city the longest and who’s a newbie, an easy way to access a list of the city’s highest and lowest-paid employees. It’s particularly useful when a public employee makes other news — gets arrested or fired or wins an award — or when you are just searching for an employee who might have been around during a particular time period or has experience in a given area.

Listen for data behind statistics. When sources tell you they are tracking or studying something — a certain kind of complaint, the condition of city roads, housing code violations, etc. — chances are they are working from a database or a spreadsheet. Ask “How do you know that noise complaints have risen or that 65 percent of the streets are in good condition?” and then ask to see their work, which may prompt other stories. In most jurisdictions, the data should be public record, and you should ask for it.

Interview the data. Think of data as another source that you interview. Do you want to know how many single mothers of a particular race or age group live in a particular community? You could probably call a number of people and get some vague answers and some anecdotal sense of whether the number is growing or declining, but why not ask the Census Bureau? Think of questions you could ask the data on your beat: What bar has the most liquor-law violations? What school has the best (or worst) test scores? What intersection has the most accidents?

Study the data first. Reporters are at a great advantage when they go into an interview knowing at least something, and sometimes a lot, about the information the source deals with. If you can find some data online or in a database you already have acquired, check that before you interview a source. It helps you ask better questions and helps you catch the source in mistakes or lies.

Organize with spreadsheets. A spreadsheet helps you understand information. You spot relationships, trends, reversals, gaps. You can use a spreadsheet for something as simple as a source list or chronology, or to analyze thousands of pieces of data.

Enter data yourself. Sure, it’s nice to get data e-mailed to you, but don’t forget that you can enter data yourself. Often an afternoon at a courthouse or government office searching through paper records yields a notebook full of information you can analyze and understand better if you take a few hours to enter it in a spreadsheet.

Use Census data. Census data are not just the basis for Census stories, but provide helpful information about families, housing, economics and communities for a wide range of stories. The Quick Facts section of the site provides data about any state, city, parish, county, town or zip code in the country. For instance, you can quickly learn demographic, business, housing, income (and much more) for the city of Baton Rouge.

Census download shot

A download button at the top right of Census search results lets you download the data in various forms for analysis or display.

BLSSeek federal data. If any federal agency has jurisdiction on your beat, it probably has some data available. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a “data tools” tab that opens a number of opportunities for information on employment, productivity and other economic topics. The Bureau of Justice Statistics offers similar data sets on crime, courts and prisons. Data.gov gives a guide to federal data on a wide range of topics.Datagov

Seek state and local data. Access to data and quality of data that you can access online or through public records requests varies by state and local jurisdiction, as laws and compliance with laws varies. Sometimes you have to search for data by agency. Other times a government jurisdiction, such as the City of Baton Rouge, will provide a portal to data from all agencies. Sometimes media organizations and public interest groups have already acquired data sets and made them easily accessible online. Louisiana Sunshine, a project of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, makes many state data sets easy to access.  

Think critically about data. Former World-Herald reporter Joe Kolman had this quote from Dick O’Reilly of the LA Times taped to his desk: “The most important lessons in CAR are not which keys to push on the keyboard, but how to think critically about data. People who learn to think that way will learn which keys to push because doing so becomes fundamental to their quests. People who only learn what keys to push really haven’t learned anything.”

Other resources

National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting (lots of databases and how-to instructions for members of Investigative Reporters and Editors).



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Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen, one of the leading thinkers in journalism and journalism education, is teaching a “digital thinking” class that I’d love to take and that I might sometime want to teach, stealing liberally from Jay.

But for now, he asked for my feedback. So I’m going to give the feedback here, because I want to spread the word about Jay’s thoughtful approach to digital thinking, as well as milk a blog post from my feedback to Jay. (Ask me a question that would result in a long email response, and I’m going to make it do double duty on the blog, unless it’s a private matter.)

In a Twitter direct message, Jay likened his class to my work on Project Unbolt during my last few months with Digital First Media. My initial reaction was that Project Unbolt was about action and Jay’s class is about thinking, but of course, the two go together. Digital thinking changes how you work and changing how you work changes how you think. One of my first blog posts for my DFM colleagues was about digital thinking.

