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Data Delver: Matt Waite, St. Petersburg Times

Posted by on Jan 31, 2010 in Blog, CAR, data delvers | 2 Comments

Journalism in the modern era. What is it?

I’ve got some ideas, and a lot of questions, but I certainly don’t know the answer. It necessitates more than a story, more than an article, more than a photo, more than a Web page. I’m pretty certain of one thing, though: It’s got to do with data, and probably to do with data-driven applications. Analysis is important, but organize, distribute and call on that information in an interesting way — and you will drive eyeballs to your site, compel people to sit up and take notice. Maybe you call it the role of the programmer-journalist, the hacker-journalist. I see no need for those labels — I call it awesome, inspiring and essential.

Ask around for the definition of a data-driven application, and you’ll undoubtedly hear about Politifact, the Pulitzer-Prize winning data-driven app that fact checks our politicians. The application, created by Matt Waite, news technologist at the St. Petersburg Times, thinks about journalism in a new way.

I love it, but Politifact alone is not what makes Waite a subject I was anxious to chat with for this series. Waite has been an inspiration from afar, who I’ve followed as I’ve been pursuing journalism and programming. He’s not a computer science major, and built Politifact, his first Django-driven application in less than three months, learning Python and Django as he went. So what’s to stop a tech-inclined journalism student from giving it a fair shot?

This profile of Waite is a part of my continuing series I’m calling “Data Delvers,” where I pass on summaries, quotes and audio clips from conversations with journalists using technology to find, analyze and convey data-driven stories and/or projects to the modern audience.

On a personal note, my first experience with Waite was when I was in my computer-assisted reporting class with Derek Willis this fall, and we were discussing data banks. I said I thought posting lots of information is good, but the problem was that these banks lacked context. Willis told me about Waite’s post on data ghettos, I poked around the site and realized this was the person behind Politifact. It was at that moment that I realized it wasn’t just that I found a kindred intellectual spirit in Willis, but there was a second person! Later, I found hundreds more at IRE — but I digress.

One experience I have in common with Waite is that Willis is the one who introduced us to the concept of using frameworks. And now you can’t mention frameworks without hearing both of their names.


Learning about frameworks

Willis and Waite first met at the Nashville NICAR conference in 1997. Willis wrote to me that he thinks he first noticed Waite on the NICAR-L listserv, when Waite was a student and an intern at the Arkansas paper. Waite said that he met Willis and Aron Pilhofer, both now of the New York Times, and they just connected. “We were just three guys of a similar mind, with similar career vectors,” Waite said.

One thing Waite learned from those early years was to pay attention to the next big thing: “Derek told me he was writing in something called a weblog, and I dismissed it. Years later, he told me he was learning about some tools called Python and Django. I didn’t really listen. Little did I know how important it would be.”


CAR — it’s a natural fit

Waite first became acquainted with CAR in college, while attending journalism school at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. He had a professor, in the mid ’90s, who saw that he had an aptitude for computers, helping people around the newsroom, telling them which button to press. The professor encouraged him to pursue this field, but Waite didn’t take it seriously at the time. “I was an 18-year-old kid, I was more interested in chasing girls than playing with spreadsheets,” Waite said.

He continued to take journalism classes and work at the Daily Nebraskan. A few years later, Waite saw the same professor walk into the newsroom. Waite had heard that the professor had cancer, and was concerned about him.

“He looked like he was a few months away from death, because he was,” said Waite. “I said hello, asked him how he was…He grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, and said ‘What are you doing about computer-assisted reporting?’ It so surprised me that a man, with so much of his own to be worried about, was concerned about my career. And you can’t deny the wish of a dying man.”


Data-driven…mugshots?

Politifact was just the beginning. Waite, along with the rest of the three-person St. Petersburg Times team, created an application pulling in mugshots of the recently arrested, allowing users to sort by different characteristics or geographical locations. You can even pull down an RSS feed of arrests in your zip code. This piece created a large uprising in the “journalism with a capital J” community, as Waite calls it, asking if it was journalism.

“You wouldn’t believe the vitriole we saw, oh, the vitriole!” Waite exclaimed. He said that asking if it’s journalism is not the point, but if it’s useful to people, and if they are interested.  That application remains one of the most popular sections of tampabay.com. Last week, the paper profiled a reader, a feature they do every so often. The reader commented that his favorite part of tampabay.com was this mugshot application, which launched a debate in the comments section.

Waite said like it or not, the site is computer-generated and needs very little manpower, and it costs almost nothing to run. According to Waite, the mugshots application provides significant traffic for the news site. “It doesn’t ebb. It doesn’t flow. It’s just there,” he said.


Using code to practice journalism

Waite said there’s definitely a difference between people who crunch and analyze numbers, and those who use those numbers to imagine and create data-driven apps — he’s done both. The second sector is growing, and dwindling resources are causing cuts in the first sector. Waite said people who do both will probably end up in frameworks, simply because it’s more lucrative.

These apps have tremendous application on the local level, and he’s adjusted the paper’s high school sports site — a mainstay of many local papers — to take advantage of the power of data.  He’s put stats for every player and coach on separate pages, so that every person automatically has a “page for their mother.”  And it doesn’t have to be created by a web producer from scratch every game, it’s just pulled down from the data.

There’s still much more to be done with the potential of frameworks, Waite said, he’s currently working on a lot of basic “blocking and tackling” of frameworks, especially with his three-person group.


Coding apps: Those who can, should

Aspiring journalists should all have some understanding of how coding works, but not everyone needs to be able to do it. “You’ve got to have interest, ambition and talent,” Waite said.

He said sometimes he misses his computer-assisted reporting days, but he believes in what he’s doing now. “Sure, there are days I wish I could go out and cover a fire, get that adrenaline rush. But I’ve made peace. I think you have to ask yourself what you want to do, but also what journalism needs right now. And writers, they’re a dime a dozen. But we need more coders, we really need coders. So that’s what I do.”

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