journalism

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Data Journalism is improving — fast

 

by Frederic Filloux 

The last Data Journalism Awards announced last week at the Global Editors Network News Summit in Paris established one important fact: The genre is getting better, wider in scope and gaining many creative players.

Data Journalism is thriving. This the most salient conclusion from the second edition of the DJ Awards organized by the Global Editors Network and sponsored by Google. I was part of a 20 persons jury, chaired by Paul Steiger, founder of Pro Publica. We had to choose among a short list of 72 projects divided into seven categories: data-driven storytelling, investigation, applications (all three for large and small media), and data-journalism section or website.

Here are some quick personal findings.

#1: Data-journalism is a powerful storytelling tool. The Guardian won the Storytelling Big Media category, with this compelling graphic showing the situation of gay rights for each state of the US. It did so by analyzing a range of stats and administrative rules or laws such as hospital visits, adoption, schools or housing. (In half of US states, gays have no clearly stated rights). On that matter, no story could have spoken more loudly.

gay_rights_guardian

In a different way, Thomson Reuters collected another prize for its amazing Connecting China project that looks like a visual LinkedIn for the PRC elite. It’s a huge, 18 months endeavor, built on more than 30,000 connections between Chinese power players.

china

#2: Data-journalism extends well beyond the usual economical/social topics. One DJA 2013 laureate displayed the explanatory power of good data-journalism. The French site Quoi? explored aspects of the art market. In its Art Market for Dummies (available both in French and in English), Quoi? explains who are the most bankable artists (since 2008, it’s Picasso, Warhol, Zhang Da Qian); it also shows why it is a terribly dead-male-dominated business; and it illustrates the rise of Chinese artists. It’s both entertaining and information-rich.

art_market2

Another French company, WeDoData collected an award for a great app showing the (terrible) state of female/male parity in France, in a smart, user-friendly package commissioned by France Television.

pariteur

Another great example of clever data journalism expanding to society issues is the Great British Class Calculator presented by the BBC (it won the Data-driven apps category). The project started with a survey of 161,000 persons, conducted with several universities. This helped define seven social classes ranging from the Elite, to Precarious Proleteriat, or more imaginative New Affluent workers or Technical Middle Class.

class_calculator

#3: Tools can be surprisingly simple. In many instances, data-collection and analysis are performed using relatively simple tools such as large Excel or Google Docs spreadsheets (the latter being excellent at scraping data repositories — just google the terms to find tons of resources on how to use those. The Argentina newspaper La Nación, winner of the Data-driven Investigations Big Media category, explained in its DJA filings how it retrieved 33,000 records showing the expenses of senate members by using sets of Excel macro commands.

la_nacion_ar

For its Art Market for Dummies project, the French multimedia journalist Jean Abbiateci explained how he scraped the ArtPrice database (links are mine):

For scraping data, I used Outwit, a amazing Firefox Add-on. This is very useful to convert a pdf file to an Excel file. I used Google to refine, to clean and merge my dataset. I used the Google API Currency Converter for my uniform monetary values. Finally, I used D3.js and Hichcharts.js. I also reused open source code shared by Minnpost and a software developer called Jim Vallandingham.

The projects mentioned above are just examples. A visit to the GEN Data Journalism section is well worth your time. For once, the digital news sector has fostered a healthy, creative segment, one that relies a lot on small agile companies. I find that quite encouraging.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Need for a Digital “New Journalism”

 

The survival of quality news calls for a new approach to writing and reporting. Inspiration could come from blogging and magazine storytelling and also bring back memories of the 70’s New Journalism movement. 

News reporting is aging badly. Legacy newsrooms style books look stuck in a last Century formalism (I was tempted to write “formalin“). Take a newspaper, print or online. When it comes news reporting, you see the same old structure dating back to the Fifties or even earlier. For the reporter, there is the same (affected) posture of effacing his/her personality behind facts, and a stiff structure based on a string of carefully arranged paragraphs, color elements, quotes, etc.

I hate useless quotes. Most often, for journalists, such quotes are the equivalent of the time-card hourly workers have to punch. To their editor, the message is ‘Hey, I did my my job; I called x, y, z’ ; and to the  the reader, ‘Look, I’m humbly putting my personality, my point of view behind facts as stated by these people’ — people picked by him/herself, which is the primary (and unavoidable) way to twist a story. The result becomes borderline ridiculous when, after a lengthy exposé in the reporter’s voice to compress the sources’ convoluted thoughts, the line of reasoning concludes with a critical validation such as :

“Only time will tell”, said John Smith, director of the social studies at the University of Kalamazoo, consultant for the Rand Corporation, and author of “The Cognitive Deficit of Hyperactive Chimpanzees”. 