Below are the main “currents and trends” Jay expects to cover in the class. He wants students in each case to learn “what it means, why it’s important, and where things are going with it.” I encourage reading Jay’s post, which has links to earlier posts he has done, as well as material from others.

What I do here is post Jay’s key points (in bold), followed by some of his explanation and my comments and any links to posts I’ve written that might be helpful. I recommend reading Jay’s blog to get all his comments and the links he shared, which elaborate well on his points. I’m ripping him off extensively here, but not totally. (more…)

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Project Unbolt logoThis is the second of seven blog posts about the Berkshire Eagle Unbolt Master Plan (which I explained in the first post). A staff committee developed the plan in response to my call for newsrooms to free themselves from print culture and workflow in six primary areas.

This is the plan to drive the unbolting of the Eagle’s news coverage and storytelling. Most of this post will be the Eagle’s plan, with my comments in italics. I sent a draft of this post to Kevin Moran, Vice President of News for New England Newspapers Inc., and have included his responses in bold.

What is coverage and storytelling?

In the context of The Eagle newsroom, “coverage” is live, as-it-happens reporting (as the facts are confirmed, of course) of breaking and developing news, news and sports events, issues, meetings, etc. Storytelling refers to the methods or platforms — live blogs, videos, tweets, time lines, stories, etc. — in which we present our live or enterprise coverage.

Buttry comment: Storytelling is more than methods or platforms. I should have defined storytelling better. The tools, methods and platforms are essential in telling digital stories, but the story is the result of that work, something that helps the community understand the news, issues, events and people of interest and importance in the Berkshires. Stories are what people want to share with co-workers and friends on social media and in conversations around the community. Storytelling is the use of this growing journalism toolbox to tell stories, elevating our work beyond informational answers to the 5 W’s with actual story elements such as character, plot, setting, action, theme, conflict and resolution.

Kevin’s response: Agree 100 percent. My (our) motto is the story IS the thing, and nothing beats a good story told well. I say this all the time. What our challenge here is: Presuming we’re good storytellers to start (and I’ll grant that we’re good at it), how and using what methods are the best ways to tell particular stories?

How do we apply Unbolted coverage and storytelling?

The nature of the story can and should dictate what methods and platforms are most appropriate. But “live coverage is routine” (S. Buttry) for the unbolted newsroom. This can be through Twitter, Facebook, Tout and/or live blogs and/or through a digital article that develops as the news unfolds (a la the AP lede-writethru).

Buttry comment: The quotes attributed to me throughout the plan come from my post on how an unbolted newsroom works.

Objective: To continue our practice, develop and/or revise our coverage and storytelling practices based on six tenets: Live, Timeliness, Enterprise, Opinion, Beat Blogs, Data, and Photo/Video.

The following represents recommendations of initial priorities for Project Unbolt in The Berkshire Eagle newsroom:

Live coverage

Goal: Change workflows and mindsets to achieve live coverage of most news events covered by The Eagle.

  • We plan for live coverage at the morning meetings, in advance of that, or at the moment breaking news is underway. We liveblog using Twitter and/or ScribbleLive’s platform. Liveblogs are required for breaking news, news events, trials, debates, sports games/tournaments/rivalries, weather (cancellations/postponements), meetings with big issues and/or broad appeal, town meetings, City Council meetings, forums, big public events like the Ramble or the Josh Billings Run-A-Ground. Buttry comment: Planning for live coverage is essential, especially for changing the work of a newsroom that’s not liveblogging or that liveblogs only for big stories. I’ll do a full post later on the liveblogging progress of the Project Unbolt pilot newsrooms.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing.

Micro goal: Increase live blogs to 6 per week minimum by May 1; 10 per week by June 1. Assess future goals by June 15.

Update from Kevin: Last week we had at least eight scheduled, though five of those are trials. On April 27, we had a live blog for Divine Mercy Sunday (a big event held at the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass.) and one for a 7-year-old patient’s wish to become a police officer on Tuesday.

