St. Louis Public Radio reporter Chris McDaniel started highlighting lobbyist gifts to lawmakers in a regular series last spring to make the data more approachable. When they wanted to take it to the next level, they turned to NPR's news apps team for advice. St. Louis Public Radio and NPR's collaboration became LobbyingMissouri.org, which launched Nov. 1.
McDaniel and NPR Data Editor Matt Stiles recently joined us for a conversation to share how the planning for the site came together. Here are three takeaways that anyone can learn from, even if you don't plan on taking on a project quite this large:
Think User First
The NPR news apps team always goes through a lengthy planning exercise before starting any project so they can focus and use their time and resources wisely. These three questions are key:
- Who are the users?
- What are their needs?
- What is the simplest thing we can build to fulfill those needs?
They write user stories defining exactly who could use the site and what they would use it for as a way to prioritize what needs to be reported and built. As you can see in the image above, they defined several users, but St. Louis' staff prioritized their efforts. They eventually focused their time on two users and the features they'd need: voters and political junkies.
Fill in the blanks to make a user story: As a ____, I need/want to ____, so that I can ____. For example, here's one user story from LobbyingMissouri.org: As a voter, I want to see summary data for all lobbying, so that I can learn about the state’s lobbying climate.
While this process is common in agile software development, it can be used in content planning or even for a radio series. "It helps you cut through all the potential things you could do into what you really need to do," Stiles said.
Make Data More Valuable to Users
Don't just stop with the first round of data you get from your own state's ethics commission or city's source. In the webinar, McDaniel shared how they reported more on the data and spent a lot of time cleaning it up (carpal tunnel was mentioned.) McDaniel also maintains a friendly relationship with the person who he gets the data from, so they could keep going back and asking for more.
If the data doesn't exist or is particularly inaccessible, that's worth a story, too, McDaniel and Stiles pointed out. While a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, Stiles reported on the inaccessibility of campaign gift data in Houston compared to other big cities. The city eventually reacted and made an online database.
McDaniel encouraged reporters to just start somewhere when approaching reporting with data. "It doesn’t have to be as in depth or as large as this project ended up being," McDaniel said. "But there are plenty of things you can do with lobbying data if you get it from the source."
Try something pared down, Stiles suggested. Try a Google Doc with a few pieces of interesting data, or experiment with Tableau Public or any other program that lets you play with the data. Get more ideas from "The Basics of Data Journalism."
For more from the conversations with McDaniel and Stiles, watch the webinar or click through the slides below:
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