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Data Delver: Paul Monies, The Oklahoman

Posted by on Apr 11, 2010 in Blog, CAR, data delvers | One Comment

In journalism, we talk a lot about the concept of the “one-man band.” The idea often refers to multi-platform journalism — it means being able to deliver a story in print, video, audio or online format. You must be able to do it all, and do it all well. But in the CAR world, plenty of data teams remain a one-man band operation, but in a different sense. Know how to ask questions of information, sort through databases, post data online, create data-driven applications, teach others how to bring the data to their reporting, advocate for the importance of data and exercise ample management skills to know what story is most in need of the skills of a data specialist. Quite a mouthful! And time management’s essential, to make sure all of that happens. Top this off by understanding instilling a data culture in any newsroom is its own challenge, even if data journalists have been at your paper for decades.

One man practicing this “one-man band” concept is Paul Monies, database editor of The Oklahoman. He brings the data to stories across the paper, draws attention to data issues through his blog Data Watch and contributes to the open data movement in Oklahoma outside of the journalism world, and throughout all this, remains conscious of how data advocacy impacts his journalistic objectivity. Note: I interviewed Monies at the end of February, so the information is accurate as of that time.

This profile of Monies 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.

Entering the CAR world

Monies has spent time in his career as a copy editor and business reporter. He fell into CAR while in graduate school at the University of Missouri, and interned at The Oklahoman with database editor Griff Palmer, who is now at the New York Times.

He enjoyed the “puzzle” aspect of copy editing, his role at the College Station Eagle, which he entered after he completed undergraduate work at Austin State University, where he majored in communications. He was attracted by the need for attention to detail and the visual challenges of figuring out where different pieces of the paper would go on a page.

“I was still pretty young. I missed my friends, and having the weekends free, and I missed writing,” he said. “As a copy editor, I had that attention to detail and liked laying out the page, and thought it was a giant kind of puzzle, but I wanted to get back into writing and reporting.”

He finds his aptitude for visual journalism skills, as well as an affinity for attention to detail, to be beneficial in data journalism work. His visual aptitude serves him well as he does more and more with data visualization.

He left copy editing to go to grad school because he missed writing, and was looking for a more flexible schedule.

Advocating for open data

Monies attends various community meetings regarding the open data movement in Oklahoma, and writes about these issues in his blog Data Watch, hosted on The Oklahoman’s Web site. He said he’s aware that he must retain his objectivity as a journalist, but also this is an issue that he concerns him. At the same time, data-based journalists are some of the people most actively utilizing open records laws, and analyzing public information, so he also benefits from the progress that has been made. In the past, the Oklahoman and other papers would take action by publishing stories on how hard it was to get access to certain information that should be public. Monies felt himself drawn to go a step beyond that.

“I shied away at first from advocating anything to do with open records, or data, just because I thought, “Well, it’s maybe not my place as a journalist to do that.” But as I got along and started getting more into blogging, and seeing what else is out there, there’s really no one else that can sit up, in our positions who use that data on a regular basis, and do that kind of advocacy.”

He got permission from his bosses to “step out gingerly” and take a more active role on open data issues, especially as they related to public records.

The growing popularity of visualizations

As database work has shifted to include more presenting of information to news consumers, Monies said he has been eager to jump on board.

“I like seeing that side of data, too, and presenting data in different ways. A standard table gets pretty boring after a while,” he said.

Monies said he liked that this work brings him back to his design roots. He’s especially intrigued by tools that make it simple to create a visual explanation of data quickly — and he uses Many Eyes and Tableau Desktop.

He’s interested in moving more into data-driven applications, and hopes to continue to grow what the paper is doing in this area. He and some colleagues have been looking into Python and Django, and playing with a development server. But for now, Monies is using Caspio to post data online. As other reporters have said, it’s not because it’s his favorite option, but it works when there’s a small data team.

“It’s really easy to get into,” he said. “And if you just wanted to put a quick, searchable table up there, we’d use that. I can’t say that’s our long-term goal, but to me, it’s more of a stop gap and a way that we can reach to the next level, in terms of some of the more robust applications.”