  • We promote live blogs: We SOCIALIT before, during, and afterward (wrap-up). If time permits, we have an in-paper refer. Kevin’s explanation, at my request: SOCIALIT is Tom Tripicco’s buzzword that’s caught on in our vernacular: When a story (breaking or otherwise) or photo gallery, etc., gets posted, we “social it” — tweet it, post on Facebook, etc., to touch all the social media bases.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing.

  • Our components of the liveblog include: Original reporting in ScribbleLive; Tweets; photos; Tout and YouTube videos; crowd-sourced tweets, photos, videos, comments, etc. Buttry comment: This is helpful to show the variety of content that you can feed or curate into a liveblog.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing

  • For breaking news coverage, we develop news articles from the liveblog and/or Twitter. Editors and/or writers are building cohesive news articles from the live coverage. This is especially the case during trials, fires, etc., or any breaking news for which immediacy is paramount. Live blogs are on The Eagle’s Digital Tools Checklist for Breaking News Coverage. Buttry: I have embedded the list at the end of this post.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing

  • Develop weekly schedules of live blogs/chats with newsmakers and on news issues (with sources, reporters, experts). Buttry comment: Excellent idea to schedule weekly live chats on issues. These can extend the life of a feature story and become important parts of your opinion content.

Time frame: Develop a startup calendar of live-blog events by April 22. Kevin’s update: This is a time frame we are behind on. I have revised the deadline to develop this calendar for the second week in May. However, we will start the first two with a staffer covering a murder trial and then our features editors on the Berkshires’ summer season’s best bets/highlights in culture, music, theater, etc.  

  • Keep live blogs to a high standard so that they don’t disappoint. With live blogs, it should be a decent certainty that live blogs won’t be a “bust.” E.G., the event won’t prove to be a disappointment because of its short length or lack of interest or dearth of depth. We do not want to knowingly disappoint readers. Buttry comment: This is a valid concern, but I encourage risking an occasional bust. A liveblog doesn’t need to be a transcript or a firehose. If you cover a two-hour meeting that has an interesting half-hour, it’s fine to have stretches where you don’t update or just post a summary sort of update like “They’re reading a long ordinance about the fire code now. It doesn’t appear to be controversial.” If a fairly routine meeting is going to be worth 10 inches in print, it’s probably worth a liveblog with 20-30 posts. The liveblog won’t have a lot of engagement, but the print story won’t have a lot of readers either. We do the story as part of our watchdog duty, and the liveblog performs that duty even better. And the reporter was going to be there anyway. Another way of covering such an event would be to provide quasi-live coverage by livetweeting the meeting. Instead of posting a ScribbleLive that will update only occasionally, you note on Twitter and Facebook (and possibly in a story advancing the meeting) that the reporter will livetweet, so that people interested in live coverage can get that on Twitter. As the meeting goes along, an editor Storifies the reporter’s tweets. At some point when you have a decent story taking shape, the editor publishes a story with the Storify embedded and updates that through the rest of the meeting. Kevin’s response: FYI: We’ve had the “busts.” Example: We covered a mayor’s State of the City address expecting it to be at least a 20-minute speech, and it lasted all of five minutes.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing

  • Training on live blogs.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing. Assign date(s) to The Eagle Training Calendar.

  • Photo galleries are a breaking news tool. We use them not only for breaking news, but as a live coverage generator of “softer news” like events, proms, sports events, our own community engagement creatives, etc. We place a high priority on the number of galleries we generate and a great expectation on applying the maximum number of images as possible into each photo gallery.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing. Buttry note: Excellent point to include photo galleries as a live coverage tool. I like the examples for softer live news possibilities for live galleries. 

The Eagle had exceptional success in February liveblogging a triple-murder trial. Kevin blogged about the stellar engagement in the liveblog (nearly 26,000 engagement hours) and about the lessons reporter Andrew Amelinckx learned in the process. Andrew won a February DFMie for his coverage of the trial. Though it was his first live coverage experience, he learned quickly and deftly used the two-plus days of jury deliberation to continue the liveblog, answering questions from the community.


