This article was written for the Knight Foundation website, and is also published there. The foundation is running a Knight News Challenge on Data, which will award $3 million to innovative ideas about making “data work for individuals and communities.” Winners will be announced in January 2016.


“A story, if it’s working, is always an answer to the question, ‘How should I live my life?’”

–Ira Glass

Humans are natural storytellers. Journalists simply do it for a living.

That goes for data journalists, too. Just like our newsroom colleagues who write traditional narrative journalism, we’re telling stories to readers even when it looks like we’re just presenting data.

Take for instance ProPublica’s recent launch of Debt by Degrees, a project we launched this month. Built by my colleagues Sisi Wei and Annie Waldman, it uses recently released U.S. Dept. of Education data on student debt. It’s built upon deep, ambitious data – more than 1,700 fields for each of about 7,800 colleges and universities in the U.S. Its creators at the White House were thoughtful stewards on a mission to help America’s young people make better choices when it comes to picking a college.

“Many existing college rankings reward schools for spending more money and rejecting more students,” said President Obama in his radio address announcing the new data, “at a time when America needs our colleges to focus on affordability and supporting all students who enroll.”

Here’s the gist of it: One of the reasons colleges are considered a public good, and why many are tax-exempt charities, is the economic benefit they confer to their students. College graduates have a far lower unemployment rate and earn a lot more money than people who never went to college. College degrees are, as the president said, “the surest ticket to the middle class.”

But while some schools are excellent at providing a first-class education to poor kids, many schools could be doing a better job at helping them avoid big student loan debt. That’s the story we tried to tell in our interactive database. Or rather, that’s the story we helped our readers tell for themselves, using the data on the schools they know best.

In Debt by Degrees, readers can look up virtually any school in the country and see things like the discount that it gives its poorest students and the amount of debt the poorest students take on to go there. The results range from the mundane to the shocking: elite institutions with deep pockets that admit too few poor kids; community colleges dealing with chaos and a student population struggling to remain in school at all; religious schools with a mandate to teach the poor that find it difficult to make ends meet, let alone provide an education to those who can’t afford it.

As reporters, it’s our nature to talk with the people we’re writing about, and it’s our professional responsibility to make sure we’ve heard from people who know things better than we do. So we talked to experts and college administrators, who told us that the school’s endowment mattered a lot when it came to how much aid they were able to give. Harvard, with its enormous endowment, makes sure its poorest students are not saddled with much debt at all, though it admits far fewer of them than other schools its size. While this isn’t the only factor that goes into how much a school can help, we decided it was important enough to include in our interactive database to help readers understand the “why” question.

The data we got from the Department of Education didn’t include endowment numbers, but luckily we found a list of the schools with the largest endowments and were able to match the data sets.

We made some other decisions – inverting one of the new data points that measures “repayment rate” of student debt into “nonrepayment rate” so that it would make more sense for people comparing it to “default rate,” the old, less accurate measure.

In designing the interactive database, we carefully structured each page so that the most important data points are at the top. As readers scroll down the page they’re taken step by step through a chronology – finances during school, after school and years later. You might recognize this as the format for many news stories; our pages start with an inverted pyramid “lede” followed by a narrative that runs chronologically. We inherit our techniques from the same traditions as do our narrative colleagues.

Of course, none of this work would have been possible if the government hadn’t taken the time and spent the resources to provide it. They faced pretty big obstacles to doing so; the data was collected as part of a project that was scaled back after intense pressure from colleges and universities.

We believe strongly that people have the capacity to understand complex, large-scale data, if they’re given the chance, and if they’re given a little help finding out why it matters to them.

That’s where the real opportunity lies – at the intersections between open data and storytelling. Hopefully, that’s where you come in. The Knight News Challenge on Data asks the same question, in a way, that we ask every day on my team: How might we make data work for individuals and communities? Our job as a society isn’t done when we’ve made the data available, though that’s an absolutely worthy and courageous – not to mention mandatory – endeavor. It’s also our responsibility to help people understand it, with all of its complexities and flaws. In short, to help people use data to help answer that question: How should I live my life?