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The ProPublica Nerd Blog

Knight Foundation Grant to Support ProPublica’s News Applications Desk

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Scott Klein, editor of news applications at ProPublica (Dan Nguyen/ProPublica)

We’re very pleased to announce that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has made a grant to support ProPublica’s news applications desk. The grant will support and enhance our ongoing efforts in what we call “news applications,” which we believe are an emerging discipline within journalism.

A news application is a large web-based interactive database that tells a journalistic story using software instead of words and pictures. It’s software and it’s journalism — both at once, and done by the same people. From Dollars for Docs, which lets readers find out if their healthcare provider is taking payments from pharmaceutical companies, to Opportunity Gap, which helps readers understand the sometimes-unequal distribution of educational opportunites to high poverty schools, ProPublica’s news applications strive toward the same goal as the traditional journalists in our newsroom do: To spur reform through a sustained spotlight on problems.

News applications afford readers the opportunity to see a broad national problem but also to understand how that problem affects them personally. It’s one thing to understand abstractly how, say, educational opporutnities are distributed. But it’s quite another to see your own high school and how it compares to the poorest and wealthiest in the state. If the best way to learn is to apply new knowledge to what you already know, then the ability of a news application to contextualize data has limitless possibilities to do great journalism.

News application developers are simultaneously reporters and programmers. They write code and call sources for comment. They write stories while fixing bugs. But although they may have a background that’s quite different a traditional reporter, they’re absolutely journalists. They sit in the newsroom, pitch stories, and report to an editor. They publish their work under their byline, and they follow the same rules of sourcing, attribution, and fairness that all journalists follow. They work on their own enterprise projects as well as on projects started by other reporters in the ProPublica newsroom.

Over the next year, ProPublica’s news apps desk will grow bigger in several important ways. We’ll also open up our newsroom, sharing our methodologies and ideas so other can learn along with us, and we’ll do more great journalism. Here’s how:

  • We’re adding a new News App Developer, in the person of Lena Groeger. Lena joined us earlier this year as the inaugural News Applications Fellow. She’s worked with ProPublica reporters on foreclosure data and drone strikes data, and she’s already hard at work on news apps that we’ll be unveiling soon.
  • Our experimental News Applications Fellowship will become a regular position in the department. And we’re recruiting the next fellow starting immediately.
  • Starting as soon as possible, we’re opening up the news application desk to coders in other newsrooms who want to hack with us on a project. Maybe you’ve got a news app you’ve been working on and need help understanding how to frame it, or maybe you just want to work inside a department that’s already solved some of the problems of joining code and journalism so you can bring our experience back to your newsroom. This post has more details.

As always, we will continue to post the details about how we put together our news applications to our nerd blog. We’ll continue to open source our code, and to meet up with and help train our fellow journalists at conferences and hackathons.

It’s been almost 45 years since Philip Meyer used an IBM 360 mainframe to crunch the numbers on a field survey he designed to study the 1967 Detroit riots. But we think the opportunities for doing great “hacker journalism” are boundless.

Correction: A reference to the IBM 360 as a "minicomputer" has been corrected. It was actually a mainframe.

While I wish everybody involved luck on these sorts of projects and I really appreciate all attempts to find the modern journalist’s footing, as a programmer myself, I worry a little about the audience.  Like the “infographic” movement (usually taking dubious sparse content and applying questionable graphic design techniques to make it fill up a few pages) and a LOT of software, it seems l ike it takes a lot of work to make something that’s more interesting to the reader than to the creator.

What’s important, I think, is that these projects get joined to a narrative to supplement it, rather than be presented alone.  When I teach computer security, I recycle the old idea that data is useless.  Data with context is information.  Information with analysis is intelligence.  Without the “story,” it’s only information, bordering on factoids.

Related, I notice a lack of comments on the technical posts.  If the intent is for we readers to draw our own conclusions from the data, comments from other users explaining what they see become far more valuable, presumably to the author as much as other readers.

@john

You’ll get no argument from me about the value of narrative journalism. Long-form narratives are (and always will be) one of ProPublica’s primary journalistic forms.

But what I hope we’ve shown in our news applications is that the data itself, if properly presented, can express a driving narrative. It can make a point, and help a reader find their own local examples in a complex national story—examples that can mean a lot more to them than the ones carefully chosen by a reporter in a narrative story.

None of what ProPublica does is data without context. You may see that done elsewhere, but you won’t find it here. Sometimes that context is a narrative story paired with the data, sometimes the context is expressed through the presentation of the data itself.

Editors are still needed. As a programmer myself, i’d like to point out that the ibm 360 is a ‘mainframe computer’, not a mini.

Scott:

Congratulations, this is extremely encouraging. One note of concern. I note this trend that while newsgathering is increasingly ubiquitous (citizen, crowd, youtube, global, cellphone) foundations and institutions lock rural folks out of the economic development possibilities of coding where they are. My point is that efforts like @US_Ignite @MozillaIgnite will accomplish nothing if opportunities continue to require (unnecessary) relocation—just as a force of habit. So, why would someone need to move to NYC in order to fulfill the goals of the grant? Thanks. @ed_dodds collaboration strategist

@mark sherman

You’re right. We’ve corrected it. Thanks for pointing it out.

Scott, the response is appreciated, and I certainly agree with the goals.

But to show what I’m getting at, take a look at the foreclosure map, which I picked because it’s convenient, not to single it out.  It reminds me of the digital version of a sidebar, but it’s divorced from a main article.  On its own, it’s nice, and if would be useful if I was planning to write an article, but lacking guidance or a lively discussion, it’s mostly just a spreadsheet.

Again, I’m not attacking the program at all.  I wish more technical people would get involved in similar projects.  And maybe it’s my own problem.  But it’s really hard to get a story out of a spreadsheet unless you’re a journalist.

John:

Perhaps the story emerges when complementary data sources are made available as well?

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/28/us/20091128-foodstamps.html/

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