I’m barely making this up. Each time I open a carbon-based newspaper (or read its online version), I’m stuck by how old-fashioned news writing remains. Unbeknownst to the masthead (i.e. editorial top decision-makers) of legacy media, things have changed. Readers no longer demand validating quotes that weigh the narrative down. They want to be taken from A to B, with the best possible arguments, and no distraction or wasted time.

Several factors dictate an urgent evolution in the way newspapers are written.

1/ Readers’ Time Budget. People are deluged with things to read. It begins at 7:00 in the morning and ends up late into the night. The combination of professional contents (mail, reports, PowerPoint presentations) and social networking feeds, have put traditional and value-added contents (news, books) under great pressure. Multiple devices and the variable level of attention that each of them entails create more complications: a publishing house can’t provide the same content for a smartphone screen to be read in a cramped subway as for a tablet used in lean-back mode at home. More than ever, the publisher is expected to clearly arbitrate between the content that is to be provided in a concise form and the one that justifies a long, elaborate narrative. The same applies to linking and multi-layer constructs: reading a story that opens several browser tabs on a 22-inch screen is pleasant — and completely irrelevant for quick lunchtime mobile reading.

2/ Trust factor / The contract with the Brand. When I pick a version of The New York Times, The Guardian, or a major French newspaper, this act materializes my trust (and hope) in the professionalism associated with the brand. In a more granular way, it works the same for the writer. Some are notoriously sloppy, biased, or agenda-driven; others are so good than they became a brand by themselves. My point: When I read a byline I trust, I assume the reporter has performed the required legwork — that is collecting five or ten times the amount of information s/he will use in the end product. I don’t need the reporting to be proven or validated by an editing construct that harks back to the previous century. Quotes will be used only for the relevant opinion of a source, or to make a salient point, not as a feeble attempt to prove professionalism or fairness.

3 / Competition from the inside. Strangely enough, newspapers have created their own gauge to measure their obsolescence. By encouraging their writing staff to blog, they unleashed new, more personal, more… modern writing practices. Fact is, many journalists became more interesting on their own blogs than in their dedicated newspaper or magazine sections. Again, this trend evaded many editors and publishers who consider blogging to be a secondary genre, one that can be put outside a paywall, for instance. (This results in a double whammy: not only doesn’t the paper cash on blogs, but it also frustrates paid-for subscribers).

4/ The influence of magazine writing. Much better than newspapers, magazines have always done a good job capturing readers’ preferences. They’ve have always been ahead in market research, graphic design, concept and writing evolution. (This observations also applies to the weekend magazines operated by large dailies). As an example, magazine writers have been quick to adopt first person accounts that rejuvenated journalism and allowed powerful narrative. In many newspapers, authors and their editors still resists this.

Digital media needs to invent its own journalistic genres. (Note the plural, dictated by the multiplicity of usages and vectors). The web and its mobile offspring, are calling for their own New Journalism comparable to the one that blossomed in the Seventies. While the blogosphere has yet to find its Tom Wolfe, the newspaper industry still has a critical role to play: It could be at the forefront of this essential evolution in journalism. Failure to do so will only accelerate its decline.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Politico’s Way

To cover American politics, Politico deploys an editorial staff of 150. This is more than any news organization in the United States for the same beat. It all started five years ago: a niche website launched by three seasoned political reporters who sharpened their claws in mainstream medias. As envisioned by John Harris, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, Politico was to start with a kernel of 12 hardcore political reporters who would aggressively run after all the balls.

Four years later, as a new presidential campaign gears up, Politico owns the news cycle, from 4:30am to midnight, on all vectors: web, mobile, television and… print. And it does so in rapid-fire mode.

Last week, I chatted with Bill Nichols, Politico’s managing editor. Before Politico, he spent 24 years at USA Today. There, among the many items on his impressive résumé, he covered six presidential campaigns as well as the State Department. Bill was in Paris to deliver the inaugural lecture at the Journalism School of Sciences-Po where I happen to have a gig (highlight of the lecture summed up in French on Slate.fr). His talk provided the students with a great start for their year; they were listening to a fifty-plus journalist who didn’t hesitate to leave the comfort of a great newspaper to jump into the unknown. Even in 2007, going after the Washington media establishment with a website was quite a bold move. Today, Nichols is obviously having a lot of fun — which is the best message to convey to a crowd of aspiring journalists.

The lessons to draw from Politico’s success are connected journalistic and business ones.