Goal: Provide “fresh news every morning” and then at every other time when it’s not morning (within staffing hours of 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.). Our goal is to change reader habits and expectations that BerkshireEagle.com is a reliably updated site throughout the day, not just a one-stop visit in the morning during our peak traffic between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. daily. Metric will be more current traffic from 11 a.m. on compared to a year ago.

  • Breaking news happens when it happens and we post it when it happens as soon as we’ve confirmed the facts.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing.

  • Our journalists are on-call for big news around where they live.
  • We need more than 1 devoted “digital editor” person to keep the site fresh.

Time frame: Evaluate ability to add digital editor, convert an existing position, and/or free up an existing editor/reporter to devote to this. Update from Kevin: What we have that seems to be working is assigning reporters to handle these responsibilities during shifts and time slots that are not otherwise covered. It’s taken some coordination, but we’re getting there.

  • SOCIALIT to every fresh news story.
  • Time frame: Underway. ASAP: Build out a Social Media appendix to The Eagle’s Digital Tools Checklist for Breaking News CoverageAgain, the checklist is embedded at the end of this post.
  • Plan for and schedule features news to lift our traffic at other times during the day, evening and night. This is strategic; outside of breaking news, we need to find what other news (features, food, etc.) resonates at what other points during the day (optimal timing). Buttry note: This is an excellent example of how Project Unbolt is a collaboration of the newsrooms, not just following my instructions. I raised the priority of publishing more news than just breaking news and live coverage during the day. But the idea of looking for optimal timing of particular types of news hadn’t occurred to me. It’s a great idea and I look forward to hearing how it works.

Time frame: Build this out by April 30. Update from Kevin: Yes, we are ahead of schedule on this (prior to April 30). For instance, theater (big deal in the Berkshires) reviews are posted as soon as the review is done, though that review that goes up on a Tuesday or Wednesday might not see print until the weekend. Features content is parceled out online sometimes days ahead of the print sections. What we have not done is analyze the metrics, which we ought to do.

  • Plan digital deadlines for non-breaking news. Need to evaluate posting. Current model is non-breaking news events provided with 5 grafs with further or complete(s) update to follow.

Time frame: Build this out by April 30. Update from Kevin: We have not formalized this; this is a time frame we are behind on.


Goal: Enterprise stories are not tied to print deadlines (typically Sunday). We plan them for highest impact or build toward their release using SOCIALIT, or even tied to moments of import.

  • We conference (pre-plan) all enterprise with the necessary people in the room. We develop enterprise “packages” — video, photo, data, story, SOCIALIT, etc. — at the conference. Visual news journalists are in the room for enterprise conference. We establish photo-video priorities for enterprise then. We set digital deadlines during the planning meeting. Digital deadlines are set to publish during our highest traffic periods before Sunday. (Sunday is our biggest print day, but our lousiest digital day.) We break up multiple story installments/elements parts to publish on consecutive days or times. We follow up with a live chat on the enterprise package on the next logical day. Buttry: I’ve blogged already about digital enterprise. I like the emphasis on including the right people in the planning.

Time frame: Underway, but loose. We succeeded in doing at least one major enterprise story planned according to these loose Unbolt specs by March 20. Develop The Eagle’s Digital Tools Checklist for Enterprise News Coverage by April 22.

  • Training in enterprise, watchdog reporting.

Time frame: IRE training component on July 8-9.

Buttry: I will be blogging soon about some work at the New Haven Register to unbolt enterprise journalism from the Sunday story.


Goal: “Opinion content is a mix of editorials, columns, cartoons, staff blogs, community blogs, live chats, videos and other interactive content.”  “We … lead the community conversation … develop that leadership more aggressively and creatively using digital tools.” “We need to join, stimulate and curate the other conversations going on in the community.”  (S. Buttry).

  • Publish opinions as they’re ready.

Time frame: ASAP.

  • SOCIALIT. Creatively. What do you think? Here’s why such and such is right or wrong or good or bad.

Time frame: ASAP.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing.

Beat blogs

Goal: Digital news journalists and visual news journalists go “behind their stories” in beat blogs. We SOCIALIT, journalists/editors reverse publish.

Time frame: Done.

