Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Newsonomics: On end games and end times
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE

Scooped by code

“Every skill you don’t have leaves a whole class of stories out of your reach. And data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.”

In 2014, you will be scooped by a reporter who knows how to program. Yes, you. Not the reporter a few cubes over. Not that guy you went to j-school with. You.

Scott KleinSure, reporters don’t need to know how to program. But there are lots of things reporters don’t need to know how to do. They also don’t need to know how to write — plenty of great scoop artists can barely write their names and get heavily rewritten by harried editors. Plenty of great writers are nervous types who never get the hang of convincing strangers to tell them their secrets. And we all know reporters who don’t know how to write a FOIA letter and who can’t bear the thought of reading the avalanche of documents that, with luck, arrive in response.

You can be a good journalist without being able to do lots of things. But every skill you don’t have leaves a whole class of stories out of your reach. And data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.

Scraping websites, cleaning data, and querying Excel-breaking data sets are enormously useful ways to get great stories. If you don’t know how to write software to help you acquire and analyze data, there will always be a limit to the size of stories you can get by yourself. And that’s a limit that somebody who competes with you won’t have.

Here are some great stories from the last 12 months by programmer/journalists that any of us would have been proud to have written:

You probably haven’t gotten beaten by a journo-nerd yet. Your luck may hold out for a while. But somewhere out there is a recent j-school grad who’s just started covering your beat. She’s raw, and she has no rolodex. When she talks to sources, her voice shakes and she doesn’t ask all the questions she should. But she studied Python and statistics, and she can use OpenRefine and PostgreSQL, so she’s faster than you. And she’s about to publish something you thought nobody but you knew about.

You won’t know she’s coming. You’ll never hear her footsteps because you aren’t reading the email lists where she asks her question about how to parse XML from the agency you’ve been bird-dogging for years. You won’t hear from your sources that she’s calling around, because she already knows what they know and she’s gonna call them only when it’s too late for you.

You may feel like leaving programming to the professionals. But your next great story is locked away inside a data set. Why let somebody else get it first?

Scott Klein is senior editor of news applications at ProPublica and co-founder of DocumentCloud.

                         
Updating regularly through Friday, December 20
What to read next
2843
tweets
A blow for mobile advertising: The next version of Safari will let users block ads on iPhones and iPads
Think making money on mobile advertising is hard now? Think how much more difficult it will be with a significant share of your audience is blocking all your ads — all with a simple download from the App Store.
1763For news organizations, this was the most important set of Apple announcements in years
A new Flipboard-clone with massive potential reach, R.I.P. Newsstand, and news stories embedded deeper inside iOS — it was a big day for news on iPhones and iPads.
762Newsonomics: 10 numbers that define the news business today
From video to social, from mobile to paywalls — these data points help define where we are in the “future of news” today, like it or not.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Fuego is our heat-seeking Twitter bot, tracking the links the future-of-journalism crowd is talking about most on Twitter.
Here are a few of the top links Fuego’s currently watching.   Get the full Fuego ➚
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 ➚
Quartz
Demand Media
Arizona Guardian
E.W. Scripps
Reuters
New West
Examiner.com
WyoFile
New England Center for Investigative Reporting
Semana
Global Voices
Hechinger Report