Early lessons from the Crosstown Data Journalism Pilot

By Frank Mungeam • LMA chief innovation officer

When it comes to news transformation, I have a short-list of personal “trigger words” including: “pivot,” “audience engagement” and “innovation.” All are legitimately important. But these terms are too often abused and misused as buzzwords. For me, “data journalism” is a phrase that carries similar risk. It’s popular to throw the concept around. But how many newsrooms have truly incorporated effective data-driven story discovery and storytelling? And, how many have succeeded in extending those capabilities beyond a single “data guru” to make data accessible to all newsroom reporters?

Early in 2021, Local Media Association launched a data journalism pilot project to get practical answers to these questions. With funding from the Facebook Journalism Project, LMA partnered with Crosstown to equip newsrooms at WRAL-TV and NOLA.com/The Advocate with data storytelling technology developed at the University of Southern California in a collaboration between the Annenberg School of Journalism and the Viterbi School of Engineering.

In April, each news partner published its first data-powered story. But before those first stories could be found and reported, each newsroom had to invest time collaborating with the engineering team at Crosstown to locate, access and sort datasets relevant to their local communities.

Newsrooms need an engineer

The first lesson these newsrooms learned? “Every news organization needs a software engineer,” said Gabriel Kahn, Crosstown project lead. Of course, that’s not practical in many newsrooms. But a team member with technical savvy is essential. Most journalists are trained for storytelling, not for technical expertise.

The key for each newsroom in building a foundation for future data storytelling was to identify and involve the right stakeholders with the right technical expertise. “With a little bit of know-how, these engineers can equip reporters with so much powerful data,” Kahn said.

Cleaning the data

Those technical details included: setting up a data query tool (for our project, the teams are using the open-source platform Metabase); creating local instances for accessing the query tool; creating the right permissions so different team members have the appropriate levels of access (e.g., “view” vs. “edit”); setting up or connecting cloud accounts for handling data storage; and then finding, ingesting and cleaning key local data sources so there is meaningful data for journalists to query.

With that work complete at the end of March, Kahn and the Crosstown team trained the data journalists at each newsroom and, in April, each team published its first data article powered by the Crosstown/Metabase data tool.

Finding stories in the data

The team at WRAL examined how crime rates have begun to rise as COVID restrictions have eased. The data revealed a spike in crime correlated to the relaxation of pandemic-imposed limits on activity in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area.

A premise of the pilot project is that stories that include neighborhood-level data detail will be more engaging for audiences. That’s exactly what the team at WRAL saw with their first story. “Time spent on this story was about 2 minutes and 20 seconds,” said John Conway, WRAL digital vice president, who noted that was four times higher than the session time for a typical web story.

Meanwhile, the team in New Orleans examined the relationship between accident rates and insurance rates for residents, both in terms of reductions during COVID-19 and the recent bounce-back.

The data team combined police crash reports with insurance rate data. The story demonstrated how crashes plummeted during the peak of the pandemic, but had begun to trend back up; and, that insurance rates had been reduced in 2020 — but by less than the rate of crashes — and had already begun to tick back up in 2021.

Both newsrooms are encouraged by the early results from their data-powered stories, and already planning their next projects.

“The Crosstown platform enables us to uncover stories hidden in plain sight thanks to a simpler process for analyzing data,” said NOLA.com publisher Judi Terzotis. “We always knew there was a wealth of stories waiting to be told in local data; now we can tell find and tell them much faster, instead of spending weeks or months crunching numbers or writing code.”

“It was a testament to how quick and easy it can be to produce data-driven stories that previously would have required so much heavy lifting,” said Crosstown’s Kahn. “These newsrooms already command large audiences. Now they have the ability to deliver neighborhood-level insights to an entire city. I’m excited by how they can use that to drive engagement and better connect with their community.”

“This innovative work in local news is so exciting and the Facebook Journalism Project is proud to be a supporter. Keeping local communities informed with data-driven storytelling is more important than ever and we are grateful for the Local Media Association and the Crosstown team for their hours of hard work to make this possible,” said Dorrine Mendoza, Facebook news partnerships.

About the project partners:

Crosstown is a technology developed at USC as a data tool for journalists in a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication and the Viterbi School of Engineering. It powers Crosstown_LA, a nonprofit news organization based at the Annenberg School.

WRAL-TV is a family-owned broadcast and digital media company with a long tradition of innovation and industry leadership. WRAL is privately owned by Capitol Broadcasting Co. and is the leading TV and digital news source in the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina.

NOLA.com/The Advocate is the leading print-and-digital source of news serving New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the state of Louisiana, with its publishing and community roots dating to 1842.

The Facebook Journalism Project works with publishers around the world to strengthen the connection between journalists and the communities they serve.through training, programs, and partnerships.

Local Media Association is a thriving and innovative organization serving more than 3,000 newspapers, TV stations, digital news sites, radio stations and research & development partners. Local Media Foundation is a 501(c)(3) charitable trust that supports the mission of LMA and the essential role of local news and information in a healthy democracy.