Data Journalism

For the Agora report, I interviewed several journalists in the Pacific-Northwest. One topic of discussion was how they re-examining some of their approaches to and philosophies about the practice of journalism. Previously, I mentioned that journalists are re-examining the role of objectivity and distance in journalism as well as using solutions journalism. With the rise of sophisticated data analytics tools, such as those offered by Google, Chartbeat, NewsWhip, Parse.ly, and others, are now also providing newsrooms with phenomenal amounts of data related to their online audience and users.

As a result, argues Elinor Shields, head of audience engagement for BBC News, “there’s no shortage of data and insight. If anything, there’s almost too much.

Making sense of this data is a priority for newsrooms. A December 2015 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism survey of 130 leading editors, CEOs, and digital leaders from 25 countries revealed: “54% said deepening online engagement was a top priority … and 76% said it was extremely important to improve the use of data in newsrooms.”

Levi Pulkkinen, senior editor of the Seattle PI, argues that a lot of this data is telling newsrooms that their approaches to some types of traditional reporting needs to change. And not’s not an easy message to hear.

“I think there’s a hesitancy in the newspaper industry among reporters to not recognize that what the metrics are telling us is that we need to change the content,” Pulkkinen says.

One clear example of this, he argues, can be seen in standard public a airs journalism. “What we’re finding is that readers have very little taste for incremental coverage, and that’s kind of the bread and butter of local newspaper,” he says. He continues:

There’s kind of a traditional newspaper idea that you do cover the incremental stu because people are sitting there waiting to know what happened at X meeting, or when whatever committee has advanced a bill, and all that stuff. And I just don’t think there’s an audience for it.

Responding to these cues from the audience won’t necessarily be easy, given how engrained this type of journalism is at many outlets.

Yet it’s not that audiences aren’t interested in this type of story, Pulkkinen suggests. It’s that local journalists need to position their content in new ways. “I think we lose people that could be engaged when we make the news too boring for them to come get it,” he contends.

The challenge for local journalists, Pulkkinen argues, is “to make that adjustment to telling stories that are going to resonate a bit more than this kind of government-heavy, grinding away covering the same story as it moves slowly through.”

Instead, the data seems to imply preferences for a fresh approach. “They like when we can tell them a whole story, or tell them an important story,” he says, “but they don’t need us to just act as a kind of stenographer of government.”

Pulkkinen’s observations hint at some of the wider challenges faced by both local and larger news organizations. New platforms and shifts in media consumption habits mean that the way stories are reported may need to change and evolve.

As a result, there’s a balancing act between preserving core journalistic values and finding new ways to reinvigorate and refresh them for the digital age. Addressing that is a complex matter that’s as applicable to a given news beat (such as public affairs) as it is to the wider, overarching strategy of any news provider.

As Jim Simon explains from the Seattle Times’ perspective, an organization that is espousing new forms of journalism, such as solutions journalism, as well as experimenting on new and emerging digital platforms (see the upcoming Chapter 3):

We still feel what we have to sell is very unique content, and that includes ambitious public service journalism, whether it’s watchdog or high-end explanatory storytelling. The challenge for us—and I think so far we’ve been pretty good at that—is how you do this rapid digital transformation, search for new audiences while maintaining your ability to

Recap and Reflections

Despite (and perhaps because of) continued financial challenges and unprecedented levels of political antagonism toward the media, traditional journalistic values and mission remain fundamentally important to many working journalists.

However, the practice of journalism does not stand still. Journalists need to continue to be alert to the opportunities that new technologies and platforms o er them, as well as other opportunities to refine and revisit the shape of their craft in the digital age.

As a result, we can continue to expect further experimentation with storytelling formats and forms, as well as debates about what journalism should look like— particularly around issues such as advocacy, access to public record/offcials, and journalism in the age of Trump—in 2017 and beyond.

This is an extract from a new report on the evolution of local journalism in the Pacific Northwest, published by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon. 

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