Posted in Industry Insights

The future of data journalism in local news

, by Lauren Easton

Thanks to an expert team of data journalists, AP has set a new standard for the industry and helped define collaborative, data-driven journalism at a time when local news needs it most.

Over the past three years, AP has used funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to expand its team of data journalists, substantially increase the number of data distributions supplied to local newsrooms and establish best practices, including through the creation of a data journalism chapter in the AP Stylebook.

“AP’s data distribution efforts are like rocket fuel for local journalism,” said AP Managing Editor Brian Carovillano. “In 2018 alone, our data was downloaded nearly 1,400 times by journalists in more than 300 local newsrooms. That translates into hundreds of local stories from across the country that would not otherwise have been told. When paired with AP’s own state- and national-level reporting, this journalism provides a rich, multi-layered look at topics that are essential and newsworthy.”

A router and internet switch are displayed in East Derry, New Hampshire, June 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

AP organizes and formats data so it can be understood by journalists who don’t have advanced data journalism skills, and posts it on the collaborative data.world platform, where local reporters can mine the data for local stories and visualize the results. They can also ask questions and share story ideas. 

“The data sharing program has been a multiplying force for our data journalism and has helped member journalists wield the power of data for high-impact local reporting,” said Troy Thibodeaux, AP’s data team editor. “There’s no shortcut for the time-consuming work of vetting, cleaning and understanding the data, but with our distributions, the reach of that work has expanded dramatically.” 

“To build a strong future for journalism we need to make sure our local news organizations are equipped to meet new information demands and deliver quality news,” said Paul Cheung, Knight Foundation director for journalism and technology and innovation. “The AP’s data team model will help showcase stories that would otherwise go untold; its focus on collaboration and news grounded in data will further advance the role of local journalists in delivering trusted news to communities.”

With data, supporting materials, explanatory webinars and frequent coaching from AP data journalists, member news organizations are creating distinctive local accountability journalism with real impact.

“Data-driven journalism is highly valuable for local news organizations, but so many lack the resources to deliver it on their own. We plan to continue offering local newsrooms the data they need to find and tell fact-based stories that make a difference in their communities,” said Noreen Gillespie, AP deputy managing editor for U.S. News.

Some examples of how local news outlets have used AP data to deliver real-world results include:

  • When reporters from The Detroit News confronted Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson with AP data showing a proposed rent hike for recipients of federal housing subsidies, they were able to be precise: Renters would see a 20 percent increase across the board under the proposal. Carson walked back the proposal on the spot.
  • Several school districts, including Broward County, Florida, and Denver, Colorado, decided they would no longer seek grants from the National Rifle Association after detailed reporting by AP and member news organizations on the number and value of those grants.
  • AP’s collaboration with nonprofit news outlet Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting amplified the impact of a project digging into the effects of unfair lending practices. Dozens of news organizations used the data to compare their cities to others. Now, state attorneys general in five states and the District of Columbia have launched investigations of the practice, along with local investigations in other cities. The project earned a 2019 duPont Award from Columbia University.