Don’t be boring! Crafting stories from data

The Pithy Award for this year’s Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference — wrapping up today in St. Louis — surely belongs to Tony DeBarros, Ron Nixon and Ben Welsh. Their presentations for Friday’s “Making Sure You Tell a Story” panel, in rapid succession, covered ground from story craft to news strategy to robotics, and still managed to present a cohesive message: elevate your reporting.

My favorite lines from each of them:

“I couldn’t have made that up if I was writing a screenplay.” — Tony DeBarros of USA TODAY

“If you kill the thing, eat every last piece.” — Ron Nixon of the New York Times

“There is an art to finding Mr. and Mrs. Central Tendency.” — Ben Welsh, Los Angeles Times

All of this really does relate to computer-assisted reporting. But let’s start at the story, which is where the panel started with Tony DeBarros.

His point is that journalists still should hold onto the tricks of the storytelling trade, even when — or especially when — we’re telling the stories of data.

“Snap out of the numbers coma,” he advised, because people can only comprehend and play along with your analysis of so many trends at a time. Find the people who represent the trends or outliers in the data, and tell their stories. Set scenes, use detail, develop characters.

Case in point: a census story about Loving County, Texas, where Judge Skeet Jones and Sheriff Billy Burt Hopper can sit down in the Boot Track Cafe and write down the names of nearly everyone in their county — and not because they command great memories.

“We can’t just put people to sleep with numbers. We have to dig and find the greater context and tell it with story,” he said.

Ron Nixon picked it up from here, pointing out places in our data reporting where we can sneak in the human voice.

“We waste a lot of our reporting,” he said, comparing a reporter’s cutting room floor to all that’s wasted when a hunter mounts the head of a [insert exotic wild game here] on her wall and throws away all the meat.

There are places for all the quotes and anecdotes you worked hard to collect, so find a place to put them in.

Take Obama’s Budget Focuses on Path to Rein in Deficit, born last year when a New York Times online producer thought of a new way to report the budget: by having reporters annotate the parts of it that pertained to the agencies they covered. Document Cloud, meet narration.

Truly effective reporting is “more than just putting something up online and letting people figure it out,” Nixon said. He compared habits of simply embedding documents to the idea of bringing a hungry person to a locked glass refrigerator full of food. Seeing does not equal transparency, he said. We have to help our audiences understand what documents mean.

And we can help computers do this in more ways than you might realize, said Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times. He calls it human-assisted reporting.

It boils down to this: If we can write programs to automatically scrape certain websites for specific data, we really should just go the extra mile and teach the computer how to write its own story from what it finds

Like earthquakes. Redefining the tagline “this just in,” Los Angeles Times developers came up with a way to report them within seconds. (Their newsroom protocol still requires “human review” before any news is published, hence the 15-20 minute delay between the time an earthquake strikes and the time stamp on the site’s initial report.)

With a fistful of code — and the developers who can write it — automated reporting like this helps your newsroom break news first, work around public information officers, analyze instantly, and generate copy quickly. Leaving you more time to get and tell the stories.

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