Columbia Journalism Review

  • Google Refine: A tool for journalists looking for great stories in data

    Google unveiled a free tool for journalists who are interested in analyzing public data. Google Refine is a “power tool for working with messy data.” It helps import information and clean up data-entry problems that lurk in many government databases.

    Google Refine  A tool for journalists looking for great stories in data   John TedescoIt’s open to everyone but it looks like Google created this tool with an eye on computer-assisted reporting. Google’s introductory video touts “Dollars for Docs,” a data-driven story by ProPublica that showed how drug companies paid doctors to promote their products.

    Analyzing databases is a niche skill in newsrooms. Not all reporters are comfortable doing queries in Microsoft Access or sifting through thousands of computerized records, but those skills can really empower reporters who are trying to make sense of a complicated world. Columbia Journalism Review published a great profile of Daniel Gilbert, a reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier who came across a potential blockbuster of a story about unpaid royalties from mineral rights. But the issue was so complex he didn’t know how to unlock it.

    His editor persuaded the newspaper’s publisher to pay for Gilbert to attend a database boot camp at Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Gilbert learned skills that helped him piece together the gas royalties puzzle. The result: “Underfoot, out of reach“, a series of stories that showed how millions of dollars owed to landowners had been tied up in an “an opaque state-run escrow fund, where it has accumulated with scant oversight for nearly 20 years.” Gilbert won the Pulitzer Prize.

    I haven’t played around with Google Refine yet, but I hope it encourages more journalists to take the plunge into computer-assisted reporting. There are some amazing, data-driven stories to be told out there. We just need more people to tell them.

    (h/t: Jennifer Peebles)

  • Beware the evil media Hamster Wheel

    the media Hamster WheelToday’s must read is a bleak but compelling piece in Columbia Journalism Review by Dean Starkman, who examines how downsized news organizations are churning out mindless, quick-hit stories with little regard for depth and public service journalism. He gives the phenomenon a name: the Hamster Wheel:

    The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no …

    Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic …

    None of this is written down anywhere, but it’s real. The Hamster Wheel, then, is investigations you will never see, good work left undone, public service not performed.

    To some degree, the Hamster Wheel has always plagued news organizations but it’s getting worse. Starkman quantifies the damage — more stories are being cranked out by fewer journalists at the Wall Street Journal, for example, and time-strapped reporters are relying more on public relations spin.

    The scariest part about the Hamster Wheel? It is a structure of our own making — no one is forcing journalists to get on the wheel. But we suffer from a misguided notion that we have no choice.

    (Photo credit: sualk61)

  • ‘A need to investigate the bastards’

    Revenue for nonprofit news organizations
    Budgets of nonprofit news organizations
    Columbia Journalism review posted an interesting feature story about nonprofit investigative news organizations, and how they take different approaches to funding and sharing their content. The CJR story opens with a telling anecdote about a meeting at California Watch. At the meeting, the editors agree that one of their reporters, after months of digging, has uncovered a big story:

    But then the conversation veered in a direction unfamiliar to traditional newsrooms. Instead of planning how to get the story published before word of it leaked, the excited editors started throwing out ideas for how they could share Johnson’s reporting with a large array of competitive news outlets across the state and around the country. No one would get a scoop; rather, every outlet would run the story at around the same time, customized to resonate with its audience, be they newspaper subscribers, Web readers, television viewers, or radio listeners. California Watch’s donors—at this point, a handful of high-powered foundations—expect it to publish high-impact investigative journalism about California as widely as possible.

    My favorite line: How journalists are a persistent bunch and continue to push for ways to do watchdog journalism. “I do have a need to investigate the bastards,” said Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity.

    My only quibble with this story is that it has a Texas-sized hole: There’s no mention of the Texas Tribune or Texas Watchdog. Wuh?