Incorporating Data Journalism: Finally a Victory

I’ve written about my mission to get data journalism and visualization into my JOUR 121 course before. Not being a math person myself (yeah, another journalist who has math phobia–blah, blah, blah), I’ve taken a variety of MOOCs and read a lot to try to get myself up to speed.

I’ve struggled for semesters to figure out the right assignment for my students. At first, I was appropriately underambitious, creating a short Excel spreadsheet of fake data for them to play with and write a fake story with. It wasn’t particularly intriguing or edifying. I was just out of the gates.

Next–and by next, I mean probably 5 semesters–came overly ambitious assignments that I composed under the heady inspiration of all that I was learning. The problem? I simply could not help them when they ran into the inevitable problems. That’s what I got for trying to have them scrape, background, clean and interrogate huge data sets and ready it all for a Google Fusion Table intensity map. When things didn’t work, I’d have to water down the assignment.

All good intentions, I assure you, and I am proud of myself for getting ahead of myself on this one–because it was necessary to start.

But I can finally cop to some success. This semester, I ditched the traditional story that I attached to each data assignment. Instead, I had them once again look at Clery Act data, but this time I limited the scope to disciplinary action violations for one year. And I took a page out of Steve Doig’s module in the MOOC, Data Driven Journalism, by providing my own video tutorials and walking them step by step through backgrounding to interrogation, using an older data set. The students interviewed our chief of public safety to help them background the data. I then “quizzed” the students in a way that gave them the opportunity to go through the same process with data from a different year. Finally, the students made Google Fusion Table maps with the schools that had the highest number of disciplinary action violations.  The students also came up with a variety of story ideas based on what the data revealed. They were successful with all of this.

I will take the victory.

Would I ultimately like them to write the stories connected to the data? Yes, of course. But with these beginners, this is enough. For now. And because I have also finally started bringing this necessary training into our other classes, particularly the publication class, the students are beginning to think about real data stories and how to visualize them.

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Google Fusion Tables Fail (But I’ll Keep Trying)

I’ve been trying to learn how to have my students mash up two data sets and map them through Google Fusion Tables. Every tutorial I click on to learn more about Google Fusion Tables tells me how easy this is.

Yeah, no.

OK, let me modify that a bit.  I can get a data set into Google Fusion easily.  On occasions, I’ve even gotten Fusion Tables to locate my data on a map.  But I’ve also run into myriad problems.  And sure, this is to be expected, given that I am such a novice in the world of data-driven journalism.  But Lord knows I’m trying. I subscribe to a number of data-driven journalism feeds, recently took the Knight Center Data-Driven Journalism: The Basics and am signed up for Doing Journalism with Data: First Steps, Skills and Tools.  I’ve viewed dozens of tutorials on YouTube and have experimented multiple times on Fusion.

So, what are the blocks I’ve encountered?

  • Getting two data sets to align in the “merge” option.
  • Once the files have merged, getting the data to show in a way that doesn’t replicate certain columns. (See photo.)
  • And what’s up with the map? (See photo #2.)
Exhibit #1: Problems with merged files

Exhibit #1: Problems with merged files

There’s so many small things that I don’t yet understand and I suspect it’s these small details that are causing me big problems. What I really need to do is to find someone with more expertise than I have with whom to work.

Exhibit #2: Failed attempt to properly map the data

Exhibit #2: Failed attempt to properly map the data

Any suggestions?

Name change or game changer?

What’s in a name?  In reality, quite a lot.  In this age of branding, your name—be it for a product or for a person—is the starting point for your brand.

I’m not sure I understood this when I chose my usernames for the different social media I’m now using with greater regularity.  For example, my username on Twitter is Kaplann, my username for my wiki page is Jourwiki, my Delicious handle is Newsfangled, and my blog is, well, SkylineJour121–that’s a winner.

Turns out, I’m a mess.

When I reflect on this, I can see that part of what it represents is the uncertainty of purpose I had when I was first starting to use social media.  Were these outlets going to be my public and professional face?  Or was I going to play but still try to remain anonymous? Was I promoting myself, my class, my program?  Was I trying to create a brand while still protecting my privacy by opting for the username “Newsfangled” on several accounts?

Truth be told, I didn’t ask myself any of these questions then.  Back then, I was simply jumping in and experimenting.  But what I’ve composed is a brand that’s not very cohesive.  Nor is it a brand that’s search-engine friendly.  When was the last time you did a search for blogs on, say, Journalism 121?

Not that I’m beating myself up here.  This dilemma is a byproduct of trying out new technology, and now that I’ve been at this for a while longer, some things are becoming clearer:

  • Social media is here to stay (duh), so while trying new tools out is great and necessary, assume that your latest experiment will stick.  In other words, from the outset, assume that the new tool will be a part of your branding portfolio and choose your username accordingly.
  • Pseudonyms are cool (I rather like Newsfangled), but you add credibility and “searchability” when you use your real name for those new tools.  And chances are you’ve already made an effort to build your professional reputation.  Why not capitalize on that beyond the office? Or, if you are going to use an alias for your username for brevity (for Twitter, for example), identify yourself in your profile by your real name.
  • Do not equate name continuity across social media with sameness of purpose or content.  Think carefully about how you want to use Facebook vs. Twitter vs. YouTube vs. WordPress, even if all carry your same username.
  • In the end, the tool helps define the purpose, but the name helps define you.

