In the wake of hard-fought midterm elections, it’s crystal clear how much quality data matters. It’s also clear how much quality local news matters.

Crosstown, a project out of the University of Southern California, has been combining the two. We’re equipping local newsrooms with up-to-date data about the communities they cover through a Local Media Association program funded by the Meta Journalism Project. The partners recently had the opportunity to present what we learned at the Society for Professional Journalists MediaFest22 conference in Washington, D.C.

Though the software engineering is complicated, the premise of Crosstown is simple: In most big cities, data is publicly available on everything from crime to traffic to resident complaints, even parking tickets. If local newsrooms have easy access to that data, they can use it to report on some of the most directly relevant topics that affect people in those communities. Crosstown has created a dashboard that allows anyone in a participating newsroom to sort local data sets easily to find out, for example, how many new homes are being built in a particular neighborhood, or the number of stolen cars across a city.

Gabriel Kahn

When local newsrooms have this data at their fingertips, it can work like a truth serum. In Raleigh, North Carolina, our LMA/Crosstown partner WRAL recently put this tool to use to track a sudden spike in the number of assaults. During our MediaFest panel, WRAL’s enterprise executive editor, Ashley Talley, explained that because the reporter had the actual data, it changed the tenor of the interview she conducted with the district attorney. The reporter could analyze the crime trends herself, and didn’t have to depend on the official for an interpretation.

At MediaFest, it quickly became apparent how access to this data can level the playing field when local newsrooms have to report on institutions. A reporter from a TV station in Fresno approached us at the conference. He wanted access to crime data so that the next time the local sheriff called a press conference, he didn’t have to simply parrot back whatever statistics law enforcement provided. With independent access to the data, he could do his own analysis, even on deadline.

The Crosstown editorial team has seen the power of direct access to data during a brutal and expensive race for mayor in Los Angeles. A central theme of businessman Rick Caruso’s campaign was that the city had become more dangerous, insisting that “people don’t feel safe.” Crosstown has all the data, and the actual picture is more nuanced. It’s true that crime has ticked up recently, but it’s at roughly the same level it was before the pandemic. Certain neighborhoods have seen a spike, while others have seen crime diminish.

Likewise, our LMA/Crosstown newsroom partner Advocate leveraged data to report on inconsistent trash pick-up in communities across New Orleans. That’s the kind of local story that really resonates with people in their communities. Armed with the data, news organizations can do reporting that gets results for their audiences.

Making data accessible to all reporters in a newsroom, not just the “data guru,” allows local news organizations to push back against campaign narratives that bend the facts. Just as importantly, our ability to report the data ourselves, rather than rely on figures that are filtered through others, allows us to project credibility that few others can claim.

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. 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.

WBEZ Chicago, part of NPR’s global newsgathering service, is a source of indispensable enterprising news and information that drives civic conversation and engages a large and diverse audience.

The Meta 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.