Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Fresh eyes: what can journalists learn from a web coder?

Posted in Fresh eyes series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 2, 2010

What happens when you ask a film maker or a musician about the future of journalism? What skills can the next generation journalist learn from a branding expert? As part of Fresh Eyes experts in non-journalism fields cast their eye over the digital revolution and offer their wisdom.

Michelle Minkoff, journalist and web coder

Studying at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, Michelle is on a mission to see how data and technology can come together to help the public. She has recently programmed her first app on Django; on her blog she unravels the mysteries of Computer Assisted Reporting and Data Visualisation, two of the most under valued parts of next-generation journalism. You can check out her portfolio here. Michelle’s ‘data-driven philosophy’ spells out what she’s all about.

Data & journalism: reporting, presenting and collaborating

Photo: Stewf on Flickr

As journalists, we spend our lives pursuing “the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media,” how Merriam-Webster defines journalism.

Another way to put that is “the collection of information that matters.” While there are many concerns about the changing nature of journalism, the Web helps us spread these collections faster than ever, and in more robust and interesting ways.
I’m about to complete my graduate work from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and I consider all the information we collect a form of data. I call myself a data journalist.

That’s not because I work with numbers a lot (although I do), but because I see the field as the craft of telling stories by organizing information in interesting ways.

Three facets to data journalism

I propose that there are three facets to more thoroughly integrating data journalism: via reporting, presentation and collaboration. Here are some tips on how we might be able to head in the right direction.


  • When working our beats, just as we are taught to end each interview asking “Is there anyone else you know of that I should speak with? we should be asking the same of interesting data sources we should “interview.” Who knows if a city clerk will tell you about some report everyone else has overlooked, or a secretary can point you to a section of a Web site you haven’t yet seen?
  • Once you get a set of numbers, even from a press release, question whether you should take them at face value. We corroborate people’s quotes, we should corroborate numbers. That means double check their accuracy when possible, but also juxtapose data with per capita values, when appropriate. Sure, one college may graduate the most people, but it may actually be a much lower percentage than a smaller school graduating half as many, but 98 percent of their total class. I would argue omitting such information is tantamount to a fact error.
  • Compare past to present. Finding information across multiple years can often help you find a whole new story angle. Numbers usually go up or down, have some peaks and valleys. That trend probably isn’t your story in itself, but it can give you avenues for exploration.
  • Integrate data into your workflow. Don’t think of a certain group of reporters, or a certain beat, as being good for data. The New York Times’ Derek Willis put it this way on Twitter:”All news could benefit from knowing/considering CAR [computer-assisted reporting], but not all stories demand it be part of the end product.”
  • Use visualizations to help you understand information. Looking at millions of spreadsheet cells can be tiring. Using pictures of the data for analysis uses a different part of your brain, and can help you “get” the information. If you’re comfortable making the data public, try uploading the data and examining it with Many Eyes in your browser. Or, if you prefer, keep the data on your computer, and try out the newly-released Tableau Public.


Now you have your story that incorporates data — whether it’s a statistic you’ve integrated into a breaking news brief or a year-long investigation with millions of records. Either way, you can make that information comprehensible to the public in a variety of pretty simple ways.

  • Remember that ManyEyes visualization you made in the last step? Embed it on your news site, and now users can play with it.
  • Use the Google Visualization API to make quick interactive graphs of all sorts. This uses Javascript, just put the appropriate code in the <head> and <body> sections of your HTML file. Not a coder? It can be as simple as copying and pasting the code Google provides (here’s one for a bar chart), and adjusting the data points. With this technology, tooltips that display the exact values of each node are generated automatically. If it works with your content management system, this is a technology that makes Web 2.0 almost simpler than generating an Excel graph.
  • If you have Web developers working at your newsroom, try to include them early on in the project planning process. Programming and journalism have a lot in common in that they require creativity, and attract people drawn to the pursuit of knowledge. Bringing both perspectives to brainstorming sessions will result in better projects. Web applications don’t have ledes or nut grafs, literally, but they give the user a starting point and the flexibility to pursue the story that matters most to him or her.
  • Encourage your audience to connect with your news organization. Present information in a visualization or a table, and make yourself available for users to present questions they have. Then, we serve the democratic function of a free press, improve community relations, and you’ve got some new story ideas! Involve your community and those with different backgrounds may see patterns you hadn’t considered.


  • Every fact you take in is a piece of data. But after your story, where does it go? What happens after you leave your news organization? How does the community maintain its connection to that information? It’s a valuable source, and cries out to be maintained.
  • If you’re willing to go public with your info, try creating a wiki at to collaborate with your colleagues. Also, community members can benefit from your information, and contribute to it, thus enhancing your repository of sources and information.
  • Prefer to keep the facts internal? Create a series of folders on your local network with folders for different beats.
  • Use a table or spreadsheet structure to label all the people you talk to, with information in separate cells: first name, last name, sure, but also cities lived in, occupations held, as much divisible information as you can find. Then, when anyone in the newsroom needs to talk to someone at x company, that source you used for a different story might be able to help you, or find someone who can.

How are you using data in your newsroom now? What obstacles are there to making it a more central concern? I’d love to hear your questions, thoughts, comments and suggestions — let’s chat in the comments, or you can find me at

Tomorrow: what can journalists learn from marketing and branding gurus?