Total Newsroom Training with The Daytona Beach News-Journal
This guest post was written by Pat Rice, editor of The Daytona Beach News-Journal in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The News-Journal applied for the program last spring, in an effort to improve our collective database skills as well as give our reporters some expert advice on how to find great stories inside databases that can be culled from pretty much any beat. The program lasted two full days. Our trainer was IRE Senior Training Director Jaimi Dowdell.
I personally took dozens of ideas away from our TNT session, but here are five ideas that really stuck:
1) Every reporter in every newsroom ought to know the basics of Excel, and how to use it to search for patterns in data that can lead to stories worth telling. And, every reporter ought to be seeking electronic databases from their respective beats. It could be salary data, or budget data, or permit data, or crime data, or any of dozens of other readily available databases. The list is really endless. During our session, I was surprised to see that many of our reporters already have good Excel skills, but most of them haven’t habitually sought data from their beats. That’s going to change, and not because of any forced march. It’s going to change because, thanks to this training, our reporters and editors now want to seek more databases.
2) Databases should not just be used on “big” projects that take weeks or months of time to complete. Many of the data-driven story ideas Jaimi shared with our newsroom can be turned around for daily or weekend stories. An example: Salary, budget and permit data from government agencies can often be used to flesh out daily reporting about those agencies. Similarly, crime data can be used to bring a layer of depth to crime stories.
3) Database stories take time, and it’s up to reporters and editors to find the time for them. Top management can help by making database journalism a clear priority. But the onus is really on individual journalists to practice good time management that helps them find the extra time in the day to mine databases.
4) All of us want to do “big stories with impact,” and none of us can afford “fishing expeditions.” Jaimi suggested two important steps that lead to more successful projects and fewer fishing expeditions. First, reporters with good data-driven story ideas should take the time needed to properly investigate them before bringing them to an editor. In other words, do a good “sniff test” to determine whether your idea is solid enough to pursue. Secondly, before delving deeply into any project, editors and reporters need to create a “story board” that includes a short synopsis that clearly explains what the project will show, as well as photos, graphics, and of course, databases that can be shared online.
5) Finally, when it comes to mining databases, be curious, be creative, think big, have fun and practice, practice, practice. Excel skills can become rusty in a hurry for those who don’t regularly use them. (I know this from personal experience.)
A final tip: I highly encourage other editors to apply for IRE’s TNT program. It was worth thousands of dollars, and we received it for free. It was a fantastic holiday gift.