Category Archives: Blog

On Data Journalism: Everything is changing, changing all the time

One of the lingering dilemmas, since Craigslist shattered the classifieds and the Internet splintered the advertising feed: We need journalism, but what are we willing to pay for it?

And how will they figure out how best to do it in a way that both feeds us key info and gets us to pay for it?

One opportunity could be journalists who are good at collecting and distilling and interpreting the mind-boggling amount of data that’s out there about everything, every day, all the time (even this post in itself is createing still more data).

The whole skill about identifying what is news and why is not new — but how to master it in this era is different. From an interview about data journalism:

The real disruption was the ability of anybody anywhere to upload multimedia content and share it with anybody else who was on a connected device. That was the thing that really hit hard, when you look at 2004 onwards.

What journalism has to do is reinvent its processes, its business models and its skillsets to function in a world where human capital does not scale well, in terms of sifting, presenting and explaining all of this information. That’s really the key to it.

The skills that journalists need to do that — including identifying a story, knowing why something is important and putting it in context — are incredibly important. But how you do that, which particular elements you now use to tell that story are changing.

Those now include the skills of understanding the platform that you’re operating on and the technologies which are shaping your audiences’ behaviors and the world of data.

By data, I don’t just mean large caches of numbers you might be given or might be released by institutions: I mean that the data thrown off by all of our activity, all the time, is simply transforming the speed and the scope of what can be explained and reported on and identified as stories at a really astonishing speed. If you don’t have the fundamental tools to understand why that change is important and you don’t have the tools to help you interpret and get those stories out to a wide public, then you’re going to struggle to be a sustainable journalist.

One of the things that has changed: In the past, you went to an “expert” for quotes and to frame the story, or you pored through reams and reams of public documents to collect your own data to fuel the story (e.g. “Through a Freedom Of Information Act request, Times reporters reviewed 3,205 public documents to determine…” etc.).

Now there is an almost overwhelming amount of data to review if you know where to look and what to look for.

This is not just about an amazing graphic that the New York Times does with census data over the past 150 years. This is about almost every story. Almost every story has some component of reusability or a component where you can collect the data in a way that helps your reporting in the future. To do that requires a level of knowledge about the tools that you’re using, like coding, Google Refine or Fusion Tables. There are lots of freely available tools out there that are making this easier. But, if you don’t have the mindset that approaches, understands and knows why this is going to help you and make you a better reporter, then it’s sometimes hard to motivate journalists to see why they might want to grab on.

It’s not just capturing that data once, for one story. It’s capturing it in a way that you can add to it for story after story as conditions change — or, to put it another way, as new data is added.

I see this with sports coverage, ironically. Whereas the narrative used to be carried by the flowery columnist who could turn a phrase and talk to a coach or two over a beer about a player, now there is tons of on-field or on-ice data that helps sift away biases and expose what a player really does or doesn’t do on the field or on the ice.

For many sports fans, this has changed how the game is perceived — and, in some cases, removes some of the mystery and subjectivity. (Think of the book or movie “Moneyball” and the stat analysis that it chronicled. Except now, instead of one team having that new insight, everyone does — teams, fans, even players if they pay attention.)

As a result, the model for understanding sports even on a rec level has almost flipped on its head. For almost every sports story, inquisitive fans will demand data to back up conclusions — and fans who prefer the old way, the old “innocent” times when a guy who hit the game-winning hit really was “clutch” in our eyes and the guy who was a “good guy who sacrifices himself for the team” really was good and essential in our eyes, instead of talent-limited but doing every last thing to try to retain a job and be somewhat useful to the team.

Tellingly, the old-school sports journalists who really rant about bloggers the most — “some kid with a computer in his mama’s basement” — are often reacting against this trend: They are actually compensated reporters using data and methods of analysis that the “old school” columnists do not understand and often do not want to understand. So they dismiss the analysis and paint all “bloggers” with the same brush, as if they’re all anonymous message board rumor-mongers, when in fact more and more of them have attained positions writing for outlets all over the world specifically because they have mastered these new skills.

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Look who’s back, back again …

Four weddings, two sinus infections, one graduate class and zero Trans-Siberian concerts later…

It’s fairly ironic – not in an Alanis way – that I started this blog in part as a way to force me to write regularly, yet at the times I most need it such regularity fails me.

As a consequence of my never have adapted a Fall of Becausing schedule, when things get really busy (often with other pay writing, at least), the bloggy ideas just pile up in my head into a verbal crash at the front of my cranium. So I end up not writing them at all — because “oh, there’s no time to flesh that idea out,” and then I pick through the pieces of the accident later to see if anything’s identifiable.

Which is a way of saying I don’t have a specific idea right now (yet will once I step away from the PC), but I do know from old writing tricks that I’ll never get there unless I jot something — anything — down. And the “last post XX weeks ago” was staring at me accusingly like the priest’s “And when was your last confession?” question.

[Note: When a Catholic goes to confession, he — wait! They allow SHE’s to confess, too! — the sinner (we are ALL sinners) is supposed to state, when asked, that “it has been XX days/weeks/months since my last confession.”

This question paralyzed me as a child. It sounded like a test, but I never knew what the standard for confessional regularity was. Two weeks? A month? A school year? Maybe it depends on the number of unforgiven sins you’ve piled up? Is this why I delay oil changes today?

Meanwhile, I was undergoing what may be called “a crisis of faith.” More precisely, the salespeople who were shilling this organized religion thing to me did not, in my estimation, embody the values they preached.

