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Data Delver: William Hartnett, Palm Beach Post

There’s a fine line between loving your work, and falling into a deep obsession.  I don’t pretend to understand the distinction, what some call an obsession, I call it loving learning and seeing a project through.  I think it’s very easy to become sucked in to something, when it’s something that matters. I know I love programming for journalism because hours go by when I’m spending time with Think Python. And a good journalistic story/project has become my life many times.

Drive, obsession, whatever you call it — it’s about sticking to your principles and going after new knowledge with vigor.  That’s why I related to a reporter who stuck to the real estate beat, developed a deep specialization, and created a new digital product by taking risks. He has created, and continues to develop, Florida Home, a site that combines data and journalism to provide personalized information that truly matters to people. I get the importance of doing whatever it takes to provide information no matter what.  It takes true dedication to know what you believe in, and then go for it.  And that’s the philosophy of the Online Innovations Editor at the Palm Beach Post, William Hartnett.



This profile of Hartnett 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.

Falling into data and mapping

Hartnett was introduced to CAR in a class at the University of Florida, but didn’t think it would be where his career specialization was.  When he graduated in 2000, he started work at the Palm Beach Post.   At the end of that year, and throughout 2001, census data was released, and that meant it was data crunching time.  So, Hartnett remembered what he could about introductory data work, and took it from there.    He was told he was the census reporter for the region.  “Once I started working with those data, I decided I liked that a lot better than I did what I was doing at the time, and it just never stopped rolling,” he said.    He worked with more tools, including geographic information systems (GIS) to learn about mapping.

His focus turned to real estate, and he saw how important the topic was to readers.  But daily stories, and even long-term investigations, weren’t satisfying Hartnett, who said they yielded more advocacy and political responses than feedback from the typical reader.  He knew there was more potential. “Readers tend to connect more with everyday, tangible projects and issues.  And real estate is one of the big ones down here.  It’s also evergreen.  It’s always interesting in that it’s either going up or going down spectacularly.”


Specializing in real estate

Audio: The importance of specializationThe importance of specializing — and obsessing.

In 2005, Hartnett developed some custom maps looking at real estate in the area for a project, but thought a greater level of detail could be achieved.  It was time to move on, though.  “In the fall of 2006, I just decided on my own without asking anybody, or more importantly, without telling anybody, that I was just going to build a new map layer that was real-world, that literally mapped every single neighborhood, no matter how small.”  He stayed late at the newsroom, didn’t tell anyone what he was doing for months, hoping to only alert others when so far along, it demanded to be used.    People started asking questions, he started working from home.  Hours and months of work ultimately turned into Florida Home, using the power of data and the Web to provide information about real estate and the pricing of your property.  That digital product is now Hartnett’s primary responsibility for the Palm Beach Post.

Why did he do it? “It’s not a path I’d recommend, for career success or advancement, I get pretty committed to things that I think are worthwhile, so I’m willing to go a bit further than most people would think is a good idea to get those things done.”

Part of the reasons Hartnett devoted himself to such a long-term project was because of dissatisfaction with how news projects are often run.  He said it’s better with the Web, but before all your hard work would be in a special section and then gone  — “When it’s over, it’s over.”  The data itself would merely be stored on someone’s hard drive, not accessible to the outside world.  It would be lost forever, as far as the public was concerned.

Sometimes he would share maps created with the agencies who provided the data, so they could have information with his added features.


Lack of basic CAR skills = journalistic malpractice

Like other CAR journalists, Hartnett believes that every reporter should have some knowledge of data, although there’s room for specialists to have some more advanced knowledge.  Every reporter hired should know how to use the necessary tools, Hartnett said, and it’s no better to hire someone who can’t use math and computer-assisted reporting than someone who can’t use a telephone.  “That to me was just journalism malpractice.  Literally, it’s as bad as a doctor who doesn’t keep up to date in their skills over a course of a 20-year career, or starts off their career knowing none of the techniques developed in the past 20 years.”  He’s heartened by the fact that some listings for general reporters include a requirement of having some CAR skills.  It’s an improvement, but for Hartnett, it’s just the beginning.  “It’s probably to our detriment that we’ve allowed it to become, and be called, a subset, as though it were a sort of optional, specialized skill.”


More details in the extended transcript

I’m bringing back edited transcripts from conversations as I have time. Answers have been abridged for clarity, interest and logical flow. For more on devoting yourself to one project, what reporters should know about data and CAR, and more in Hartnett’s own words — keep reading.



What was it that interested you in CAR, and how were you introduced to it?

I was introduced to it in a class in college at the University of Florida. It was a class taught by a guy who was then a visiting professor, Wayne Garcia. At the time I didn’t realize quite how much I would owe him after taking the class my senior year, in 1999 or 2000. I took the class and we covered spreadsheet basics, database basics, but I forgot about that for a couple years after I graduated in 2000 and started working as a reporter at the Palm Beach Post.