Following in the footsteps of other data reporters

Monies’ post as database editor is not new to the Oklahoman. “I’m standing on the shoulder of some giants, and I’m really fortunate to do that,” said Monies.

He worked under Griff Palmer as an intern, who started the data program at the paper. After he left for the San Jose Mercury News, he was followed by John Perry, who is now at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and he was followed by Ryan McNeil, now at the Dallas Morning News. That means some records requests to public agencies have been standing for years . This both makes it easier to get information, but also brings up questions of whether this information is still needed, or the requests are taking up extra time, energy and physical space. Either way, Monies said the benefits of a data legacy are great, although there is still plenty of work to be done.

Data work is one of many demands on reporters’ time

Audio: Newsroom training carries its own challenges. Newsroom training carries its own challenges.

Monies also works with fellow reporters on newsroom training, helping them to improve data and research skills to better integrate data into their work. Monies offers classes, and a local professor comes in to assist as well. But data is one of many skills reporters are being urged to learn, and the first priority for newsrooms is filling the paper and getting stories filed. So, often, the reporters just don’t have the time. Monies gets it, because he spent five years as a business reporter at The Oklahoman.

“I don’t let that hurt my feelings, because I was a business reporter for five years here, and so I understand the concerns with daily deadlines and weekly deadlines that everyone else has,” he said. “It was a struggle then to sit down and collect your thoughts on something new.”


Extended transcript

Read on for more of Monies’ experiences with data journalism, including the growth of Web development at The Oklahoman.

I’m curious to hear more about your experience with local data in Oklahoma.  How active have you been in pushing for it? Have you found a lot of kindred spirits?

I have found a few kindred spirits.  I started the blog about two years ago. We started a little data site that has some of the databases that we’ve used in our reporting for recent stories in the weekend edition, and in other places.  We started the blog as a part of that.  I shied away at first from advocating anything to do with open records, or data, just because I thought, “Well, it’s maybe not my place as a journalist to do that.”  But as I got along and started getting more into blogging, and seeing what else is out there, there’s really no one else that can sit up, in our positions who use that data on a regular basis, and do that kind of advocacy.  So, I got permission from my bosses here to step out gingerly and make a case sometimes, especially on open records.

I shy away from outwardly attacking politicians or agency officials, or anybody like that. I try and keep it polite.  But that was one of the things that I was concerned about when I first started with this advocacy side of it.  But it’s another outlet for us beyond running a typical story in the paper saying, “Woe is us, we can’t get access to these records,.”  For the public, I think it doesn’t really resonate a lot of times with them.  To me, as an industry, we don’t always make the best case for getting access to those records. So, I thought the blog would just be another avenue for presenting that information rather than a formal, dry story that we run every Sunshine Week for the last how many years.

As far as data in Oklahoma, my predecessors in this position have built a lot of groundwork with a lot of agencies.  So, we have standing open records requests.  I’ve got to credit people like John Perry and Griff Palmer. Griff Palmer, now at the New York Times, started the program here in Oklahoma, and then went off to San Jose, and now he’s in New York.  John Perry took over after Griff, as database editor here in Oklahoma, and worked here for a number of years, and then worked at the Center for Public Integrity, and of course now in Atlanta.  And then, Ryan McNeil was my immediate predecessor, who is now at the Dallas Morning News, and before that, he was at the Sun Sentinel.  I’m standing on the shoulder of some giants and I’m really fortunate to do that.

They’ve left behind standing requests for data that we still use to this day.  We still collect state financial data, and state payroll data, from a record that Griff Palmer first requested fifteen years ago, and we’ve just kept up.  We still have all that data.  Sometimes, it’s a question of, “Well, how far back should we keep it?”  Obviously, we maintain it monthly now, but that comes to be a question when you start talking about our tech folks saying, “Well, this server’s going to be done with, and we’re storing a lot of data on it.  What do you want to do with it?”  At that point, you have to make a decision . What are the benefits of keeping payroll data from 1995?  Data we don’t look at on a regular basis at all, but you don’t know if you might need it someday. That’s one of the questions that we’ve faced. I think we, here in Oklahoma, are moving slowly but surely toward opening up data in aggregate There are some stumbling blocks down at the legislature that happen almost every year.  Our session, we’re right in the middle of it right now, and there’s some buildup that would’ve opened up more data, but ran into some roadblocks on privacy issues and identity theft issues, which has been a kind of common complaint that lawmakers say they get from their constituents claiming they need lost social security, although we try and make the case that we’re not going after Social Security numbers, or any super private information that we could use or misuse. We’re looking for aggregate information that agencies already have stuck in some database somewhere. Can they open that up and give it to people on a regular basis?