So: Do I answer “how long since your last confession?” based on what the Priest and Guilt-Wielding Authority Figure wants to hear? Or do I answer honestly in the (unlikely) event there exists a God who gives a shit about such details, then suffer the Earthly consequences of disappointing the priest?

Reasoning that something was amiss — God would not choose such rotten ambassadors, would (s)he? — I went for the Earthly ease of telling the priest what he wanted to hear. Plus, “I cursed twice … I lied to my sister … and I took The Lord’s Name in vain.” And voila! My soul was cleared.

It still is…

Blog incontinence

No, I didn’t fall off the face of Planet Home. Yes, I have more funereal and travel stories to tell.

But first I selected the “upgrade” that Sampa is pushing through all of its sites, so at the moment, everything is a bit jumbled as I try to figure out what this upgrade has done, and how to manage things within. (Although I think this change shouldn’t affect the blog — just the rest of the site’s hanging fruit.)

I apologize for the wacky format of things. Do bear with us while we conduct this government-mandated test…

Twice the dog breath

Yikes. A month of abject blog neglect. As I first realized when I worked for a writer in college (who, incidentally, passed away suddenly last week), writing for your main job is nice if that’s your passion. But it’s also tough* in that your passion becomes your job and acquires flavors of tedium.

*”tough” being quite relative, in the Grand Scheme.

Sometimes the act of writing for work makes me too mentally fatigued to do it for fun. I get home with big aspirations that are quickly extinguished by dog-walking, self-feeding, a glass of Irish whiskey, and the day’s Champions League soccer match. Then I get a backlog of thoughts and links (a backblog?) that I never feel are adequately digested.

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“Hey worthless, shouldn’t you be writing? Or else, like, walking us?”

Anyway, one other distraction lately was the act of acquiring and pretending to be able to train a new dog. We found one, a 4- to 5-month old rescue, to be a current companion and future successor to our resident canine, Willa.

If nothing else, the two of them made our recent snowfalls that much more fun. Really, watching a dog frolic in its first snow is probably even more enjoyable than watching a kid do it. With a toddler, there’s often some hesitation or lack of understanding unless they’re old enough to know to covet it. With a dog, it’s like watching Nature’s fun gene switch on right in front of your eyes: “Something is different. I must run in this. It’s written in my blood.”

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Dogs on Canvas, black and white

The rescue is part Newfoundland (those big, black literally human-rescue dogs with webbed paws for swimming), part we-don’t-know-what. Presumably the we-don’t-know part is why she was left behind: The first night, when we finally plopped ourselves down to bed after careful introductions and exhaustive bladder monitoring, she predictably started to whine from separation anxiety. After warming up with a range of barks, she went into a distinctive, mournful howl. In the dark of the bedroom, I could feel our eyes open in unison: dammit, she’s part hound dog.

The way she reacts to the sight of squirrels, rabbits and any other independently mobile body as if she’s just done a line of canine coke, supports our suspicions about her other breed. She’s hyper, inquisitive, bolder than Willa, and she’s wearing us out at the moment.

After four months in a vet’s rescue shelter — and perhaps because she’s part hound, which are supposedly resistant to housebreaking — she is not adequately turned off by crapping where she sleeps. Nor by dancing in it. We call her Shitpaws.

But please, it’s “Wanda” in formal settings … we toyed with more author names like Harper and Flannery (and Willa Who Is Called Simon), but none fit her rambunctiousness. Ww-w-w-wanda, as in A Fish Called, and “To Wanda!” as in Fried Green Tomatoes, sounded just right.

At least Willa and Shitpaws, er, Wanda are getting along fine now after a rocky introduction. And we humans, we’re wondering what the hell we’ve done. Which, I believe, is a common human response once the “I’ve got an idea” gene has been expressed.

A word about our sponsor

I don’t know that I’ve ever raved here about Sampa, the service upon which this blog/site rests. But my praise is long overdue, particularly since it’s a very useful startup, and it’s free. (Bonus: it’s founder is Brazilian, the culture I should thank for truly putting the “beauty” in the Beautiful Game.)

In a word, Sampa is fantastic. Frankly, I underuse it: There are so many more services/options Sampa provides that I should or could use but haven’t had the time or inkling to do. They’re constantly adding more options, and the customer help is friendly, immediate and thorough — although the service itself is so smooth, I’ve rarely had occasion to need it. Though I don’t take advantage of many of the features, they are all very simple to use, and there are several design options (not to mention language options, including Arabic and Chinese!), and the menus/navigation are customizable to your liking.

You can set it up to be a virtual personal network, with multiple password-protected creator/authors, users and pages — and no one bugging you to be your “friend” unless they really are such. So you could set up an on-going interactive site for just your family members and/or friend groups, or your family minus black sheep, plus a “family tree” … or create different areas of your site accessible only to specific groups of people.

It easily integrates many “you” services: photos through Flickr or Twango, or your videos from YouTube, or your blogs from Blogger. Not to mention multiple personal profiles/pages/sections, photo albums just for the site (although photo storage is understandably memory-limited, but that’s what the photo-sharing site integrators are for). A grandma could easily use it, creating a shrine to herself or her offspring.

I first found it when I was looking for a quick-and-easy site to host float trip photos and stories to stir banter among the floatees. One I could launch immediately, without messing with code. That led to a folder for game recaps to spur banter among my hockey team, and of course to the use of the blog, which is what I have primarily used Sampa for.

Basically, if you want any of these options, or you want anything more than a blog but you’re not sure how to go about it, there’s plenty available with Sampa.