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Data Delver: MaryJo Webster, Pioneer Press

Posted by on Feb 20, 2010 in Blog, CAR, data delvers | 3 Comments

One of the virtues of continuing to be a graduate student while pursuing my CAR journey has been the freedom to look at problems academically.  One issue I’ve been wrestling with is where we need to use more data.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it needs to be used more often in reporting.  That can be simple additions of a sentence to some breaking news stories, or using at as the basis for a long-term investigation.  But does it only belong to a subset of beats? (I argue yes.)  Should it be used in every story?  (I argue no.)  Should it be considered for every story (I think I argue yes.)

My recent interview with MaryJo Webster, of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, was very clarifying as I’ve been struggling with this issue.  She’s used CAR for sports, politics and local news, and emphasized the importance of drive and perseverance.

This profile of Webster 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.

Launching a data career in Washington

Webster’s data interests started in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, when another reporter helped her learn to analyze a budget with Excel. Once she was bitten by the bug, she saw graduate school would be the best way to move into the CAR world, and she went to the University of Missouri, taking classes while working at NICAR.

After graduate school, Webster worked at the Center for Public Integrity, as their first database editor.  She participated in, and lead, several special projects, and posted databases online before it was all the rage.  She followed this by serving as a CAR specialist on USA Today’s sports desk.

When she came to the sports desk, some reporters were eager to work with her, but many simply didn’t get what CAR was all about.  That changed once projects were produced and successful. Webster gives one example of pulling data to debunk a myth that the game-changing plays in a basketball game are most likely to occur in the last two minutes, so that’s all anyone needs to watch.  They delved into the data to see when plays were made, and whether the performance of player varied in the last two minutes.  And that made all the difference in changing the culture of the sports desk.  “Everyone just kind of went, ‘Wow! You can do that?’, said Webster.  “We busted a myth that had been around forever, and we took it one step further and showed who could really play under pressure and measured it, quantified it…It took a while, but with each little victory in the paper, someone would sit up and go ‘Hmmm.  That was pretty cool. What else can we do?'”

Balancing CAR with standard reporting

After USA Today, Webster was interested in moving back closer to home: Missouri.  There were only two CAR jobs in the state, and the woman at one of them happened to be leaving — Webster got the job.  At the outset, she was told that 6o percent of her time was to spent posting data and contributing to the Data Center (twincites.com/dataplanet), and the rest to helping reporters integrate data into their stories.  But as any journalist will tell you, adding extra anything to stories isn’t all that popular in newsrooms crunching to put out more content on more platforms with fewer bodies.

“We’ve lost an unbelievable number of reporters in the newsroom,” said Webster.  “As a result, the ones who are left are having trouble just doing their daily work. Nobody is coming and saying, ‘Hey, I want to do an analysis of something, can you help me out?’  They’re not even coming up with the ideas, because they’re so busy just trying to find daily ideas to feed the beast, meet that daily demand for stories.”

Around this time, Webster went on maternity leave, and was gone from the newsroom for seven months.  Upon her return, she and the paper’s management reevaluated her role, and decided that she would do whatever she had to and get more enterprise stories in the paper. So these days, while she helps other reporters, she also does a lot of her own breaking reporting, often teaming up with her colleagues.

CAR shows up often in her reporting though — it’s in her blood by now, referring to Excel, how she first learned, as a “gateway drug.”  She said once you know the potential, it just sticks with you.  Discussing the flood of data that will emerge with the Census, Webster said CAR is essential.

“Jf you don’t have CAR skills, people like me are going to blow by you in a heartbeat.  I will have something in the paper the next day. And you will be sitting there waiting for someone at the Census bureau to return your call.”

Speak up about what YOU need

Audio: Be vocal about what you need for personal/professional balance.Speak up to achieve personal/professional balance.

As a fairly new mom, Webster has recognized the importance of balancing her personal and professional lives, striving to get out of the office in time to see her kids at night.  She said the reason she’s been able to work out a successful balance is due to having flexible and understanding supervisors, but she also said it’s necessary to speak up for yourself, and tell the editor what you need. She said you can usually find a compromise.  Sometimes she edits articles from her house, after her kids go to bed in the early evening.  She said she felt secure going on maternity leave and leaving the paper for seven months because she had built up her career to a point that she wouldn’t be replaced,  but would be welcomed back.