  • Digital news journalists use beat blogs to post stories about experiences, what doesn’t make it into print. “I was here over the weekend and this is what happened …” Backstories.

Time frame: Training dates for WordPress in The Eagle Training Calendar. Kevin, has this been scheduled or done? Kevin update: Our WordPress training date was April 29, and we are using this training to kick off the “behind the beat” blogs staffwide.

  • Establish visual beat blogs: One for the county. Visual news journalists post images, videos. VNJ’s write about the “story behind the photo/video,” or how the photo/video happened, or how they managed to get the photo/video, what process they used, more information about the people-things-places they got, post about local themes or trends, interesting or off-context good photos, you write the caption entries. VNJ’s look to Stan Grossfeld of the Globe.

Time frame: Establish visual news beat blogs by April 22; set expectations, deadlines. Training dates for WordPress in The Eagle Training Calendar. Kevin’s update: The visual beat blog hasn’t been set up, but Gillian Jones has been visual blogging in the North County Behind the Beat blog. For now, we’re going to let photo blog in the behind the beat blogs.


Goal: “The newsroom develops data skills – both specialists and basic data skills throughout the newsroom.” “The unbolted newsroom experiments with ways to use data for journalism, interactive databases, data visualization and structuring and updating archival content for continuing value.” (S. Buttry)

  • We use visuals to explain data. We use the data that we have! We use the data that’s staring us in the face and present it. We use data to help the reader understand the story. We use data visually so as not to bog down the story. We use maps. We use interactives to develop data through crowdsourcing. (Pothole interactive.) Kevin’s explanation of the pothole interactive: Jen Huberdeau used Google maps, which worked. But using Google maps didn’t necessarily make it “easy” for people to post as there were a few hoops to jump through. Amazingly, however, a number of people jumped through those hoops. Buttry: SeeClickFix is a great tool for helping the community report potholes and other problems needing attention from the city or other local government agencies.

Time frame: Underway, but loose.

  • We need training to develop our newsroom’s data presentation skills (Prezi, etc.).
    Time frame: Ongoing, but with only two or three newsroom aficionados. IRE training component on July 8-9. Add to The Eagle Training Calendar.
  • We need training on developing our data skills.
    Time frame: IRE training component on July 8-9.


Goal: “Reporters and visual journalists file photos” and Tout videos “quickly from breaking news scenes and events.” (S. Buttry) We do it well or we don’t do it at all. We use photos and videos to tell stories.

  • Staff uses photo and videos as part of their digital storytelling toolkit.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing.

  • Staff trains staff in photo and video skills, techniques in Pittsfield and North Adams. We train through shadowing and one-on-ones.

Time frame: Ongoing. In the The Eagle Training Calendar.

  • Develop, curate user-generated photo galleries, videos.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing. Need to assemble micro-goals for frequency, events, holidays, creatives related to this.

  • Establish photo-video as part of the overall “package.”
  • Increase the volume of photo galleries and increase the number of images in an individual photo gallery.

Time frame: Underway, ongoing.

  • Daily video updates. News reports. Updates. Creative uses.

Time frame: Develop this plan by July 15. Buttry: I was a little worried by all the April target dates I was seeing in this section. I like that this target date was set by July 15. If you try to achieve everything right away, you set your newsroom up for disappointment when you inevitably miss most of the target dates. Choosing something for a summer deadline was a good idea. 


“The unbolted newsroom experiments with storytelling and curation tools to make stories more interactive with quizzes, interactive databases, listicles, maps, polls, timelines and other features that help users experience stories, rather than simply reading or watching them. Journalists master the tools that prove useful for frequent jobs, but are continually experimenting with new tools and techniques.” (S. Buttry)

Time frame: Need to develop this plan by mid-June. Training in the DFM Games Local Trivia asset, ASAP, by third week of April. Kevin’s update: First training in the tool is May 7.

The Eagle’s committee planning the unbolting of coverage and storytelling was chaired by Kevin. Committee members were Opinion Editor Bill Everhart, sports writer Akeem Glaspie, Scott Stafford and Stephanie Zollshan.