Politico has literally sliced and diced the news cycle with an array of dedicated products fitting all possible subjects, reading time and formats. Anyone serious in politics or government affairs will begin his day with a peek at the mobile version of the Politico Playbook. Described as ” Must-read briefing on what’s driving the day in Washington”, it is written by Mike Allen, the chief White House correspondent. The site features eight other “tip sheets”:

  • Huddle A play-by-play preview of the day’s congressional news
  • Pulse The latest in health care policy every weekday morning
  • Morning Money Political intelligence on the intersection of D.C. and Wall Street
  • Morning Score A pre-dawn guide to the permanent campaign
  • Morning Tech Daily download of technology news from D.C. and Silicon Valley
  • Morning Defense A daily briefing from inside D.C.’s national security apparatus
  • Morning Energy The one-stop source for energy and environment news
  • Influence Intelligence and analysis on lobbying

The idea is to hook the reader on the day’s “must-follow” items. Then, developing stories will be made available in all possible forms: stream of stories as the news dictate, a great deal of support through countless TV appearances (Politico maintains its own studio linked to all networks and all reporters are required to promote their work). Many times a day, breaking news, alerts, warnings are pushed on mobile. Then, to maximize the impact, top stories will be re-edited to feed the eponymous daily. It is published five days a week, only when congress in in session, and its 34,000 (free) copies are distributed at various strategic spots in DC.

Then, the Politico tone. As Bill Nichols acknowledges, Politico’s pitch is slightly more tabloidish than mainstream media. It doesn’t pontificate, nor does it endlessly circle around a subject. It reflects internal newsroom discussions and the talk of the town. A few days ago, recounts Nichols, the editorial staff was discussing Republican Texas governor Rick Perry’s intellectual ability to run for the presidency; instead of going for a convoluted story loaded with nuances, Politico went straight with this headline: Is Rick Perry Dumb? This treatment was later supplemented by an informative 1600 words piece about Perry’s 2010 book “Fed Up!”, itself a great gift to his opponents. (To nail it, Politico published a Nine questions for Perry article listing subjects the candidate will have hard time eluding.)

That’s Politico’s way: aggressive, relentless, fun, witty, but also dedicated to providing in-depth, well-reported journalism. Last year, the New York Observer ran an interesting story on how The Atlantic (great magazine, along with an equally great site) was fighting back Politico on the Washington scene. David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media company, had this comment:

“It was much happier to do what we were doing until Politico arrived in the world. Politico introduced a whole new standard of, I wouldn’t say quality, but I would say velocity and metabolism. I responded way too slowly. (…) They are going to be at the more racy, tabloid end of the spectrum. That seems to be the position they have chosen. I think we’ll be more of the authoritative end.”

To which Jim VandeHei retorted

“People come to us because we break news, we are authoritative and we help readers understand how Washington really works. I think Bradley’s description is clearly motivated by business interests. That said, we take all competitors seriously.”

Business is important as well to Politico and its powerful backer, the Allbritton family. As a privately held company it does not disclose financial data. Even with its large staff of 200 in total, it is said to be profitable thanks to its multi-pronged product strategy:

–The web site had an audience of 4 million unique visitors last July, according to Comscore (it should triple during the 2012 campaign). This is rather small compared behemoth such as the Huffington Post or the NYTimes that are more into the 50 million UVs range. But the value extracted from each visitor is quite high.

— Around half of its revenue is coming from the newspaper which sells high premium ads. Thanks to the geographical concentration of the Washington elite, the paper does not cost too much to distribute and its pagination and printing costs are adjusted to the advertising load.

— Last November, Politico launched “Politico Pro”, an in-depth paid-for service focusing on three critical (and lobbying-intensive) issues: energy, technology and healthcare. The price is $2,500 per month (story in the Columbia Journalism Review). “Pro” relies on several dozens of reporters and editors integrated with the rest of the newsroom.

— Recently, Politico added an event department: get-togethers for the Happy Few with big political names, moderated by staffers. The guests don’t pay, but big sponsors do — happily it seems. Events will be organized not only in Washington but on the campaign trail as well.

— Last June, Politico announced an e-Book venture with Random House. The concept: quick accounts, 20,000 to 30,000 words (80-120 pages), of the 2012 campaign. Produced at little additional cost, promoted by the brand, these could be pure gravy.

Politico’s potential revenue pool is huge. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 13,000 registered lobbyists in Washington spent $3.51 billion (!!) in 2010. This is an affluent market, highly concentrated, both geographically and interests wise.

On the surface, Politico’s method of squeezing money from every slice of its market looks logical and reproducible. But its unique ecosystem makes Politico’s success difficult to replicate elsewhere.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com