Tips from the Investigative Reporters and Editors

July 16, 2014

I was recently in San Francisco where I was among a record 1,600 journalists attending this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.  Data was, of course, the darling of the hour. How to access it, clean it, mine it, fact-check it and match the numbers to human stories and produce compelling investigative stories with impact.

Another prominent theme was mobile and the challenge of designing stories for multiple platforms.

Speaking of mobile, some “fun facts”:

* There are 7 billion mobile devices in service today, more than people on earth

* About a billion and half of them are cell phones

* Most – about 75 percent — are android

* About one to two-thirds of traffic to websites is from mobile


At a panel on presentation as a tool for storytelling we heard from a TV station executive that half of their readers use smart phones to access their content. One way his station is engaging audience is through graphics and data that let people “get their hands dirty” by clicking on and interacting with the information as much as possible.


And some basic tips for presenting online:


*  Research has found that font choice can influence how long a reader will engage with the page. So here’s the “Golden Rule”: type face of at least 18 pixels or higher, very legible, sans serif fonts , and adequate white space between everything


* For long-form stories:  Lay down story bare on the page and start reading. Once you as the reader becomes distracted/daydreamy, you know that is where to plug in the next visual, audio or graphic.


One of the speakers was a project manager from Gannet who spoke about a popular long-form project they ran called “Behind the Bloodshed”, about mass killings in the US.


Here’s a link to the back story of putting that project together.


A couple of interesting take-aways from his presentation:


* Data should find basis of visualization


*The goal of journalism is to convey truth in accurate way so start with a foundation of data.


* If doing data visualization be concise and “bulletproof” (i.e. rock solid info) and do one or two things very clearly because we can easily overwhelm our info with info


* As readers tune in on small screens we can not afford to drown them in data


* Great data without clear visualization to make the points vibrant and understandable = government report.


* Be a fan of doing one thing well or just a couple of things well



And some other tips for first-time data folks:


  • Start with Excel and work way from. Over time you will learn how to analyze and find trends and find the stories within the data.


*   Think about how to visualize data, but nail the story first, i.e.  “Presentation is only as good as the content”.



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