Persevere to launch a journalism career

Webster said that landing a spot in journalism is more difficult than ever, and requires true dedication to the craft.  She still recommends following her path, and working your way up through a smaller newspaper, demonstrating that you have the necessary abilities.  Webster said networking is also key, you need to get yourself noticed.

In addition to perseverance, going into CAR can give you better footing in the job market.  “The thing that will make all of this easier is having a skill that nobody else has,” she said.  “And right now CAR is one of the few things that can distinguish you from somebody else.  If you have programming skills, you might even be more valuable”

Extended transcript

For more details on the importance of CAR, and Webster’s experience at the Center for Public Integrity, some special projects she’s worked on at Pioneer Press, and more, read on!

How did you get started in CAR?

I was on the police beat, and part of my job was to write about the annual budget.  It was budget time, and another reporter knew I was working on it.  He came over and said, “Can I show you something?”  and he pulled up Excel and showed me how to put last year’s figures for each city department in one column, and the upcoming year’s budget figures in another column.  He showed me how to do a very simple percent change, and then showed me how to sort the list to see that the police department had the biggest increase in their budget compared to the other departments.  Of course, that’s something you can’t see readily when you are just looking at the numbers.  I saw that, and I was like, “Wow, that’s really amazing!”  Then, I kept going back to him, saying, “Okay, what else can you show me?” and I was kind of hooked, he had drugged me.  I call Excel the gateway drug.  You see the power of  it, and you just can’t quit.

I couldn’t learn very much at Oshkosh, but I really wanted to move into investigative reporting, and I wanted to figure out a way to get there.  Making the leap from a paper like Oshkosh, which is probably a 40,000 or 50,000 circulation daily, to a bigger daily that would have an investigative team, even back in the late 1990s when things were hot, making that leap was just impossible.  So I decided to go to graduate school.

I started looking into it, and I got down to Missouri.  I was meeting with an adviser down there, and she was asking me about my interests.  I told her about CAR and she said, “You know, IRE is based here, they have NICAR here, and they hire graduate students as graduate research assistants.  They waive your tuition, and they teach you how to do CAR, and they pay you a stipend for working 20 hours a week.”  And I was like, “Where do I sign up?”  It just seemed so amazing.  So I reached out to Brant Houston, the director at the time of IRE, and he said he’d hire me if I got accepted into the school.  It all fell into place, so I got to walk into IRE and NICAR, and they literally taught me everything, and I got a graduate degree as the kind of the cherry on top of the sundae. Then I got to meet all these fabulous people from other places and learn from them, it’s very addicting.

It’s so cool, all the things you can find that a regular reporter who doesn’t have the skills can’t even fathom.  Their approach is, if I want to find out something, I’m going to go ask somebody. They are completely limited and at the mercy of whatever that person wants to tell them. If they have CAR skills, they can go ask that question of the data, and the data isn’t going to lie to them – it’s more complete than what some person is going to tell you.  You can get more complete answers. That also, of course, raises more questions. It’s good for a reporter, because it sometimes opens you up to new avenues that you hadn’t thought about. I just think it’s a much better way to do reporting, and you get much better stories.

After Missouri, what was your path to St. Paul?

I first started at the Center for Public Integrity in DC.  I was the Center’s very first database editor.  And then, I also oversaw the first year of a project called “State Secrets,” where we built a massive database of campaign finance contributions and expenditures by state political parties.  We had to get either data or paper documents from every state and then build this huge database.  I was at the Center when they were just starting to put searchable databases on their Web site, I think I got there in 2001, a month before the towers went down.  The database was published in June 2002.

In August 2002, I went to USA Today, where I was the sports database editor.  At the time, they had four database editors, one in each section.  I reported to an editor in the sports department, and each of the other CAR people reported to editors in their department.  We informally worked as a group, we met once a week.  We shared what each other was working on, we offered to help each other out, we backed each other up during vacation time.  If there was something major, we all worked together, like on election night.

At USA Today, what was the reception of the other reporters to your work?

On the whole, it was good.  I had a little bit of a different experience than some of the others did.  In sports, they had gone without a CAR person for the better part of a year.  The person who had been there before me, she was the first CAR person in sports.  It was pretty clear that she hadn’t done a very good job of being friendly and open and encouraging.  She made a lot of enemies, I think, and so it took me a little while to warm everybody up.

