As much as the long-term success of the OpenRural project depends on technology and open records, it also depends on having enough reporters in rural communities who appreciate the journalistic power of data, but also know how to harness it correctly to tell stories and deliver reliable, relevant information to their communities.

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I’ve just finished teaching a course that was, in part, inspired by the lack of young journalists who have these skills. And, as is almost always the case, I learned at least as much as the students — mostly that teaching the tools and techniques of data-driven accountability reporting takes much more than a semester.

The idea for the class began more than a year ago during conversations with Sarah Cohen — my former Washington Post colleague and current Knight Chair in Computational Journalism at Duke University — to try an unheard-of experiment — teach a class that would include both Duke and University of North Carolina students and that would provide a soup-to-nuts workshop in investigative reporting and digital publishing. How do you find, report, produce and distribute information that’s so tough to do and so valuable that nobody else would do it for free and that everyone would pay to not just know the information in your report — but experience and engage in it?

Looking for model classes that our friends were teaching elsewhere, we found many classes dedicated to production and digital publishing — especially visual communication — and a few that focused on conceptualizing investigative story ideas. But as we talked, our conversations kept turning back to the blurring of lines in many newsrooms between web production and computer-assisted reporting. We wanted our students to be able to data crunch in a way that would make it easy to data viz.

find a story, not a report

Our class met once a week for 16 weeks — first at Duke University, then at UNC. The first half focused on basic reporting tools and techniques to background both an individual and a corporation. We introduced TimeFlow and DocumentCloud, as well as how to find story ideas in digital public records and newspaper archives. Our mantra: Find a story, not a report. Both have data, to be sure, but stories have characters, movement, conflict, and heroism and villainy — sometimes in the same person. And news stories must have impact.

The 11 students came up with probably four good story ideas that we thought we could pursue. So the second half of the semester was turned to story reporting and production. During the second half, we simply tried to do too much — introduce them to Google Fusion Tables, Tableau Public, OutWit and web scraping with Python, Excel and a little Access — all while writing public records requests and interviewing principals in an effort to better understand the work of a $4.6 billion statewide charity funded with half of North Carolina’s take in the settlement with the tobacco industry.

A story like this would likely take a team of pros six to 18 months to do well, including interactive and multimedia features. We tried to do it in eight weeks. So, as we suspected going into it, there was just too much ground to cover. It was an experiment, and here’s what I learned.

key takeaways

  • As a student suggested after it was over, this class really needs to be three semesters long. In her ideal world, she said, she’d spend a semester on data tools, such as Excel, Access, web scraping and GIS; another semester on reading and watching great investigative stories and talking to the journalists who produced them; and a final semester on reporting and production. She said that we should force every journalism student to at least learn the data-reporting tools. I tend to agree with her points.
  • Students want to focus on the tools more than the data, when their priorities should be reverse. But it’s easier on the instructor to go get the dataset, and then simply give students a recipe for managing it. I’ll have to find a way to manage those expectations and the workload.
  • If getting the kind of long-term commitment and teamwork required for multimedia investigative projects is tough in a newsroom, it’s twice as tough in an undergraduate classroom. Many of the students haven’t met each other before the class; they know they’re leaving “the job” in three months and are spending — at most — nine hours a week on the project. Individual projects are better during the confines of a semester. Group projects work great over a one- or two-year extracurricular commitment.

I hope to tackle a similar class in the future. And while I’d love to integrate OpenBlock directly into the class, the application is really suited now as a publishing tool. It lacks a native way to use it for data analysis and story idea generation, but I could see it integrating into a newsroom/classroom suite of tools that might include ScraperWiki, DocumentCloud and PANDA. I wonder if one day the Knight News Challenge will yield the Knight News Curriculum.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tyler Ingram and used here under the Creative Commons license.