Can data revitalize journalism?

A great piece by Frederic Filloux at Monday Note (from forever ago) asks this same question.

I say, why not, especially with publicly available data? From what I’ve seen, reporters and producers go through massive amounts of data to write the story, discarding much to get to the heart and and bare bones of the story.

And it’s not like there’s a huge shortage of data either. Data.gov just launched, providing many datasets collected by the federal government that everyone can access. I also like this piece about the top committed crimes in the U.S. from GOOD mag, based on a 2008 data report from the FBI.

From what I’ve seen, (local) news outlets don’t have the manpower or the time to churn this data into something presentable and interesting to the average reader/viewer. While I interned this summer, one of our reporters was doing this huge healthcare package divided up over multiple casts (during the town hall crazyness that went on) and wanted something different and special which included video, charts and the like.

Normally, there’s only one Web producer that churns out broadcast copy into Web-friendly formats. That night, it was me, the intern, doing all of that while the producer worked on the reporter’s special project all night. And it wasn’t even a sweeps story.

Later that day, we talked about how it would be easier if there was another person who could handle all those add-ons to reporter projects (and create some of their own).

So here’s my new, made-up position that can handle that job, the interactives and data specialist. It’s a position that’s part news Web producer, part writer and part designer, which incidentally sounds like my dream job.

There are so many other stories that would be more illuminated and contextualized with infographics, timelines, links to previous coverage and related stories, Flash explainers for complicated issues. All of these can be built from data.

I’m not saying that data will save journalism singlehandedly (mostly because people have different definitions of journalism and opinions on whether journalism is even dying or already cold in the ground, etc). I’m saying it wouldn’t hurt it.

As for turning data into some sort of business model, Filloux gives Bloomberg as an example (first providing a grip of data in real-time for financial professionals from their Bloomberg terminals before turning into one of the biggest and most respected names in financial news).

I’m not sure if viewers would want to pay more for extra Flash graphics and such, but I think it would definitely generate more reader/viewership, because they’d be giving them *more* than what they might find in the pages or on the newscast. As a Web user, I’d go to the site that has all the cool graphics that help me understand and care about the story.

But maybe that’s just me.

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