The AP is using data journalism to help strengthen local newsrooms

February 4, 2019

The forces facing local news aren’t all bad.

Report for America is putting more reporters in local newsrooms. ProPublica’s adding local investigative journalists. And in the last three years, the Associated Press has worked with member newsrooms to localize data stories.

On Monday, the AP shared the results of a project it started to get localized data to local newsrooms and help journalists make the best use of it. In 2018, the AP saw 1,400 downloads from 300 local newsrooms on its data.world platform, said AP managing editor Brian Carovillano.

“Given the crisis in local news, I think it’s something really notable,” he said. “We’re enabling local news coverage on hard-hitting topics at a really massive scale.”

Some examples the AP cites in a press release:
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  • Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson backed off a plan to raise rent for people who get federal housing subsidies after The Detroit News reported that rents would rise by 20 percent.
  • The (Allentown, Pennsylvania,) Morning Call showed that drug overdoses took a life nearly every day in 2017, “a significant increase from previous years.”
  • A data analysis thought up by a member of AP’s Missouri team showed that partisan gerrymandering has benefited the GOP.

The AP used funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to grow its data team and increase the data distributions to local newsrooms, according to a press release. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation helps fund my coverage of local news.)

The idea for this started in 2013, said Troy Thibodeaux, AP data team editor.

“We saw that for each national data-driven project, we were putting in a tremendous amount of effort to get the data right: finding the data, vetting it for discrepancies, interviewing the data source to make sure we understood what we were seeing in the right context. At the same time, we knew that there were stories in the data not covered by the national trend and selected examples that were the focus of our stories and visualizations.”

The AP started offering the data to members to see what stories they could find for their audiences. In 2016, the project expanded significantly, Thibodeaux said, to offer support to reporters who don’t have data skills.

Here’s how it works:

“Whenever AP produces a large data-driven project with granular data (for example, with data points for every county or for a large number of cities), we package it up with supporting documentation and customizable queries that news organizations can use to localize the story,” Thibodeaux said. “We deliver the data via the data sharing platform data.world through a special AP organization that includes our data distribution members.”

Often, member newsrooms get the data and the national story on embargo so they have time to work on it. And for complex data sets, the AP offers a webinar to walk users through the data.

The Morning Call has used AP’s datasets to report on opioid prescriptions, NRA foundation grants, funding for sheltering immigrant children and more, said Eugene Tauber, a senior data journalist there.

“In most instances, the AP provided context and expertise on the datasets that we would have difficulty doing on our own. Through the addition of webinars, narratives and added data definitions we were able to localize and contextualize complex data in short order,” he said.

“A few of the datasets have had a very long shelf life and have been able to be reused as subjects, such as climate change, are revisited.”

Formatting the data is a big part of the project, Carovillano said, but mentoring the local newsrooms is, too.

This helps newsrooms that don’t have data teams get past those barriers. Next, he’d like to see the AP put more data into the system and increase the number of AP members who use it. The AP didn’t charge for use of data.world datasets last year, but this year there will be a charge.

The benefits, though, can be huge.

“Data is often the strongest source for a story – it can help lift a story beyond the anecdotal and provide a common point of reference for differing perspectives,” Thibodeaux said. “But far too few local newsrooms have the skills on staff to make the most of the opportunities data journalism can provide.”

Even for newsrooms that have data journalists on staff, the time those projects takes can be a barrier, he said.

“We’ve tried to help lower the bar to entry and expand access to the power of data. The response has been incredible – local newsrooms have used this data to tell hard-hitting stories with immediate impact. The work they’ve done with this data has informed their readers and had a real effect on their local communities, and that’s what we’re all after in the end.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this story paraphrased and quoted AP managing editor Brian Carovillano, who said newsrooms that used data.world already wouldn’t be charged but newsrooms new to the service would be charged. That information was incorrect. An AP spokesperson followed up and told Poynter that all newsrooms will have to pay for the service.