My first job for about two years was in a bureau, and very traditional reporting, general assignment, cops, covering a small town. It was really only because of the 2000 census that I was kind of forced to remember the things that I had learned in that class, in the introduction to working with data.

Then I was told that I was going to be our area’s census reporter. Once I started working with those data, I decided I liked that a lot better than I did what I was doing at the time, and it just never stopped rolling from there. It’s kind of a chance class I took in j-school and the timing of the census was right as I was coming out of college, the census was being completed, and about a year in, I started doing it seriously. As part of that, I started boning up on the things I had forgotten from school, and getting into GIS, etc.



Were you mostly working on your own for the GIS, did you have any mentors that you helped you learn about it?

We had some people doing GIS at our newspaper at the time. Christine Stapleton had been at the Palm Beach Post for years, and she was the CAR editor back then, she’s the one who suggested I get into this. I messed around on my own a little bit. I went to one of those week-long boot camps at the University of Missouri back in 2001 or 2002, and that became the focus of the work I was most interested in: mapping. For the past several years, I haven’t really been a reporter or even worked in a newsroom, although I moved back to the newsroom last week. I haven’t written stories in a while, but I continue doing GIS.



Did you go back to the newsroom in preparation for the census?

No. As you’ll find in most newsrooms, we’ve been reorganized and downsized so many times in the past few years that we all keep getting moved around. At the end of 2007, I was still in the newsroom as a computer-assisted reporting specialist, and already for about a year I had been working on generating map data that would become this real estate site that I still work on. In the beginning of 2008, I moved to the web side of the newsroom, and started working with a couple of web developers. After that, I moved into operations and during that whole process there were a couple of rounds of buyouts and layouts and downsizing and reorganization. I think we’ve had four different publishers in the past two years. Now I’m back in the newsroom, but still working in the same role on the operations and development end of our web site.



What has been the reader response to your work?

I’m especially interested in single topics, which is something I don’t think we’re allowed to do often enough in journalism. I’ve been doing pretty much nothing but real estate for about four years now. Because when a topic is as important as that is, both to our business and overall, and particularly here in south Florida, I think you should never let go of that. So I’ve focused on real estate for four years.

One of the reasons for that is I find it personally interesting, but also because of the response you get about that topic. Whether or not people care about their neighborhood in some sort of ‘50s ideal sense of community, they certainly care from a selfish perspective about the value of their home. You get a lot of response from people when you do database work. It affects them in such a direct way.

We’ve also done the typical enterprise story. It was a 13-month-long project, an investigation of hiring practices. That’s good work, and in one case we got a whole system of hiring practices changed, but you don’t get a lot of reader response to that sort of thing. You get a lot of advocate and politician response, and that’s obviously what you want to happen.

But readers tend to connect more with everyday, tangible projects and issues. And real estate is one of the big ones down here. It’s also evergreen. It’s always interesting in that it’s either going up or going down spectacularly.



What enabled you to stay devoted to real estate?

I wouldn’t necessarily advise this to anyone else as a strategic career path. I tend to convince myself that certain topics are important enough for us to do that I should be willing to get fired over that. Too often there’s been cases over the years, it’s been a decade now, where I wouldn’t ask for permission to do anything. And I would just hide out until something was too done to say no to.

In 2005, during the housing boom, I developed this custom set of maps for our area that was at a deep level of accuracy, but I was never really happy with the level of detail we got out of them. In the fall of 2006, I just decided on my own without asking anybody, or more importantly, without telling anybody, that I was just going to build a new map layer that was real-world, that literally mapped every single neighborhood, no matter how small. Every single condo building, every single neighborhood in our area, and that would be in the thousands. But the key part there was not telling anyone what I was doing for many, many months.

It got to the point where people started asking questions about where I was all the time. I just started working from home because nobody could tell me no. Again, not a path I’d recommend, for career success or advancement, I get pretty committed to things that I think are worthwhile, so I’m willing to go a bit further than most people would think is a good idea to get those things done.



Do you prefer working at home or in a newsroom?

I like working from home. I think it’s probably different, depending on what you do. When I was working more directly with the web development group that we started a couple years ago, it was very helpful to work in an office together, at the same time very easy to all work apart with the sort of work we were doing.

As a reporter, in the early 2000s, because of the work I was doing collaborating with a lot of other people – I think the tools available to reporters to collaborate were less than ideal back then, or just non-existent, so it was pretty critical to work in a newsroom.

