Teaching Examples

The Miami Herald’s Pulitzer
April 16, 2007, 10:59 pm
Filed under: hyperlocal, investigative, newspapers, online

First, it’s online: House of Lies (WARNING: It is NOISY!).

Second, the Herald has posted a nice brief about the winning story, “which revealed developers took millions of dollars in taxpayer money to build affordable housing for the poor, but failed to deliver, leaving thousands without their promised homes.”

Third, Debbie Cenziper, the reporter, was editor of The Independent Florida Alligator in 1991. She was also a finalist for the Pulitzer last year in the Explanatory Reporting category, for reporting about breakdowns in hurricane forecasting.

Go Gators! (We are pretty good at winning competitions.)

“Other Herald staff members involved in the project included Larry Lebowitz, Susannah A. Nesmith, Tim Henderson, Monika Z. Leal, Chuck Fadely and Shawn Greene [Web design]. The series was edited by Investigations Editor Michael Sallah” (source).

Update (April 19): Cenziper is leaving the Herald to work at The Washington Post.

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Hiding your best stories from the world
March 27, 2007, 6:35 pm
Filed under: investigative, newspapers, online, SEO

So The Charleston Gazette, a small newspaper in West Virginia, won an IRE award for its investigative series about mine safety.

After years of covering the coal industry, [reporter Ken Ward, Jr.] offers readers an unparalleled portrait of the dangers inside mines and the breakdowns of regulation that made 2006 a deadly year. Using documents and data analysis, this Small Newspapers category winner detailed lax safety procedures, inferior training, poor equipment maintenance and other problems that contributed to deaths at Sago and other mines.

Sounds interesting. I went to their Web site and tried to find it. Searched in the current stories. Searched in the archives. Tried mine safety, “mine safety” and “Ken Ward.” No luck.

And — dare I ask — was there any online package for this series?

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Do numbers make your head hurt?
January 15, 2007, 2:29 pm
Filed under: data, investigative, journalism, online

Several people have written recently about the need to convey data — statistical information — online and in journalism generally. They are correct! Especially with the ability to search and to convey the data with dynamic graphics — online provides the perfect showcase for deep, meaningful data.

Derek Willis (the research database editor at The Washington Post) wrote an explanatory essay on the topic Saturday:

The Web is the canvas for CAR, better than any other platform we’ve come up with as an industry. It has every advantage that should be available to the CAR practitioners, including unlimited depth, the ability to customize or personalize and the luxury of designing a database so that it will truly be useful to readers. Some papers get this, or are beginning to realize it. Think of USA Today, where that paper’s sports salaries databases not only produce stories for the paper but also help cement its reputation as a premier destination for national sports information. When bloggers and other publishers start using your site as the “standard” for that topic or piece of information, that increases your influence and reach. Go ahead: search Google for “baseball salaries”. What’s the first result?

(“CAR” is old-school jargon for “computer-assisted reporting,” a phrase that I see going out of fashion as most people come to recognize that the computer is nothing more than standard equipment for every reporter.)

Willis also pointed out that you can get a lot of bang for the buck when you put a big database online where everyone can search it:

While there’s much to be said for the ability to distill loads of information and data into a digestible story, why would we leave it at just that when we could keep readers coming back to our sites or staying there for longer periods of time? … I can think of few other areas in which Web sites get more for less than with those people who know how to use databases. A great deal of Web data runs on open-source applications that cost less and, when properly automated, require less time and effort to maintain than a collection of text that needs to be copy-and-pasted into a CMS.

Amen, brother! Now, if only we could get the fabulous information graphics reporters in the same room with the database geniuses — and give them a direct line to the Web site! Yes, Lord! Mine eyes have seen the glory, amen! (Some examples here and here.)

Ryan Sholin advises:

… start looking for ways to integrate database work and analytical journalism. Your readers will thank you.

Matt Waite, a reporter for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, noted that you will be a hotly recruited job candidate if you can dance with data:

Being able to present data along with your blogging, your Flash graphics, your videos, will have employers bidding for your services. Don’t believe me? I know of two such young fellows who were handed their degrees and 10 minutes later were working for two of the 10 largest newspapers in the country.

I know one person like that — a smart guy who went directly from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill master’s degree program to The New York Times online operation. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200 — go straight to Boardwalk and Park Place. He’s no mere “Flash jockey.” He understands data.

Another one came out of our own undergrad and master’s programs a couple of years ago. His first job out? ESPN.com — and he’s still there, naturally. It’s his dream job. (We have not turned out any more like him recently; most journalism students chafe and squirm when we introduce them to Excel. I’m not giving up hope, though!)

Bob Stepno referred to what IRE calls “interrogating your data”:

Get reporters to use computers as computers — for data collection, number-crunching and analysis, not just as on-screen typewriters. Maybe Mindy didn’t mention it because it goes without saying that today’s journalists need to know about databases of public records and how to extract untold stories from them.

Here’s a question for the j-schools: Do you teach your students explicitly (hands-on) how to use Excel (or another spreadsheet program)? Do you teach them how to sort, clean and analyze large datasets?

If not, then that’s a shortcoming in your journalism program.

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