There were a few people who were clamoring at my desk the minute I got there.  They had learned enough from the previous person that they knew it was valuable to their job, so I started with those people.  We started hitting some home runs.  If you look at the Sports section online now, they have databases of all the professional sports players’ salaries, based off football, hockey and basketball, and I was the one who built all of those in the first place.  There were IT staff who did the actual programming, but I was the one who got the data and designed the interfaces and worked with IT to get them online. That was a huge step forward.

And then we did a lot of really cool little products and regular features that were really successful   The basketball desk took a little while to get warmed up, but the editor started talking to me about what they could do, and we came up with this idea to look at that whole myth about the last two minutes of a basketball game, that you may as well wait and turn on the game in the last two minutes, and you’ll find out who wins, there’s no point in watching the rest of it.  He asked me if there was a way we could find out whether that’s true or not. And sure enough, we could get play-by-play data and we could find out at the two-minute mark what was the score of the game, and what was the final score of the game, and we were able to figure out what percentage of the games were decided before the two-minute mark, and what percentage were decided after the two-minute mark.  It was a low percentage that were decided after the two-minute mark.

To take it even further, we looked at the performance of the players, and we were able to say who was the best at throwing free throws when the game was on the line, in the last two minutes.  Who was the best at shooting three-pointers?  Who was the best at rebounding?  We had all these categories, and we did the top five players. We had this whole page layout with all these facts and figures, and interesting little numbers.  Everyone just kind of went, “Wow! You can do that?”  We busted a myth that had been around forever, and we took it one step further and showed who could really play under pressure and measured it, quantified it.  And that really opened a bunch of eyes and gradually got more sections of the department to come work with me.  It took a while, but with each little victory in the paper, someone would sit up and go “Hmmm.  That was pretty cool. What else can we do?”

What tools were you using at that time?

Pretty much just Excel and Access.  The salary databases ran on SQL Server for the Web site, but I was just starting to learn how to use SQL Server.  Fortunately, it didn’t call for much mapping, I knew how to do mapping, but I wasn’t really using it.  We had IT people who did programming, so I didn’t have to learn any online programming,

After USA Today, where did you go?

Then I came to the Pioneer Press. I’m coming up on five years now that I’ve been here.  I grew up in Minnesota, and I’d wanted to come back for a long time.  But there’s only two CAR jobs in the state of Minnesota. I found that the woman who had been here was leaving, I called her up and said, “I hear you’re leaving, what are they going to do about your job?” And she said “Actually, your name has already come up.” I said, “Great, who do I talk to?” It worked out really well that I was able to come home and be near my family.

In your email, you said you are doing less CAR now than before.  What happened?

In 2008 and the first half of 2009, I was told that my priority should be to focus on building searchable databases for our Web site. If you look at twincities.com/dataplanet, we have one of those data centers that are really popular now, and I built all of those applications that are on there.  So that was supposed to be 60 percent of my job, and it took up just a ton of my time.  Then the remainder of my time was supposed to spent working with reporters on their stories to get in the paper. During that time, we had buyouts and layoffs and people leaving, and they didn’t fill any of those jobs.  We’ve lost an unbelievable number of reporters in the newsroom.  As a result, the ones who are left are having trouble just doing their daily work. Nobody is coming and saying, “Hey, I want to do an analysis of something, can you help me out?”  They’re not even coming up with the ideas, because they’re so busy just trying to find daily ideas to feed the beast, meet that daily demand for stories.  It was getting very hard to get reporters to work on things, and even when I did get reporters with ideas, it would take months and months and months just to get something off the ground because they just wouldn’t have time to work on it.

In December 2008, I went on maternity leave, and I didn’t come back until July 1 of last year.  When I came back, I sat down with my boss and said, “Okay, you know, things were not working very well before I left. What do you want my priorities to be now?”  My boss said, “I want you to get as much enterprise news into the paper as you possibly can, even if that means you have to do the reporting and writing yourself.”  I said, “I can do that.”  And so, I teamed up with these two reporters covering this guy named Denny Hecker.  He’d been a big auto dealer in the Twin Cities, he owned about 15 car dealerships., a bunch of used car places, and a huge car leasing operation, and rental car companies – a really big businessman.  But it was all private businesses.  Last summer, he filed for bankruptcy and his whole empire totally crumbled, it just fell into the ground, everybody lost their jobs, and now there’s federal and state authorities looking into criminal accusations against him, they’re accusing him now of dishonest and fraudulent behavior in the bankruptcy process – the guy’s in big trouble.