Sometimes I’ll go through long stretches of working at home and get a little bit crazy, and decide that for my own mental health, I need to start spending some time in the office with other human beings. That’s particularly true now, my wife’s a former reporter now in grad school up in Atlanta, so during most weeks, I’m home alone.

I always try to make the case to anybody that with the right computer and a decent connection anybody can do the type of job I do from the Antarctic or the international space station.



Looking toward the future, will there still be a place for a CAR specialist?

I’ve always thought that the basics should be a part of any reporter’s toolset. It’s not an expectation. People wouldn’t expect that you knew the basics of working with a spreadsheet. It was just a little bit ridiculous, in my view, that we were getting away with that. I always try to tell people that this is not an optional skill, these basics, that you wouldn’t hire a reporter who didn’t know how to use a telephone, and yet we’d be perfectly willing to continue hiring the same old type of reporter who proudly declares their ignorance of computers or basic math. That to me was just journalism malpractice. Literally, it’s as bad as a doctor who doesn’t keep up to date in their skills over a course of a 20-year career, or starts off their career knowing none of the techniques developed in the past 20 years.

So I’ve always thought that the basics of computer-assisted reporting and working with the data should be an expected part of any reporter’s skill set . And it’s probably to our detriment that we’ve allowed it to become, and be called, a subset, as though it were a sort of optional, specialized skill.

There are advanced things that you wouldn’t expect everybody to know how to do, and if you did, you’re not running a newsroom or a news organization anymore, you’re basically running a freelance web design/information visualization/engineering/consulting firm, but everyone should know the basics.

But these days you’ll also find that there’s not much hiring going on, so there’s not much opportunity to rectify that situation. I did notice in the late 2000’s that you could see more and more job openings for “regular jobs” covering a city or school board that would specifically mention that computer-assisted reporting skills were required, so I guess that’s progress.



Do you have any recommendations for aspiring journalists who have strong interests in CAR?

There are plenty of recommendations if you’re interested in CAR and interested in the skill set, but recommendations for getting someone to pay you to do it?  There are no easy answers there.

A lot of commentators are very comfortable telling you that this is a great time to be a journalism student, they say, ‘I would love to be in your situation right now.’ And the kind of people who say that are in fairly comfortable situations, they’ve already had the opportunity to be in the journalism world for 20 years at the peak of its economics and power, so I tend not to take that viewpoint very seriously. You have to pursue a skill set to make yourself marketable, but I think what a lot of younger, aspiring journalists have found is that they make themselves marketable because of these great skills but not necessarily in a field that they thought they were going to pursue. Not just outside the traditional journalism world, but outside of anything even remotely journalism-related at all. That’s good in these times to be able to employed because you have a skill set. But it’s a little disheartening, if you’re dealing with a person who has their heart set on a journalism career of any type.



What’s your opinion on the movement to post data online (data centers, data-driven applications)?

The Web was really what we were waiting for in this field. It was the ideal vehicle for the work we were doing. The problem I’ve always had with the big CAR project early on in my career is that it all just sort of seemed like a waste of time once you were done. You got your 16 million record database, and now what are you going to do with it? You just kept it on your hard drive.



Did you ever share this information among your colleagues?

Most newsrooms theses days aren’t set up to preserve that, it’s not institutional knowledge or property. I don’t know anyone who is doing a formalized job of maintaining that stuff. It’s better these days because so much of the data goes into an application for the Web.

I would do maps and share them with people involved in the story. I’d say, ‘I’ve got this Shapefile, and I edited it, and maybe you want it back because it’s better than your version.’ We’re happy to exchange data like that with the gatekeepers of it. I did a lot of old-fashioned CAR stuff with real estate over the years, and it was pretty unsatisfying, because when it’s over, it’s over.

But the real estate site we built for the Post is a never-ending analysis of the work I was doing for years. Now it’s there, and it runs on its own, and updates itself every day. So that’s much more satisfying than a special section that ran on Sunday and then is just forgotten about. And it’s much more useful for everybody too. Not just from my own selfish perspective, but let’s be honest, the old model, how useful was that?



Anything else you’d like to share?

A certain degree of obsessiveness is a bad thing, some might call it a mental illness when it’s taken to the extent I tend to take it, I like to think that’s worked in my favor though. One of the key values in newsrooms and the business world is someone’s flexibility, management thinks anyone can just pick up and do anything else. They think a copy editor can become a Web editor without understanding how the Web works.

I’ve tried to avoid that as much when possible, and continue to work on what I think is important as long as I think it’s important, and to specialize in something, and do it right. To keep doing realty, for example, until we built this great site where you can look up your actual neighborhood and see the price it would sell for, day-by-day. That’s not the sort of thing that would have happened if I had okayed my bosses’ demands to get on to the next new thing. I don’t think that always moving to the next new thing is a good idea.

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