When Open Government And Big Data Collide

Big Data

Big Data
Not long ago, journalists who sought to dive deep into government data usually started their investigation with a trip to the local library. Interested in information that government officials want to keep secret? Americans needed to pass laws to make publicly owned data public.

Two forces have combined to blow the doors open on government data: technology and the fast-growing amount of information it collects, generates, and disseminates.  (The Obama administration has helped.) Data that might have once been combed through by hand is increasingly being combined into public databases and journalists, researchers and even businesspeople are making use of it.

Here’s our guide to getting the most out of this age of transparency.

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How one freelancer jumped from anonymity to The New York Times

Gaby Dunn

nyt2In 2010, when Gaby Dunn (@GabyDunn on Twitter) moved to New York, she had big ambitions but few contacts in the journalism business. So the Emerson College grad created the 100 Interviews Project, a Tumblr blog in which she interviewed 100 people she knew existed but had never met before over the course of a year. She interviewed a sex therapist, a rocket scientistsomeone who was left at the altar, and many others.

The project caught the attention of industry pros including best-selling author A.J. Jacobs and a New York Times editor, landing Dunn a book agent and plum freelance assignments. Ebyline recently caught up with this up-and-comer to find out she why embarked on a year-long interview blitz, how she built her platform from scratch, and what’s she been up to since. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

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Investigative reporting at the LA Times: 3 tips from the pros

Eye glass

LATimesPanelThe task of reporting an investigative story for the Los Angeles Times may have its share of adrenalin-rush ‘detective’ moments – going under cover in a coffee shop to watch a corrupt doctor prescribe narcotics to his patients; kayaking to the back of a man’s house to get his side of the story; even tracking down a Boy Scout pedophile to a rural truck stop in Canada – but the bulk of the work usually takes place in front of a computer, scrubbing public records and databases.

That’s what LA Times’ reporters Jason Felch, Lisa Girion, and Scott Glover described at a panel on accountability journalism at the Los Angeles Times 2013 Festival of Books in downtown L.A. Moderated by the Times’ self-declared “chief cheerleader,” editor Davan Maharaj, the panel also included insight from California investigative editor Julie Marquis. Here’s a look at some of the main points the panel made about watchdog journalism:

Gathering and curating data is key (and time-consuming).

With a team of only 3 full-time investigative reporters, Marquis has overseen the production of numerous high-profile investigations in recent years, including coverage of the Boy Scout “perversion files,” which examined 1,900 files documenting sexual abuse cases kept by the Boy Scouts of America from 1947 through 2005.

For the Scouts investigation, reporters Jason Felch and Kim Christensen spent the better part of a year combing through confidential files and building a publicly accessible database of abuse cases. Many of those cases had never been reported to the police – or even to the victims’ own family decades later. The result was not only a series of eye-opening reports about the lack of background checks required for the Boy Scouts organization, but the most comprehensive published database of these records.

Investigating a story about a prescription drug epidemic in Southern California, Lisa Girion and reporter Scott Glover spent two years building and cleaning up a database with over 9,000 lines of drug data that needed to be translated into hydrocodone components. Much of their two years of research was spent adding data pulled from death reports to a massive excel spreadsheet. The resulting database revealed patterns and painted a clearer picture of who was dying from prescription drugs, and from where those drugs were coming.

“No one had quantified the role that physicians play,” said Girion. “That’s what we wanted to do.”

Never assume a subject won’t talk for a story.

During the Festival of Books discussion, Felch described how he collaborated on part of his Scout story with reporters in Canada, and eventually managed to track one convicted child molester, who had served as a scout leader and then gone underground, to a rural motel in Canada.

To his surprise, the man in question agreed to speak when confronted, and fully admitted to molesting boys in California and Canada. Their interview lasted for three hours.

“I was out of questions after two and a half hours,” said Felch. “I was exhausted and disgusted but he just wanted to keep talking.”

Girion wasn’t surprised by that fact.

“I find that remarkably common among pedophiles,” she said.

For her part, Girion has a knack for getting suspects of her investigative reports to open up. Her tactic? Explain to subjects that this is their opportunity to air their side of the story; the subject is the only one who can explain what went on from his/her perspective.

While reporting on the prescription drug epidemic, Girion admitted to staking out a doctor who refused to talk by waiting outside of his office for hours. When that didn’t work she and her team kayaked to the back of his house. Ultimately she got him to talk.

Finally, have a great editor.

Girion and Glover ultimately published only 15% of what they know about prescription drug related deaths in Southern California. They said they hope they reported the best, most interesting 15% of the story, but it took a team and a keen editor to help them choose what to ultimately publish.

Currently up for sale by the Tribune Co., the LA Times is facing almost assured cuts over the next few years, and Marquis says she has to fight to keep her small team of reporters focused on their big stories so they don’t get pulled into the newsroom for daily coverage.

For all of the good that watchdog journalists do with their investigative reports – prompting the enactment of new laws, taking down corrupt officials and institutions, even freeing those wrongly accused from death row – their numbers are dwindling. If there were ever a time for legacy publications to keep innovating to find ways to bring home both Pulitzers and the buck, that time is now.

Featured image by Florence Ivy via a creative commons license. Panel Photo by Sarah Erickson.

Star-Trib’s Laurie Hertzel at #BUNarrative: “Write with a camera angle”


Laurie Hertze

While many sessions at the Power of Narrative Conference in Boston last week discussed abstract ideas about storytelling and voice, Laurie Hertzel’s session called Narrative Glue gave attendees six you-can-actually-do-this tips for crafting better narratives. “I’m your practical grunt for the day,” quipped Hertzel, who is the books editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Here’s an overview of her advice.