Buttry: News coverage and storytelling is the heart of the change Project Unbolt is seeking. The other pillars all rate to the execution and the quality of the news coverage and storytelling. I’m delighted to see that the Eagle staff developed such a thoughtful, thorough plan so quickly to transform its news coverage and storytelling.

Tomorrow: Examining the Berkshire Eagle Unbolt Master Plan’s section on planning and management.

Other posts on the Eagle’s master plan

Berkshire Eagle Master Plan gives direction to the work of unbolting from print 

How the Berkshire Eagle is unbolting planning and management from print culture

Berkshire Eagle plans for mobile success

How the Berkshire Eagle plans to update and uphold standards

The Berkshire Eagle’s plan for stronger engagement

The Berkshire Eagle unbolts from its processes and workflow from print

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This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.

Part of the culture change you need to lead in your newsroom is toward greater use of data in your journalism.

For most editors, this is a difficult transition to lead because, like most of your staff, you have little or no experience in data journalism. So you need to lead the staff in learning this essential journalism skill. Here’s what an editor with weak data skills can do to elevate your staff’s use of data:

State the priority. Tell your newsroom this is important. Explain why it’s important and make clear that this will be a continuing priority for the full staff.

Make this a “we” priority. You can’t tell the staff that “you” have to learn data journalism. Learn along with them and share the lessons as you learn. The top editor’s actions speak loudly to the newsroom.

Ask data questions in meetings. In daily meetings where you plan routine coverage and in long-range meetings where you plan enterprise coverage and coverage of upcoming events and issues, ask about the data opportunities for stories. Ideally, you want this to be a question that is naturally addressed in the flow of the meeting. But to start, you might at the end of the meeting review the stories covered and consider the data possibilities and discuss which ones the staff will pursue.

Assess the staff’s skills. Use Google Forms to set up a simple questionnaire for the staff to fill out, asking staff members to tell which tools and techniques they have used and their level of expertise. I didn’t develop a sample form for this post, but I’ll work with Tom Meagher and the Thunderdome data team to develop such a form for the first editor who asks. The results of your questionnaire will go into a Google spreadsheet, which is good because spreadsheets are one of your most important (and easiest) data tools, so you’ll get a little spreadsheet practice just analyzing the results of the assessment. MaryJo Webster of the Pioneer Press has a skills survey she has used with her colleagues and would be happy to share her questions with editors wanting to assess their staffs’ skills.

Designate a staff data leader. In your assessment, you probably will find someone who took a data journalism class in college or has dabbled a little with spreadsheets and mapping data. Designate this person as your staff’s leader in data journalism. Give this person the time and authority to learn new tools, to develop and lead staff workshops in data tools and techniques and to coach individual staff members. MaryJo has such a position and the Pioneer Press, and she contributed to two projects that won DFMies for 2012 and a third that was a finalist and she was a finalist for the DFMie for special contribution. A strong data leader can elevate the journalism of your whole staff.

Don’t let the leader become a silo. The leader’s job should be to lead the staff in developing data skills and doing more and better data journalism, not to do all the work herself. It’s OK to have a specialist who develops some high-end skills or even to have multiple specialists, particularly in a larger newsroom, perhaps one each with expertise in data reporting, data visualization and a couple specialists in news app development, one working on back end development and one on design and interaction. But you want the whole staff to gain some data competency and work data into their routine reporting and editing.

Specify data expectations. In job interviews, job descriptions, performance evaluations and other communication with staff about their work, make clear that you expect them to develop and use data skills. Set specific goals and not whether staff members have achieved those goals.

Reward data excellence. What you can do to reward journalists will vary according to union contracts, pay freezes, budgets and other considerations. But you should use whatever flexibility you have — including opportunities to fill vacancies — to reward and promote staff members who are excelling in data journalism.

Learn by doing. I did my first data story — an investigation that debunked a lie state officials were telling about an environmental clean-up fund that was out of money — without any training. I’ll tell you the importance of training shortly, but however much training you and your staff receive, you learn data journalism by working on stories. Before and after training, you and your staff should feel your way with some simple tools such as spreadsheets and Google Maps. When you get more advanced training, be sure to use the tools and techniques you were taught right away, to implant the lessons you learned.

