Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Twitter unveils its own news digests, and some news orgs are participating
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
May 23, 2012, 2:54 p.m.

How La Nación is using data to challenge a FOIA-free culture

One of Argentina’s largest newspapers is creating and sharing databases with the public, while training its newsroom to dig deep into data.

One year ago, La Nación (Argentina’s second largest newspaper) revealed that the government had spent more than $34 billion — in eight years — to subsidize the operation of private buses in Argentina, including 9,516 in Buenos Aires. The investigation not only uncovered that financial aid increased 1,965 percent, but it also identified the 20 companies that benefited most from the plan.

Too much data? Not when you have the tools to sort through it. All that information was hidden in 285,000 records scattered on government websites and in official documents. The only way to make sense of it was to pair journalists with programmers (and computers, of course).

And that’s what La Nación did.

As part of its innovation strategy, the newspaper is training its reporters, editors, designers, and developers on how to access information, and make it accesible to a general audience.

Data journalism produces more for La Nación than original reporting. The data visualizations are also enabling the newspaper offer a better online experience.

“We are adding more dimensions of interaction with our content,” Angélica Peralta-Ramos, La Nación’s Multimedia Development Manager, told me.

La Nación is following in the steps of The Guardian and The New York Times, internationally acclaimed for their interactive news projects. The paper’s investigation into government subsidies is a finalist in the world’s first Data Journalism Awards, which will be announced on May 30.

“Colleagues from abroad tell us we have made great progress, although we think we’re on a very early stage,” Peralta emphasizes.

Building a team

La Nación realized it needed a formal data journalism team after its 2011 coverage of the Wikileaks’ cables, and a data-heavy investigation of Argentina’s former secretary of transportation. In both cases, it was clear that it took more than traditional reporting to do the stories. “The journalists were in front of a pen drive full of information and weren’t able to ‘solve the puzzle’ without help from a programmer,” Peralta said.

To prevent that from happening again, they decided to build a team that specialized in data. They looked around the newsroom, and gathered a group of tech-friendly reporters and designers. They were easy to find because three years ago La Nación started a department (led by Peralta, who is by training a computer scientist, not a journalist) focused on teaching  multimedia reporting skills.

The next challenge: coach journalists on how to use Excel as a reporting tool. Two workshops were enough to narrow the gap that often exists between journalists and numbers.

“From the beginning, our goal was to see Excel [as] more than just a tool to analyze information; it was about learning how to organize the data so it can be visualized or shared in a open database,” Peralta  explained.

La Nación DATA comprises 10 people; six from the tech side (a project manager, a trainer, two designers, two IT folks), and four full-time data journalists. It is a small team but the data movement is thriving in the newsroom. Two weeks ago, La Nación created a data producer position to spot and convert useful data that comes in via press releases, emails, or PDFs. There are 8 data producers in different sections of the newsroom, and the plan is to keep adding more.

“At one point, they should be able to actually work with that data,” Peralta said.

Trascending journalism

In Argentina, a great deal of computer-assisted reporting involves building datasets from scratch. Most of the information is available in government websites, but most of it is in PDF files that need to be converted into CSV and Excel formats.

“When the documents can’t be read by scanners or are not digitalized, we have to enter the data manually,” Peralta said. For the bus subsidies piece, for example, La Nación’s team had to convert six years of PDFs (about 13 MB). Not only that, but the datasets and visualizations have been updated monthly since they were created. The frequency of updates in the future will be determined by the public’s interest, she said.

But whether the updates come every month or every quarter, the database is not going anywhere. In a country where there are no FOIA protections, La Nación is aware that information is valuable, not only for journalistics purposes but for citizens. That’s why they launched an open data platform, where anyone can access and use the data.

“We want to open new sources of data,” she said. “Part of our mission is to activate the demand for information. Otherwise no one will generate it.”

POSTED     May 23, 2012, 2:54 p.m.
Show comments  
Show tags
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Twitter unveils its own news digests, and some news orgs are participating
The initiative formerly known as “Project Lightning” introduces curated collections of tweets around news, sports, and entertainment, and some news organizations will be able to make their own.
Tasneem Raja on how NPR’s Code Switch navigates the increasingly crowded race-and-culture beat
“Our job is to really talk to each other and push back on our story ideas and the lenses we’re applying to these stories, and then try to invite the audience into the conversation as much as possible.”
The Coral Project is building its first product: A listening tool
The joint New York Times, Washington Post effort hopes to get a beta version of the yet-to-be-named product off the ground early next year.
What to read next
What happened after 7 news sites got rid of reader comments
Recode, Reuters, Popular Science, The Week, Mic, The Verge, and USA Today’s FTW have all shut off reader comments in the past year. Here’s how they’re all using social media to encourage reader discussion.
699Facebook woos journalists with Signal, a dashboard to gather news across Facebook and Instagram
Signal helps journalists find, source, and embed content from Facebook and Instagram.
567Facebook rolls out new tools to help reporters share their work (and choose who sees it)
Facebook is making an app that was previously only for celebrities and other public figures available to journalists with verified profiles.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
California Watch
Al Jazeera
The Huffington Post
Investigative Reporting Workshop
The Batavian
Global Voices