Write with a camera angle. To make the reader feel like he or she is in the center of a scene’s action, think like a moviemaker, suggested Hertzel. “Aim your camera at what’s important and use different lenses, pan around the room, show a couple of people in motion,” she said. This allows the writer to zoom in one person or action and zoom out as needed to move between actions or people and tell the story in a dynamic way.

Use both scene and summary. Technical writers are told to “show, don’t tell” (perhaps because they do too much of the latter) but Hertzel said it’s necessary to do both, showing through scenes and telling through summary. “Scene are used when you want to put readers in the moment,” she explained. “Summaries cover spans of time and stitch scenes together.” Summaries also give readers information they need to know but don’t need to actually see.

Use telling details and metaphor. Scenes should unfold moment by moment but the journalist needs to carefully choose which details to include. In the opening of a Star Tribue article about a troubled teen, reporter Larry Oakes includes the fact that the teen’s dog is unnamed, which serves as a telling detail. With each scene, Hertzel said journalists should ask themselves, “Why am I telling this scene? Who are the main characters? What happens and why is it important?” She added that description should fold into action so it becomes part of the movement of the scene, like in a New York Times story about two elderly sisters begging on the streets of Brooklyn.

Vary your pace. “You don’t want all scenes to move at the same steady pace,” said Hertzel. Shorter sentences and a clipped pace creates urgency and drama in a scene with a lot of action, for instance, while longer, more detailed sentences create a slower pace and allow the reader more time to process.

Move forward and backward in time. As long as it doesn’t confuse the reader, Hertzel said, it’s perfectly fine to move forward and backward in time. A New York Times piece about a mother forced to choose between throwing her baby to a stranger below or losing her in a fire moves between descriptions of the stranger’s high school football career, him racing outside to the fire and the scene of the fire itself. The central question of the piece—what does the mother do?—isn’t resolved until the very end of the piece.

Know where to end your scene. In transitioning between scene and summary, Hertzel recommended pivoting away from the scene during a powerful moment to keep the reader interested and keeping the summary short enough that it doesn’t frustrate the reader. A New York Times article about the stresses of working as an air traffic controller skips ahead to summary at several climactic moments. Scenes that drag on for too long can bore a reader. “You want the reader to keep moving into end of scene,” said Hertzel.


Avoiding ‘story killers,’ finding genius moves with NYT’s O’Leary at #BUNarrative


Amy OLearyAs online publishers chase clicks, some rely on gimmicks to boost traffic, while others use more innovative formats. During a standing room-only breakout session on Friday afternoon at the Power of Narrative Conference in Boston, New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary explored these boundaries.

In Genius Moves, Cheap Tricks and Story Killers: An overview of some of the latest techniques, approaches and strategies, O’Leary shared examples and solicited audience reactions to several others. Publishers are “trying to figure out how to monetize journalism,” she told attendees. “It’s a scary landscape with a lot of unknowns and people are trying a lot of things, which is exciting.”

Here’s a look at the stories and strategies O’Leary shared.

Story killers: Clichés are a common story killer, said O’Leary, citing tear-jerking backstories about Olympians who’d lost close family members and wind chimes as the opening image in a video as all-too-common tropes. “That sad music comes up, there’s a sad person sitting on the couch,” she said of the latter.

Another potential story killer is what O’Leary calls “death by a thousand choices,” where the reader can choose to navigate through a multimedia package by clicking on different images without any guidance on where they should go next. “Anytime you’re giving people the option to click on [different multimedia elements] you’re telling them it’s not totally essential,” she said. “When you don’t interweave in a tighter way, multimedia becomes a distraction.” Digressions can add interesting layers to a story, but interrupts distract the reader.

Cheap tricks: For O’Leary, infographics, listicles and headlines that pose a question or use a superlative often fall into the category of cheap tricks that can be very effective—or fall flat—depending on their execution. By appealing to the “lizard brain,” sites like Buzzfeed attract thousands of clicks from listicles that “you probably clicked on even if you didn’t want to,” she said.

A better appeal, she continued, is to the curious brain where the writer builds a narrative question into the front of the piece to pique the reader’s interest. Of Slate’s top 10 stories of 2012, four of them used a headline in the form of a question. Content mills also use the question format to generate traffic, so it’s important that the article actually answers the question instead of filling the reader with empty hope and, ultimately, frustration. The current craze for infographics, animated GIFs and graphic narrative (O’Leary mentioned Symboliamag.com as a cool example of drawing readers into a story) appear to the visual brain, but not all infographics are well executed, especially if they lack a clear narrative. “You can find infographic hell on Pinterest,” quipped O’Leary.

Genius moves: The single factor that all mind-blowing multimedia work shares is the element of surprise. “The beautiful thing about surprise is it can happen on so many levels,” said O’Leary. Stories can use unique visuals or format to surprise and delight readers. O’Leary pointed to “Glitter in the Dark,” a Pitchfork profile on Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Two New York Times digital stories from 2012 also fit this category: “Just One More Game …” a piece about the addictiveness of gaming that used an interactive visual to mimic its subject and “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” a multimedia piece that incorporated video, flyover graphical illustrations, slideshows and a written account of the avalanche.

“Snow Fall” was heralded in many journalism circles as a major achievement of online storytelling, but O’Leary revealed that some of the reporters who worked on Snow Fall felt the multimedia could have been even more tightly integrated into the narrative. Two more examples, Whitney Jone’s “First Love and 27 Other Firsts” and “Alma,” a web documentary about a Guatemalan woman in a gang, sparked debate among attendees over the fine line between gimmick and genius. “The best stuff is always when people haven’t seen it before,” said O’Leary. “Our new CEO says ‘The next Snow Fall will look nothing like Snow Fall.’”