July 29, 2013

For Florida news nonprofit, data journalism pays bills

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A funny thing happened on the way to sustainability for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Specifically — data journalism, and selling FCIR’s expertise to major news clients, such as the Miami Herald, and local NBC and NPR affiliates, that lack the staffing and expertise to really crunch the numbers.

According to co-founder Trevor Aaronson, FCIR’s expertise in highly specialized data reporting — managing databases, merging them, extracting meaning from boggling sets of numbers and statistics — became so much of a commodity that it adds up to about 25 percent of their annual budget, second only to foundation grants.

What’s making it work is a confluence of several key factors.

First, there’s a lot more data available in today’s networked information society. According to Aaronson: “Traditional news organizations realize the power of the type of journalism they can do with data,” but lack the staff and in-house expertise actually produce those stories.

“A lot of leaders of traditional news organizations feel wary and uncomfortable hiring for data positions,” he said, “because they themselves don’t have the skills. The acronyms are unknown, it makes it hard to judge who to hire.”

Nonprofits such as FCIR can serve as a one-stop shop. “We have the staff, we can provide the analysis, we can give you the guidance on what you can do with the story,” Aaronson said.

Secondly, as an accomplished, collaboration-minded nonprofit news agency, FCIR already has a network of commercial news partners. This proved fertile ground for developing the organization’s data-journalism clientele.

“There’s a feeling of comfort with us,” Aaronson said. Existing news partners feel they can share stories with FCIR without worrying about being scooped — a vital step toward turning a partner into a client.

The Center’s rates range from $40-$80 per hour, and the projects vary widely.

“You could be providing almost exclusively high-end stuff,” he said. “Data visualizations, intense analysis using SQL … but I’m surprised at how basic some of the requests are. We could whip ‘em up using Excel. Someone just getting started could do that.”

In fact, Aaronson noted, most clients want to increase their own reporters’ skill sets, and most contracts the Center signs include a two-day training session on data journalism.

“If there was anyone in j-school today who thinks ‘how am I gonna get a job?'” he said. “Go learn data journalism and you’ll definitely get a job. When organizations have jobs for data journalism, they have trouble finding really good applicants.”