Of course, news-gathering organizations have to some degree understood the value and power of data for more than twenty years. Bill Dedman’s 1989 Pulitzer-winning investigation into the racist lending practices of Atlanta banks relied heavily on database reporting and was widely seen as a validation of computer geeks in the newsroom.
But even after many organizations hired computer-assisted reporting specialists, using data for stories has usually been limited to big investigations and projects. And with good reason: years ago, data-driven stories were almost prohibitively inefficient to write. A reporter had to identify what data he needed and which agency collected them; it often took a FOIA request to secure the data, which tended to arrive in sheaves of dot-matrix-printed paper. It was then up to the reporters to build their databases—by hand.
That’s not the case anymore. Agencies maintain and disseminate their data electronically. While there are still plenty of data sets that require diligence, persistence, and FOIA requests, many can be accessed without even speaking with a human being. And in the newsroom, every reporter has a spreadsheet program like Excel or can find one for free online. The logjam, these days, has more to do with reporters’ and editors’ interests and aptitudes—with their capacity for number-crunching—than it does with technology.
At the Bristol paper, Gilbert clearly needed help. His editor, Todd Foster, had been Gilbert’s champion and mentor on the story thus far, but he knew little about managing thousands of rows of data. Neither did anyone else in the newsroom. Gilbert, however, knew who did: Investigative Reporters and Editors. For years, this journalism nonprofit has been running computer-assisted reporting workshops, called Boot Camps, on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia and around the country. At the six-day workshop, Gilbert would learn how to use spreadsheets and a more sophisticated database management program—the two fundamental tools he needed to manipulate the data he had. The only issue was getting Foster to say yes.
That was hardly a slam dunk. Of course, Foster wanted Gilbert to nail down the story. But as one of seven reporters on staff at the Herald Courier, Gilbert typically generated three or four stories a week. His colleagues would have to scramble to fill the hole during his absence. Then there was the cost. The Herald Courier and its parent company, Media General, were suffering the same economic hardships as the rest of the newspaper industry. In 2009, Media General mandated fifteen furlough days for most of its 4,700-plus employees, equivalent to a 5.8 percent pay cut. Sending Gilbert to Missouri, in this climate, was not an easy sell: tuition for the workshop was $560, plus travel to and from Columbia, lodging, and meals for a week. The total came to around $1,240, and the reporter would need to use his vacation days to attend.
Still, a potentially important story and six months of work hung in the balance. That weekend, Foster called on the paper’s publisher at home, with a few cans of Red Bull and a bottle of vodka in hand. They covered a variety of business issues, and “at the end of the night, I sprung the Boot Camp on him,” Foster recalls. “He said, ‘Is it worth it?’ I said, ‘It’s worth it. And in April, it might really be worth it.’ ” Soon Gilbert was on his way to Missouri.
Foster never told Gilbert they expected him to win a Pulitzer for their trouble—at least not in so many words. But the reporter understood that the expectations were high. “They didn’t send me there saying, ‘Go have fun,’ ” he notes. “It was more like, ‘This better be worth it.’ I felt a good deal of pressure to make it count.”
This is a fairly standard expectation. Most newsrooms assume that journalists will immediately put their new skills into practice. When Reuters recently sent six beat reporters to one of the ire Boot Camps, they were all required to pitch a story to work on while they attended the session. “We want to see the stories,” said Claudia Parsons, Reuters’ deputy enterprise editor for the Americas. “That will be the test.”