Every number tells a story, if you can find the numbers. That’s one of several lessons from two newsrooms that partnered with Crosstown LA to integrate more data-driven storytelling into their local journalism.

The project, enabled with funding from Facebook Journalism Project and supported by Local Media Association, has equipped newsrooms at WRAL-TV and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune/The Advocate with a data storytelling reporter and also technology developed at the University of Southern California in a collaboration between the Annenberg School of Journalism and the Viterbi School of Engineering.

The two newsrooms combined have now reported more than 40 stories grounded in local, publicly available datasets. Four takeaways have emerged from the metrics of top-performing articles, and those takeaways offer lessons for any newsroom interested in growing audiences by serving specific communities with neighborhood-level information.

1. Data leads you to stories your audience cares about

“News,” it turns out, is what affects you in your daily life. For example, trash not getting picked up on time by the city. “Our biggest stories were about the way city services, specifically trash collection, were failing residents, “ said Kayla Gagnet, senior editor, digital, at NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune/The Advocate. “The 311 dataset gave us information the city contractors would not.”

This screen grab from the story shows how the data can be visualized.

The 311 hotline is a service available in many U.S. cities that enables citizens to report non-emergency issues in their community. The data team in New Orleans used the data from 311 call records to quantify areas where the city was failing to deliver on key services, from trash to potholes. The stories generated so much interest that the newsroom has done multiple follow-up stories.

That data leads to accountability, added Lauren Whaley, Crosstown’s project manager. “Sanitation contractors say they picked up the trash, but the readers’ experiences — and the data — prove otherwise. That’s how you make the data empowering for a community.”

2. Data distinguishes anecdotes from trends

As any audience engagement editor knows, the unusual story can catch attention and drive visits to a news website. What’s often harder to answer is: Was the incident a one-off or an indicator of a larger trend? The collaboration with Crosstown has helped the two newsrooms answer that question.

“I appreciate that Metabase (data) helps me assess anecdotal complaints I see on Nextdoor and in the community,” said Missy Wilkinson, data reporter at NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune/The Advocate. “It takes very little time to visualize the data around hot topics like short-term rentals, potholes and looting and find out whether or not there’s a real trend.”

An example from WRAL using public data and storytelling driven by experiences of the audience.

Likewise, when not one but two children in the Raleigh area were killed by dog bites, WRAL used data to make the connection between the tragic headline and an unexpected effect of the pandemic. The WRAL data team showed that dog bites overall were up sharply during the pandemic, and its follow-up reporting identified the combination of increased pandemic-driven dog adoptions combined with the lack of animal socialization opportunities due to lockdowns and distancing requirements. Those numbers helped the team put these individual headline-grabbing incidents into their larger context, and connect to the root causes.

3. Crime does matter, when it’s in your neighborhood

WRAL has also seen strong audience interest in data that puts crime stories in context. We may all agree there’s too much crime news “Tonight at 11,” but people do want to know about crime and crime trends in their own neighborhoods.

After a man was shot and killed at a Raleigh nightclub, the WRAL team dug deeper and used data to document both the volume and severity of crime incidents tied to a local bar. The team’s reporting revealed 28 aggravated assault calls within a one-mile-radius of the bar since January 2020.

4. Neighborhood rank matters

People want to know how their neighborhoods compare. That’s a top takeaway from the data team at Crosstown, which publishes hyperlocal data for 100 communities in Los Angeles.

“In L.A., when we can tell people how many COVID-19 cases occurred in their neighborhood, engagement soars,” said Gabriel Kahn, Crosstown’s publisher and professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. “Even better is when we put that information in context, such as telling people where their neighborhood ranks against others for stolen car reports or burglaries.”

Opportunities abound for local data-ranking stories: from COVID-19 cases and vaccination rates to local school ratings, car break-ins and other crime reports. One of Crosstown LA’s most popular “ranking” stories revealed which neighborhoods filed the most complaints to police.

The bottom line, according to Kahn: “The more local the data, the more powerful it is.”

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 Times-Picayune/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.