I’m heading to Marist College this weekend to speak at a conference hosted by the New York State Associated Press Association. It’s a gathering of reporters from across the state, and I’ve been asked to talk about digging for stories in Census data. It’s a timely subject, with the first wave of 2010 Census data for New York scheduled for release just two days before the event.
Census data can be overwhelming, and one of my goals will to be give the audience a sampling of the types of data that’s available. I’ll give them a couple of dozen solid ideas for stories that they can localize and report. But I’m also going to take the opportunity to evangelize for data visualization and database journalism. The last thing the Internet needs is more data, and I want to give folks some ideas for how they can present data without resorting to mind numbing data tables, and how they can tell stories that move beyond a recitation of figures in several paragraphs of text. A copy of my presentation is available on my resources page, where I also offer links to tools and tutorials for working with databases, data visualization, and for working with census data.
My pitch will be something like this…
There are a lot of movies about what it’s like being a reporter. My favorite is “All the President’s Men,” a film which addresses big themes like corruption, power, challenging authority, and seeking the truth. But at its heart, it is a story of a young reporter sent to cover a barely newsworthy court case that he transformed into a big story, one that toppled a presidency and changed journalism.
The journalistic tools that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used to pursue their story were pretty simple: working the phones, making connections, pounding the pavement, and developing sources.
Those are still important skills for a reporter today, but you need to do more. The spread of the Web has helped make massive amounts of public data accessible, and you have to know how to tap into those resources. Journalists can’t just be a conduit of information, they need to be able to provide analysis and context. They need to be able to create data mashups, maps, and interactives… to deliver content that isn’t just articles.
Computer Assisted Reporting or Database Journalism was once considered a specialty within our field, but today those skills are essential for all reporters. While newspaper business models have struggled, journalism has been in a state of huge transformation – equal to the transformative impact of Woodward and Bernstein, and those of us who have those skills will be the ones that survive.