This is part of a series about Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge winners in North America and how they’re putting funding to work developing sustainable business models, diversifying revenue streams, and increasing audience engagement. Watch the webinar from Wednesday, Nov. 18, which explores lessons from three TV broadcasters all innovating to connect with new and diverse audiences.
By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
ABC Owned Television Stations are out to prove that advanced data journalism can be done daily in TV broadcast news. A 12-person data team was established across its stations as part of a strategic initiative to make data journalism a core capability across its newsrooms and drive hyperlocal, high-impact local reporting.
A grant from the 2019 Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge supercharged its data journalism vision through the California Open Data Exchange (C.O.D.E.). Through C.O.D.E., ABC developed a systematic approach to analyzing public data, starting in California, then accelerating the public-service impact of the station group’s reporting across its three California stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Fresno.
This model’s success has expanded the approach across ABC’s eight owned stations nationwide, producing more than 600 stats-driven stories nationwide in 2020. The reporting, which is hyper-localized per market, draws from hundreds of government and private data sources.
Among the goals also is communicating data by inventing new ways to bring the statistics to life on video.
“The challenge is bringing all these stories to life in video,” said Anna Robertson, vice president of content and partner innovation for ABC Owned Television Stations. “We knew early on if we could figure this out in California, then we could take this data infrastructure to other stations around the country.”
Normally, large datasets can take days or weeks to break down and visualize data for a broadcast audience. Now the reporting staff has “real-time awareness” when news breaks because relevant information has been compiled and organized by data journalists.
“We’re gaining an understanding of this ecosystem so we can bend it to the needs of the news of the day,” said John L. Kelly, director of data journalism for ABC Owned Television Stations. “Because news is always unpredictable, but there are certain elements that are always predictable.”
The news staff also receives weekly data reports and attends biweekly training classes to incorporate data journalism best practices into their daily reporting efforts.
“This kind of work is usually done around big investigations, but we’re hoping for a more thoughtful and holistic approach,” Robertson said.
The project pivoted slightly this spring to accommodate COVID-19 coverage, proving especially useful early in the pandemic when data from different health authorities still had to be pieced together by news organizations to tell the whole story.
“COVID is really a data story, and we had already hired [data] fellows, so we decided to expand the data journalism work,” Robertson said. “We were perfectly positioned to tell these stories in really impactful ways.”
ABC’s coverage of important earthquake retrofit readiness of California hospitals, social justice protests, and the California wildfires also benefited from the data-driven reporting approach. The California stations shared data about every local hospital’s earthquake safety ratings, including a searchable database and stories like this one in San Francisco. The data team created a live map of California wildfire activity and air quality that served the three coverage areas and the rest of the state.
Here are several other reporting examples of the group’s data journalism work:
“Our America: Living While Black”— a five-part documentary series that goes beyond the statistics using animated visuals to quantify systemic racism, structural barriers and disparities facing Black Americans.
“Without Warning”—This data-driven investigation revealed fire safety hazards using smoke alarm inspection data to develop a searchable database and hyperlocal investigations specific to the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Fresno markets.
“Disaster in Motion”—ABC owned stations in California worked with their network partners at ABC News to track millions of flights to show how COVID-19 spread via international arrivals, in particular into the Los Angeles and San Francisco airports. The reporting produced unique local and national versions of the story.
Another collaboration with FiveThirtyEight and ABC News mapped access disparities to COVID-19 testing locations. It revealed that Black and Latino communities are more likely to experience longer wait times to receive COVID-19 and understaffed testing centers, with unique local investigations drawn from the California stations’ data.
Newsroom staff has been even more enthusiastic about leveraging data than Kelly initially hoped. That has helped the ABC owned stations gain a competitive advantage, he said.
“We’ve had news directors come back and say the story they had was different than what other stations had in the market,” Kelly said.
The collaborations with ABC News and FiveThirtyEight also opened lines of communication between the local and national operations. Robertson said a new position was created to coordinate data-driven investigations between the station group and the national news teams.
The end goal, she said, is to gain a reputation for data reporting that holds local officials accountable and identifies solutions to unearthed problems.
“Let’s not just tell the story, let’s affect change in the communities we cover,” Robertson said.
The C.O.D.E. project has expanded across all ABC’s owned stations outside of California. The concept could even help ABC serve new markets and news deserts because data is easier to hyper-localize, she said.
“Hyperlocal news at scale is at the center of our vision,” said Robertson, who is also considering ways to “spin-off other digital products that might be appealing to the next generation of news consumers.”