Given this, I’m considering renaming my social media accounts, including this blog.  In the end, will this be merely a name change, or will it be a game changer?  I don’t know yet, but stay tuned!

UPDATE:  I’ve officially changed the name of the blog.  It still feels like a work in progress, but anything was better than the previous name.

Update your style

First, let me say I’m a fan of the AP Stylebook.  And that’s not merely nostalgia on my part, having been educated on AP and “The Elements of Style.”  Despite some people’s criticism, I love how AP is continually updating its entries to reflect modern usage, context and events.  (An example:  The update I received on how to spell “bedbugs” just in time for a trip I was taking that required a hotel stay.) AP style has long tamed the chaos that can result from writers making their own decisions over specific word choices.

But I’m pretty intrigued by Yahoo’s new style guide.  I’m intrigued because it’s interesting to watch as Internet or browser search companies become media companies (witness AOL’s Patch and HuffPost acquisitions and Google’s new Think Quarterly, in addition to Yahoo). I’m intrigued, too, because the guide really does seem to tackle head-on writing for the web.  In addition to mechanics, it offers advice on writing for a world-wide audience, shaping text for a mobile device, and making your site accessible, among many other things.

I suspect it’s not going to replace my AP guide on my bookshelf (or on my smart phone, for that matter).  But it just may earn a place between AP and “The Elements of Style.”

Be Excel-lent

Just as we were beginning our CAR and data-driven reporting unit for the semester–including an introduction to Excel–Poynter published  this:  Learning is a key for success in today’s newsrooms.

I was excited by the timeliness of the post, because it’s not such an easy task convincing writers that they need also to be numbers people.  This article could help me make my case.

And I needed it, because, see, I’m not all that good at math myself.  Or at least that’s what I’ve convinced myself of since I took my last math class back as an undergraduate.  (And that block to math has led me to all sorts of red-in-the-face moments in my classroom when I’m attempting to do simple math like put students into groups by counting off–counting off, for goodness sake!)

So, to persuade my journalism students that data is important and that Excel is a computer skill that can put them ahead of the pack, I need all the help I can get.   That doesn’t mean I’m an expert at Excel.  In fact, one of the things that I’ve realized in learning Excel myself is that, although Excel does the heavy lifting, I don’t always initially understand the math Excel is helping me compute in the first place.

That’s why I’m even more appreciative of those kind souls out there who are trying to throw us writerly mathophobes a lifeline:

Audio Done Better

As you edit your audio clips, you may find yourself frustrated with the background noise interference. Or perhaps as much as you thought you were being silent during and right after your subject’s responses, you actually were humming a pretty frequent “mhmmm.” It takes practice. One useful guide to recording audio, Producing Audio 101:
A Quick and Dirty Guide to Recording Your Story
, makes a particularly apt suggestion: Choose an interesting place to interview your subject, most often the place where they do the interesting things for which you are interviewing them in the first place. Whereas a coffee shop or cafe interview may have been great when you were writing your print story alone, those kind of locales are now going to cause you a) some editing grief, and b) disjointed ambient sound. But picture interviewing the music teacher at the studio, and you’ve got some great natural sound!

Charting a New Way of Writing for the Web

As we’ve been talking about, writing for the Web involves writing concisely, yet very conversationally. What if that conciseness is taken to the next level? What if information is posted in very digestable, visually driven pieces? For example, look at charticles. Journalists talk a lot about telling stories–what, if anything, is lost if information is expressed through charticles instead of narrative? Read this article on charticles and see what you think. Post at least one comment here and another comment based on one of your classmates’ comments.

Using WebNG

Update:  Okay, clearly what I wrote below puts the horse before the cart.  Let me try again.  To add multimedia to our class site, we’ll be housing our files at our own WebNG personal accounts.  Then, log into your WordPress account, go to “dashboard” on the left-hand side, and click on “my blogs.”  Once there, you should see our class blog listed.  See if you can use your “page” on our blog.  If you can, you should be able to add the title for your audio file and then upload the file (using its WebNG URL from your account) preferably by highlighting the title text and making it a hyperlink.  Uses the link icon to do this.  At the very least, send me your WebNG URL for your edited mp3 by deadline.

Quick post today. Try watching this YouTube video to understand how best to upload or get the address for your audio file. Create the “audio” DIRECTORY first, and then upload your mp3 file. Then, go to our WordPress blog and upload to our Student Work page. FYI: The tutorial discusses creating a whole page, but don’t fret. You’ll still find useful directions here.

Rethinking How You Interview for Sound

Deborah Potter recently posted some great advice on conducting interviews for good audio.  One of her suggestions include making observations instead of asking specific questions.  (Does this sound familiar to anything we’ve discussed in class about interviewing?) She points out that this elicits more conversational responses, instead of fragmented one or two word responses.  She also suggests asking two-part questions, such as “Who are you and what are you doing?” In this way, you get your source to introduce not only him or herself, but also the subject matter without you necessarily having to add narration.  Try both of these techniques the next time you collect audio.

Cloned News: A Tutorial

Consider this one a gift.  We’re not close to our unit on video yet, but I can’t resist posting this video on How to Report the News.  To put a pedagogical spin on something that really just cracked me up, I’ll take this as a challenge to teach something other than this worn-out cadence.    Thanks to my colleague, Curtis Corlew, for sharing!
Update:  To continue the theme, this time with blogs. . .