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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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