Profile of the Data Journalist: The Data News Editor

John Keefe learned data journalism from the online community and applied it to public radio.

Around the globe, the bond between data and journalism is growing stronger. In an age of big data, the growing importance of data journalism lies in the ability of its practitioners to provide context, clarity and, perhaps most important, find truth in the expanding amount of digital content in the world. In that context, data journalism has profound importance for society. (You can learn more about this world and the emerging leaders of this discipline in the newly released “Data Journalism Handbook.”)

To learn more about the people who are doing this work and, in some cases, building the newsroom stack for the 21st century, I conducted in-person and email interviews during the 2012 NICAR Conference and published a series of data journalist profiles here at Radar.

John Keefe (@jkeefe) is a senior editor for data news and journalism technology at WNYC public radio, based in New York City, NY. He attracted widespread attention when an online map he built using available data beat the Associated Press with Iowa caucus results earlier this year. He’s posted numerous tutorials and resources for budding data journalists, including how to map data onto county districts, use APIs, create news apps without a backend content management system and make election results maps. As you’ll read below, Keefe is a great example of a journalist who picked up these skills from the data journalism community and the Hacks/Hackers group.

Our interview follows, lightly edited for content and clarity. (I’ve also added a Twitter list of data journalist from the New York Times’ Jacob Harris.)

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

I work in the middle of the WNYC newsroom — quite literally. So throughout the day, I have dozens of impromptu conversations with reporters and editors about their ideas for maps and data projects, or answering questions about how to find or download data.

Our team works almost entirely on “news time,” which means our creations hit the Web in hours and days more often than weeks and months. So I’m often at my laptop creating or tweaking maps and charts to go with online stories. That said, Wednesday mornings it’s breakfast at a Chelsea cafe with collaborators at Balance Media to update each other on longer-range projects and tools we make for the newsroom and then open source, like Tabletop.js and our new vertical timeline.

Then there are key meetings, such as the newsroom’s daily and weekly editorial discussions, where I look for ways to contribute and help. And because there’s a lot of interest and support for data news at the station, I’m also invited to larger strategy and planning meetings.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special degrees or certificates?

I’ve been fascinated with the intersection of information, design and technology since I was a kid. In the last couple of years, I’ve marveled at what journalists at the New York Times, ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune were doing online. I thought the public radio audience, which includes a lot of educated, curious people, would appreciate such data projects at WNYC, where I was news director.

Then I saw that Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times would be teaching a programming workshop at the 2009 Online News Association annual meeting. I signed up. In preparation, I installed Django on my laptop and started following the beginner’s tutorial on my subway commute. I made my first “Hello World!” web app on the A Train.

I also started hanging out at Hacks/Hackers meetups and hackathons, where I’d watch people code and ask questions along the way.

Some of my experimentation made it onto the WNYC’s website — including our 2010 Census maps and the NYC Hurricane Evacuation map ahead of Hurricane Irene. Shortly thereafter, WNYC management asked me to focus on it full-time.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

I could not have done so much so fast without kindness, encouragement and inspiration from Pilhofer at the Times; Scott Klein, Al Shaw, Jennifer LaFleur and Jeff Larson at ProPublica; , Chris Groskopf, Joe Germuska and Brian Boyer at the Chicago Tribune; and Jenny 8. Lee of, well, everywhere.

Each has unstuck me at various key moments and all have demonstrated in their own work what amazing things were possible. And they have put a premium on sharing what they know — something I try to carry forward.

The moment I may remember most was at an afternoon geek talk aimed mainly at programmers. After seeing a demo of a phone app called Twilio, I turned to Al Shaw, sitting next to me, and lamented that I had no idea how to play with such things.

“You absolutely can do this,” he said.

He encouraged me to pick up Sinatra, a surprisingly easy way to use the Ruby programming language. And I was off.

What does your personal data journalism “stack” look like? What tools could you not live without?

Google Maps – Much of what I can turn around quickly is possible because of Google Maps. I’m also experimenting with MapBox and Geocommons for more data-intensive mapping projects, like our NYC diversity map.

Google Fusion Tables – Essential for my wrangling, merging and mapping of data sets on the fly.

Google Spreadsheets – These have become the “backend” to many of our data projects, giving reporters and editors direct access to the data driving an application, chart or map. We wire them to our apps using Tabletop.js, an open-source program we helped to develop.

TextMate – A programmer’s text editor for Mac. There are several out there, and some are free. TextMate is my fave.

The JavaScript Tools Bundle for Textmate – It checks my JavaScript code ever time I save, flagging me to near-invisible, infuriating errors such as a stray comma or a missing parenthesis. I’m certain this one piece of software has given me more days with my kids.

Firebug for Firefox – Lets you see what your code is doing in the browser. Essential for troubleshooting CSS and JavaScript, and great for learning how the heck other people make cool stuff.

Amazon S3 – Most of what we build are static pages of html and JavaScript, which we host in the Amazon cloud and embed into article pages on our CMS.

census.ire.org – A fabulous, easy-to-navigate presentation of US Census data made by a bunch of journo-programmers for Investigative Reporters and Editors. I send someone there probably once a week.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

I’d have to say our GOP Iowa Caucuses feature. It has several qualities I like:

  • Mashed-up data — It mixes live, county vote results with Patchwork Nation community types.
  • A new take — We knew other news sites would shade Iowa’s counties by the winner; we shaded them by community type and showed who won which categories.
  • Complete shareability — We made it super-easy for anyone to embed the map into their own site, which was possible because the results came license-free from the state GOP via Google.
  • Key code from another journalist — The map-rollover coolness comes from code built by Albert Sun, then of the Wall Street Journal and now at the New York Times.
  • Rapid learning — I taught myself a LOT of JavaScript quickly.
  • Reusability — We used it for which we did for each state until Santorum bowed out.

Bonus: I love that I made most of it sitting at my mom’s kitchen table over winter break.

Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

WNYC’s editors and reporters. They have the bug, and they keep coming up with new and interesting projects. And I find project-driven learning is the most effective way to discover new things. New York Public Radio — which runs WNYC along with classical radio station WQXR, New Jersey Public Radio and a street-level performance space — also has a growing stable of programmers and designers, who help me build things, teach me amazing tricks and spot my frequent mistakes.

The IRE/NICAR annual conference. It’s a meetup of the best journo-programmers in the country, and it truly seems each person is committed to helping others learn. They’re also excellent at celebrating the successes of others.

Twitter. I follow a bunch of folks who seem to tweet the best stuff, and try to keep a close eye on ‘em.

new TWTR.Widget({ version: 2, type: ‘list’, rpp: 100, interval: 200, title: ‘What’s happening in the world of ‘, subject: ‘News Hackers?’, width: ‘auto’, height: 300, theme: { shell: { background: ‘#8a0513′, color: ‘#ffffff’ }, tweets: { background: ‘#ffffff’, color: ‘#444444′, links: ‘#4099c2′ } }, features: { scrollbar: false, loop: true, live: true, behavior: ‘default’ } }).render().setList(‘harrisj’, ‘news-hackers’).start();

Why are data journalism and “news apps” important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

Candidates, companies, municipalities, agencies and non-profit organizations all are using data. And a lot of that data is about you, me and the people we cover.

So first off, journalism needs an understanding of the data available and what it can do. It’s just part of covering the story now. To skip that part of the world would shortchange our audience, and our democracy. Really.

And the better we can both present data to the general public and tell data-driven (or -supported) stories with impact, the better we can do great journalism.

tags: , , , , ,

Get the O’Reilly Data Newsletter

Stay informed. Receive weekly insight from industry insiders.