Wick Communications

Getting at the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ in your stories

In Data journalism on 31 Jul 2014 at 4:32 pm
A case where the data explains nothing, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight.

A case where the data explains nothing, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight.

“Newsonomic” professor Ken Doctor proposed an interesting experiment the other day. He suggests running a line down a sheet of paper. On the left write “who, what, where,” and “when” and on the right scribble “how” and “why.” Now go through your paper and put a mark for each instance when one or those questions is answered. He suspects you’ll have a whole lotta checks on the left and far fewer on the right. So do I.

The rest of his article on the Nieman website is devoted to a call for more explanation in the local press. He notes that there are several start-ups among the big boys devoted to explaining things (The Upshot, FiveThirtySix, etc.) but suggests that local papers like ours have shed too much local knowledge during layoffs and that the powers that be just don’t value that value any longer. He takes aim at papers that opt to go wide rather than deep.

He’s certainly correct to some degree. All those laid-off middle age reporters who had been on the job for years knew a thing or two about their communities. You can’t just program a Google alert to tell you why the water board has to raise rates so much or how the federal government came to oversee your local school board. Institutional knowledge is an oft-undervalued commodity.

I whole-heartedly agree that readers need you to connect the dots. It is our unique value proposition. We will never be first to every fire in an age where everyone with a cellphone is sending photos over social media. But we can resolve to explain the local realm to its denizens.

What does that mean? …

  • It starts with questions. Don’t take newsmakers at face value. Be an advocate for your readers by asking questions rather than regurgitating.
  • It continues with a depth of sourcing. Stop quoting the mayor and police chief in every danged story. Meet secretaries at city hall, team mothers for the Little League, student council leaders … you get the picture. Find sources that help you attack stories from multiple angles.
  • Argue for your story. If you need more time to get to the bottom of a story, ask for it. Feed the beast with breaking news while you explain the important stuff.
  • Read your archives. So many of our reporters are new or in their first couple of years in a community. You guys can’t be expected to know what happened on that development site in 2008, much less 1998. So ask. Read up. Learn.
  • Don’t be stymied by objectivity. I suspect this is less of a problem than it once was, but you are free to explain things; you don’t have to look for “both sides” of issues that don’t deserve that treatment.
  • Ask for help. There are probably people in your building who can help you contextualize your stories. These helpful folks may or may not be in the newsroom. Don’t be afraid to reach out to ad reps and everyone else who might have insight into your story. You aren’t selling out if you ask someone on the business side for a source’s phone number.

One last point about those big players: Some attempts at explanation just don’t hold water for me. Just because you can plot data on a graph, does not make it meaningful. (Take, for instance, this FiveThirtyEight discussion of “young talent” on NFL teams. It makes great hay out of past results of NFL teams with players under the age of 25, but all those players are not created alike. And it ignores other factors such as coaching changes, injuries and all the rest that may explain the real change in the year to come.

Don’t let that dissuade you. Explain things to readers and you will have loyal readers.




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