Geek Alert: Why Do Data Stories?

BY Elizabeth Shell  June 24, 2013 at 2:40 PM EST



Political editor Christina Bellantoni interviewed data producer Elizabeth Shell about the in-depth interactive, New Adventures for Older Workers, on the lessons learned, pitfalls, whys and hows of the project.

People are putting off retirement. More workers are punching timecards well past their 60s and into their 70s. Pensions, a once-relied-upon staple for the American workforce, are a reminiscence of the good ol’ days for most.

You’re probably saying to yourself, “no kidding, genius.” After all, a recent poll shows that 92 percent of us think we’re in a retirement crisis. But we were curious in the whys and hows of working longer. What does that look like? What can we learn from people who do work later in life? And based on all this, what can we expect for future workers and non-retirees? (Read: anyone not yet retired.)

So we — Paul Solman, the Making Sen$e team and quite a few members of our online bullpen — started digging into the data. Talking to everyday folks. Interviewing experts. You know, reporting.

It became clear very early on that this was an information-intensive story, a data-journalism story. And like every story we pursue we needed to carefully cover the facts and decide what we were trying to do: Simply inform? Create empathy? Kickstart social change?

Data journalism is like every other type of journalism, whether it’s being told via videography, written word, broadcast or illustration. As we delved through the numbers and statistically analyzed them, we knew we would need to be creative in our approach to presenting this story we were uncovering.

We needed to not only identify trends but analyze them for what’s new and interesting — show how it all fits together and give it perspective.

We wanted to do something totally new as we tied together nearly a half-dozen mini-documentaries, data visualizations, character profiles, expert interviews, quotes and trends. So we partnered with the boutique agency Ocupop* to design and develop a befitting website. We also knew it needed to be more than pretty. We decided to make it interactive, and we wanted to include you in the exploration. Going through the project you can see how, in real time, you fit in.

We wanted New Adventures for Older Workers to do more than answer the questions we started out with. We wanted readers to see their own personal stories mirrored in the various folks we interviewed and explore the data and trends we unearthed.

We present all the data and highlight the relevant bits: what that means and how it’s relevant to you. What do we want you to do with all of this? Share it. Plan for your future. Ask questions and arm yourself with information and options. See how older workers are experiencing their own second careers long after they thought they’d be retired.

In New Adventures for Older Workers we gathered, compared, correlated, crunched and, hopefully, visualized all of it in a way you find compelling. Because (unless you’re a data geek like me), who finds databases of spreadsheets irresistible?

* The NewsHour also partnered with Ocupop to create Ad Libs, our interactive tool that helps you create your own political ad using content available from your Facebook page, during the 2012 election campaign.

Video shot by Tiffany Mullon, Joshua Barajas and Justin Scuiletti; produced by Elizabeth Shell.