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Data Delver: Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica

Posted by on Mar 8, 2010 in Blog, CAR, data delvers | One Comment

The nature of CAR is shifting each day, as data analyzers and Web developers alike prepare to converge on Phoenix later this week.  But for those who’ve been in this for the long haul, the essence of the field remains what it always has been.  That’s the message ProPublica’s Director of Computer-Assisted Reporting, Jennifer LaFleur, imparted to me during our interview.

This profile of LaFleur 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.

LaFleur comes to journalism from a family of engineers, and was looking for a way to use math along with her passion.  She entered computer-assisted reporting when it was still fairly new, remembering the very creation of NICAR at the University of Missouri. Since then, she’s worked at a variety of newspapers, and also helped develop the training program at Investigative Reporters & Editors.

At ProPublica, the work she does is similar to her past jobs — it’s all focused on investigations.  But, she said, there’s a freedom to working outside of the newspaper realm.  There’s more room for experimentation, such as with data visualizations.  And there aren’t as many things that you have to do, just because you’re serving a particular region.  “If I were to go to a newspaper in a state, we would probably build a library of all kinds of databases from that state, just standard things you need to have,” she said.  “But here, we don’t really know what people are going to be covering, so we’re not doing that right now, we’re keeping data as we get it for particular projects.”

With the right attitude, CAR’s just a way of practicing journalism. LaFleur said she doesn’t like to compartmentalize reporting.  “I don’t really look at a database any differently from a bunch of documents,” she said.

And the more fluent general reporters are in skills like Excel and Access, which was the situtation at the Dallas Morning News, the more CAR editors can focus on longer-term projects.

She thought theses skills would be more prevalent across the board in 1995, back when she was IRE training director.  “I said that everyone would be doing this, and there would no longer be a name for the specialty, and I was very, very wrong,” she said.

She’s surprised there aren’t more women in this field at this point, but said that her gender hadn’t provided any benefits or disadvantaged during her career.  As a fun fact, in the earlier years of NICAR, a group of women could go out for dinner at conferences, calling themselves “CAR Chicks.”


Extended transcript

For more of LaFleur’s thoughts on computer-assisted reporting, and how it’s applied at ProPublica, read on.

How did you become interested in computer-assisted reporting?

I was interested in it before the term existed. I wanted to study journalism in college, my family’s all engineers, and they were appalled by the notion of becoming a journalist. So, I basically studied journalism and computer science and math, and later went to grad school at the University of Missouri for journalism, and while I was there, Eliot Jaspin, who’s one of the pioneers of computer-assisted reporting, came to found the Missouri Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, which later became the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. I had the opportunity to work with him, and that’s what got me started.

Where did you go after Missouri?

I ended up working in Washington D.C, because Missouri has the Washington, D.C. program, and I just stayed and worked for some smaller publications there, and then ended up going to work for the San Jose Mercury News a long time ago, before there was any computer-assisted reporting there. I ended up doing a lot of data work on the 1990 Census, and that got me going. I left for two years to develop the On the Road training program for Investigative Reporters and Editors, then I moved back to San Jose. I also worked for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and then Dallas Morning News.

How do see your work at ProPublica as differing from your experience working at newspapers?

The fact that it’s investigative isn’t different, because I also worked on an investigative team. What’s different is that we’re in the process of evolving and experimenting. So we don’t have all those many things we have to keep up with, like at a daily newspaper. If I were to go to a newspaper in a state, we would probably build a library of all kinds of databases from that state, just standard things you need to have. But here, we don’t really know what people are going to be covering, so we’re not doing that right now, we’re keeping data as we get it for particular projects, but everything is so new that it doesn’t make sense to do that. We also have the opportunity to be able to really do cool things like experiment with visualizing data online in a way that, when you’re confined by a corporate structure, you really can’t do. It gives us a lot of flexibility to try things.

What are some of the ways you keep up with where data is being released?

If you cover a beat, you find people that are good sources, and you find data that are good sources.

At ProPublica, how do you keep up with new data being released, when you are looking at a broader range of coverage?

I’m not looking for new data to be released, necessarily. A lot of people here working on stories know about stuff that exists on their beat. In other cases, I just try to find stuff that fits with their beat. Basically, if records are gathered, or documents are gathered, there’s probably a database somewhere.

How do you see your organization as differing from other investigative groups, such as the Center for Public Integrity, or California Watch?

I think we’re probably more similar to California Watch than we are the Center for Public Integrity, which I admire greatly, they do projects only once in a while. We have a pretty large Web staff here, and have made an effort to keep our site fresh, and to post new things all the time. And if something does break on something somebody’s been reporting on, then we’ll post that

What skills or tools are you using most in the newsroom?

It varies depending on the story. I use Excel and Access a lot, I have databases in SQL Server, and I do access those, but that’s just where the databases happen to be. I use statistical software, I use all kinds of other software to clean all the dirty data that we have to deal with. Most people in the newsroom have Excel and Access on their machines, and that’s the standard for the newsroom. But I have other programs like statistical packages and mapping software,

Do you think there will continue to be a role for a CAR specialist in the future?

When I first started IRE training in 1995, I said that everyone would be doing this, and there would no longer be a name for the specialty, and I was very, very wrong. I think it goes in phases. I think it depends on the news organization. Particularly when I was in Dallas, because everyone all the way up the chain really believed this was an important part of anybody’s reporting, we had a managing editor who had won a Pulitzer for a CAR-based story, it was much more integrated into the newsroom than in many other places. It got to the point there where every team pretty much had somebody who was really good, so I didn’t have to worry about helping everybody. I could focus more on longer-term projects, because the education team had somebody who was pretty good and could help them with most of their stuff, the public safety team had somebody who was really good. I think when you do that, and spread it out, it really enforces the power of the tool.

During your various positions , have you spent most of your time in the newsroom, out reporting in the field, or both?

I think reporting is reporting. If it happens to be that your records are in a database, you need to be able to use those. If it happens to be that you have to go talk to people, you have to do that. I don’t think you can compartmentalize journalism that way. I don’t really look at a database any differently from a bunch of documents.

Have you encountered any advantages or challenges being one of the few women in the field?

I’m actually surprised at this point. I don’t know why that is. We actually used to have a “CAR Chicks” dinner at the NICAR conference. When I was first doing this, I was probably one of the first five CAR editors at any newspaper, and there was one woman in Detroit, and there was one in Boulder, but I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what they’re doing now, but they’re not in newspapers.

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