We started looking into a bigger piece on the rise and fall of Denny Hecker.  How the heck did he get so big, and how did it all come crashing down so fast?  At the end of October, we published a two-part series, it had very little CAR, it was really an investigative piece.  One of those reporters was the business beat reporter who would cover Denny Hecker on a regular basis, right after our project ran, she quit to take a job somewhere else.  And they aren’t going to fill that job. The choice was try to get some other business reporter up to speed on everything related to Denny Hecker or ask me to do it.  And they wanted me to do it.

So now I cover Denny Hecker as a beat.  I keep track of everything going on in his bankruptcy case, divorce and his criminal proceedings.  It’s pretty much at least a 30-hour-a-week job.  And then I do enterprise stories. So this weekend I have a piece coming on his former employees and how they got screwed over pretty bad, and what they’ve been doing in the past year or so that they’ve been unemployed.  And when I have time beyond that, I’ve been working with reporters, I’ve actually got three different CAR stories brewing now that I’m working on with reporters. And then I’m doing some non-Denny Hecker reporting on my own, most with some CAR, I usually find a way to get data into my stories regardless.  Sometimes it isn’t a big analysis, but it has some little piece.  When I came back from maternity leave, I did update our databases on Data Planet, but other than that, I’m not spending a lot of time on heavy duty behind the scenes CAR work.  I’m not doing programming anymore, although if we need programming, I’m the only one who can do it, it’s just that we haven’t decided to build anything new.

Did you teach yourself the necessary programming?

Yep, I’m self taught.  Beat my head against a brick wall-style of learning. Lots of help from NICAR people. Depending on which programming language I’m using, I find a group of people who know what they’re doing and I bug them.  That is definitely the predominant way that most of us have learned.

Can you talk about your experience as a woman in the field? Any advantages/disadvantages?

There is an advantage because there aren’t very many of us.  Generally, the pool of CAR people is white males.  So when employers are looking to hire somebody, even a white female is a minority.  I think it has been beneficial for me in getting a job.  I’ve only had about seven months of working when I have a family.  I have a big advantage in that my husband is a stay-at-home dad.  I don’t have to worry about getting out of here at a particular time to pick up my kids from day care, which is a huge problem for a lot of people.

My paper has been really good about helping me meet my wishes to get out of here at a reasonable time, so I can see my kids before they go to bed, because they go to bed at 7:00 at night, so I can’t be leaving here at 6:30, I’m not going to see them.  So, I try to get out of here between 5 and 5:30.  A lot of nights that might mean I turn in my story to my editor and then I  go home, and she calls me after they go to bed, and we deal with questions and problems over the phone, which has been great. But then there’s been nights when things have happened, and I’ve had to stay really late.

When we were doing the big Denny Hecker project, we weren’t sure we were going to get an interview with him, and at the very last minute on a Friday, he decided he was going to talk to us, and called at 4:00 in the afternoon. It was an hour-and-a-half interview, and we had already written our story. Another reporter and I stayed until 9:00 that night, I transcribed our entire interview off of the tape.  We rewrote almost the whole story to weave in the things that he had told us.  I worked a 12-hour day that day, but some other days I was able to leave early.  It’s been working pretty well.

A lot of reporters are reluctant to push the issue to get out of here.  Like this woman I worked with on the project who left the paper, one of the reasons she left is she wasn’t getting out of here at a decent time to go home and see her son, and she really hated that.  But she also didn’t press it.  She waited for her editor to edit the story. She just didn’t want to raise a stink. She didn’t want to stand up and say, “Hey, I’m going home now.  Call me at home.”  But I’ve been willing to do it.  I’ve been bold about it. I don’t care if they want to fire me, I’m going home to see my kid. I’ve been blunt with them and said, “I will bust my butt when I’m here, but I want to get home so I can see my kids before they go to bed. “  In extreme circumstances, I will stay late.  But on a daily basis, no, I’m not going to stay late.  And they’ve been good with that.

At what point in your career did you get married?

About four years ago, while I was here at the Pioneer Press.  I was well-established in my career before I got married.  All those years working at the Center for Public Integrity and USA Today, I think I was single the whole time, I don’t think I was even dating anybody, and so I was able to invest just everything into my work.  Now, I’ve built up my career to a point that I’m employable, I’m fairly layoff-proof. I was gone for seven months, because I had twins, and so I was on bedrest for a month, and then I took a six-month maternity leave, and they weren’t going to let me go or anything.  They were fine letting me do that because they knew I was valuable, and they were hoping that I would return.