Provide training opportunities. You and your staff can get training in data journalism lots of ways:

  • Training should be one of the responsibilities of your data leader. He should lead staff workshops and provide individual coaching for colleagues.
  • Poynter’s News University offers a range of low-cost online courses in data journalism.
  • The Thunderdome data team can help Digital First journalists with particular data projects, helping local journalists on stories based on local data (and teaching those local journalists new skills in the process).
  • The Thunderdome data team also operates a Google discussion group for Digital First data journalists. You can ask colleagues when you have questions and learn a lot just by lurking.
  • Send staff members to the annual conferences, boot camp or regional training events of the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting. (Digital First will pay most of the costs for three journalists to attend the next NICAR conference. Staff members should watch for information about how to apply for one of those subsidized slots.)
  • Encourage staff members learning data journalism to join the NICAR listserv. Even just lurking on there can be immensely helpful.
  • Read MaryJo’s Data Mine blog, which provides helpful how-to advice on data journalism and the projects she works on.
  • An opportunity for Digital First editors: MaryJo developed a workshop to give Pioneer Press a “bird’s-eye view of what data journalism is, and give them a bit of a roadmap for what questions they should be asking, what things they should be looking for, and what expectations they should (or shouldn’t) have when one of their reporters is working on a data-driven story.” She’s going to work with Tom on developing that into a webinar for Digital First editors. If you’re interested in that, let me know and I’ll make sure we get the word to you when they schedule that.
  • Sharon Machlis added this October opportunity in the comments, but I wanted to add it here, since it sounds like a good one: Data Journalism 101, free webinar taught by Michael J. Berens, 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for investigative reporting.
  • Also added (thanks to Sarah Bartlett on Twitter): Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas online course Data-Driven Journalism: The Basics.
  • Anything else I should add?

Share examples. When other newsrooms use digital skills to find and present important stories, share those links with your staff. Especially if the stories are done by other Digital First newsrooms, email those editors to ask how they did it and whether the journalists responsible can confer with someone on your staff about how to do a similar story in your community.

Piggyback on national efforts. When the Thunderdome data team (or our ProPublica partners) does some analysis of a national database, partner with them to produce stories about the data for your community. Your staff and readers will benefit from the higher skill level of the national journalists, but your staff will probably learn some skills in the process.

You don’t need to be an expert in data journalism to make it a priority for your newsroom. Say that it’s important, show that it’s important and lead your newsroom in learning.

Want to contribute a guest post?

If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools. Nancy March wrote about balancing work and personal life. Dan Rowinski wrote about mobile opportunities. I have a few editor friends who say they are planning guest posts, and I hope to post them soon.

I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.

Earlier posts with advice for editors

Handle firings with honesty and compassion

Tips for interviewing job candidates

Check a job candidate’s digital profile

Hiring is an opportunity to upgrade your newsroom

Your newsroom is watching

Time is precious; manage it carefully

The digital audience values quality photos

Rethink your mobile approach

Lead your newsroom in pursuing mobile opportunities

The balancing act

Blog about your newsroom’s transformation

You’re a role model; be a good one, like Dave Witke

Respect personal life

Communicate face to face

Respect authorship

Ask, don’t tell

Make training a priority

Do what you say you’ll do — by being organized

Lead Digital First meetings

Lead and stimulate discussions of ethics

Stand up for your staff

Stand for accuracy and accountability

Admit your mistakes

Deliver criticism with a challenge

Praise is free but priceless

Disrupt your newsroom culture

Be aware of your example


How do your daily budgets reflect multi-platform planning needs?

What new beats would help newsrooms cover local news better?

Why editors should be active on Twitter

The Buttry version of social media best practices for editors

How the crowd can save your career

Leading your staff into the Twitterverse

Mentors don’t always see their seeds blossom

Upcoming topics

Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is uncertain). The pace of these posts has slowed, but I’ll still try to post something weekly. What other topics should I cover?

  • Developing new leaders
  • Diversity
  • Teamwork
  • Fun

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