Local news outlets are joining the data journalism bandwagon

Available resources don't always match the desire to analyze regional issues

A few years ago, Gene Balk noticed that numbers and statistics were increasingly becoming more available and compelling as a central subject in news stories.

“Data journalism has been getting more popular, and I noticed that there’s so much data that’s local that we weren’t using,” said Balk, a news librarian at The Seattle Times since 2002.

With the backing of the newspaper’s management, he started the FYI Guy blog two years ago, where he posts occasional stories that explain Seattle and Washington state through numbers.

Data has always played a role in local journalism, including on investigative desks and in computer-assisted reporting. But with the rise of data journalism an increasingly influential and prominent subset of journalism, some regional news sites have developed local versions of FiveThirtyEight, exploring local issues through numbers, sometimes in a written story but often as some sort of graphical visualization.

The Tennessean, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, and The Denver Post are just some newspapers whose websites have a landing page that compile the data behind some big projects. For the past two months, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer’s Data Central has offered a mix of databases for readers to sift through as well as data analysis, such as comparing various taxes in the metropolitan area to other places.

On Balk’s blog, stories about Seattle being the fastest-growing big city in the nation or having a high rate of anti-LGBT crimes proved to be ones that prompted a great deal of response, he said.

The Hartford Courant recently revived its data desk, which between 2008 and 2009 focused on data related to topics such as sports and restaurant inspections, according to its then-editor Stephen Busemeyer. In 2009, Busemeyer was called to head the newspaper’s breaking news team.

“We recognized back then that it made sense journalistically to dedicate someone to quantitative analysis of life around us,” said Busemeyer, who is data editor once again. “Being able to look at their lives through the lens of data is illuminating,”

The new Courant data desk takes advantage of the fact that data is far more available than back in 2009. There are also more user-friendly software options available that put data analysis on Microsoft Excel to shame.

The result been an online home for both good journalism and a traffic generator for the newspaper’s website. Data visualizations such as those that help folks from Connecticut brag that they drive better than Massachusetts residents have become key.

Data journalism became a priority at their newspapers because of the passion of journalists in-house and support from management, both Balk and Busemeyer said. But while support and passion can help create a data desk, resources continue to be a limitation. FiveThirtyEight’s masthead has 20 names. The number of people working on The New York Times’ Upshot is in the dozens. At the Hartford Courant, there’s officially just one person working on the data desk. Balk said a recent hire in the graphics department at The Seattle Times has made his work, both online and for print, easier.

“I hope to see the data desk grow over the years,” Busemeyer said. “I can do more with more people.”

Busemeyer said a bigger staff would make it easier for the desk to produce daily data journalism-based content while also pursuing big projects, like one he is currently working on involving sexual violence in Connecticut.

Ken Doctor of Nieman Journalism Lab recently explored this divide in resources between the big news outlets and the local ones. About local newspapers losing the institutional knowledge from cutbacks, Doctor writes: “They are connecting fewer dots, rather than more, even as our sense that readers want more is growing. At a local news level, less and less is explained to us.”

Local data desks may help fill this void. The Courant has held workshops to help the broader staff get acquainted data analysis and visualizations, Busemeyer said. Perhaps more telling is that the ability to work with data—not just in parsing numbers from things like government documents, but displaying them as well—is increasingly becoming an important factor in hiring at Connecticut’s largest paper too.

“Young reporters who are looking for their first jobs will need to make data vizzes on the spot,” Busemeyer said. “This kind of analysis is going to be absolutely crucial going forward.”

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Tanveer Ali is a Chicago-based journalist who is DNAinfo.com Chicago's data reporter and social media producer. He has reported for the Chicago News Cooperative, WBEZ, and GOOD Magazine, among others. A former staff writer at the Detroit News, he received a master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism. Tags: ,