Where do you see the future of CAR?

The CAR people out there are splitting into two camps.  There’s the Matt Waites of the world who are doing the programming, and the heavy duty behind-the-scenes making the data do really cool things.  And then there’s the people who can do analysis and stories and come up with really great stories and get them on the front page. And that’s the camp that I’m falling into more.  I can do both of those roles, but I’m nowhere near as good at programming as someone like Matt Waite, and I have a hard time learning it.  But I can do enough to get something up, and to have it look pretty good.  But I prefer the stories.  And I think what we need to do in journalism is to support that, and at every news organization, you need to have a group of people who can do the programming and they understand data and they understand journalism and they understand all of those facets together.  But then you also have to have a camp of people who are good reporters, who go out and do stories, and will use data to help tell better stories and who will help us understand what data means.

The Census is being done in a couple months, and a year from now, we’re going to get all of that data.  And the Census shoves out all the data, and the analysis of it doesn’t come for many more months.  If you’re a reporter, and you’re supposed to cover what the census data is showing, if you don’t have CAR skills, people like me are going to blow by you in a heartbeat.  I will have something in the paper the next day. And you will be sitting there waiting for someone at the Census bureau to return your call.  And they’re not going to give you analysis because they haven’t done it yet.  But the CAR people will create really great stories about how our country has changed in the last decade and how specific places have changed.  And you have to have CAR to do that.  We need more people like that, and I don’t know how we’re going to get there when reporters don’t have time to learn.

How would you advise someone with CAR skills break into the business?

I’m teaching a class at the University of Minnesota right now, and I have 16 students – almost all seniors.  And four of them said, right up front, “I want to go into newspapers.” And I sort of cringed for a moment, oh dear.  A couple others want to do magazines, some want to go to law school, it’s a variety. I’ve been really blunt with them.  I tell them, look, the industry is awful right now.  First of all, if you want to get into the journalism industry, you have to really, really, really, really want it.  It can’t be just a lark.  It can’t be just, “Hey, I think this sounds cool.”  You’ve got to want it.  If you don’t really, really want it, walk away.  Go find something else.  The industry is hard.  If you really want it, though, the industry is amazing in the rewards that you get from it.  You get to meet famous people, you get to do really interesting things, you get to be the first person to go and find out something.  You get your name in the paper, or on TV, or whatever, on a regular basis, and people know who you are.

To break into it, I think how I got into the industry in the early ‘90s still holds true – you have to be willing to move.  You have to be willing to start at some scrappy, little no-name nothing of a place.  I started in New Ulm, Minnesota, with an editor who could care less what we wrote, as long as we wrote something. He would assign us the stupidest stories on Earth, just because his friend from rotary wanted us to write about a benefit for a kid, things that were just not even newsworthy.  But he didn’t care.  We had nobody to guide us on our reporting and our writing, we just had to put stuff in the paper.  But I went there, put in nine months, and was able to get to another job, and worked a really crappy job there for a year, did some good work, and kind of pulled my way up.  I just kept chugging along.  But I spent several years living in places where I knew nobody, had no social life, hated the town I lived in, hated my job, but I just got by until I could keep moving up the ladder.

The thing that will make all of this easier is having a skill that nobody else has.  And right now CAR is one of the few things that can distinguish you from somebody else.  If you have programming skills, you might even be more valuable because one of the few areas in newspapers that is hiring sometimes is the online side, and occasionally, they’re hiring people who have programming skills.  And that could get you in the door of an organization.  Generally, that’s what you need to do.

Even if that first job isn’t exactly what you want to do, if you can get your foot in the door of an organization, you’ll get somewhere.  I think the other thing holds true still, and it’s even more true now, is that it’s who you know.  If you send your resume some place where you don’t know anybody, and nobody knows you, you’re not going to have as much of a chance.  But if you were to send your resume some place where you know somebody on the inside and they can help vouch for you, you’ll have a much better time getting that resume pulled to the top of the pile. The big thing is, is there a job there? I think there’s a few jobs out there, sometimes at smaller papers, they’re replacing people if someone leaves, you’re not going to get your dream job on day one.

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