In the last year or two, we’ve gotten a pretty good local tech community here in Oklahoma City, and there’s a little pocket in Tulsa, too.  It’s people who are not journalists but interested in opening up data and studying open source languages like Python, Ruby and that kind of thing.  So, I’ve gone a couple times to their events.  It’s kind of funny being the only journalist in the room at some of those things and to see how other professions are approaching some of these data issues as well – it’s an interesting mix of folks.  Hopefully, that kind of community can grow, and maybe at some point, help advocate for data from local government.  We have a couple of lawmakers that are very well in tune.  The buzzword is “Government 2.0” right now.  They’re pushing for processes at the state government level, and we’ve got some good city folks here in Oklahoma City that want to do the same thing, but everyone’s running into the same issues right now with personnel and money and time.  Of course, that’s a common complaint in newsrooms across the country, and not just about government agencies.

Because you’re coming after some CAR giants, was a data culture already integrated into the newsroom when you got there?  How do you find you fit in the culture?

They were somewhat integrated, but like any newsroom, you’ve got reporters that specialize in different stuff, and some are not interested at all in data, some are fantastic writers but less concerned about the nuts and bolts of the statistical side of things.  One of my jobs, too, and my predecessors had the same role, is to help out in newsroom training, show folks basic spreadsheet skills, help them out with the latest things online, going beyond the standard Google search, really helping them find a mix of stuff on deadline, whether people or facts or whatever. We have a local professor who comes in once a week and helps out on the training things, too.  We have a decent amount of training available.  Now, of course, like any other place (I’ve worked at a couple of other newspapers, too) it’s hard for reporters to break off to get a concentrated period of time to do something that’s training.

It’s always a battle.  And it’s not necessarily from the reporter’s side that they want to do it, but their editor is over them, and wants to see a story every day, and the deadline needs to be hit.  They’re there to keep a seat filled in the newsroom while they’re gathering news, and that’s not always helpful, when you’re trying to sit down and explain the intricacies of  Access or Excel or statistical analysis.  There’s pretty good support for that, it’s just that people don’t have the time or interest sometimes to attend every event that you put on.  I don’t let that hurt my feelings, because I was a business reporter for five years here, and so I understand the concerns with daily deadlines and weekly deadlines that everyone else has. It was a struggle then to sit down and collect your thoughts on something new.

Can you take me through how your career path and how you got interested in computer-assisted reporting?

I’m 34 years old, I worked at my high school newspaper when I went to high school in Jacksonville, Texas in east Texas, but I was actually born in Scotland, but moved over to Texas with my mom and stepdad and sister in 1987. I took middle school and high school in Texas and then went off to college and worked for the college newspaper.  I bounced around between a couple of colleges early in my undergrad career.  I finally ended up as a student at Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and graduated from there in 1998, with a degree in communication and a minor in English. Then I worked for almost at the College Station Eagle in College Station, Texas where Texas A&M is.  I was actually a copy editor and page designer at that paper.  I enjoyed it, but didn’t like the hours as a copy editor.  I was still pretty young.  I missed my friends, and having the weekends free, and I missed writing, too.  As a copy editor, I had that attention to detail and liked laying out the page, and thought it was a giant kind of puzzle, but I wanted to get back into writing and reporting.  I applied to grad school,  and got into Missouri.

I attended Missouri from 1999 to 2001.  I took the standard classes on the news and print side. But it wasn’t until my first internship there in the fall of 1999, where I went on a whim and wasn’t really prepared, to figure out exactly what I wanted to do the next summer.  That’s one of my regrets, that I wasn’t as focused on internships at that point as I think college students are today.  I sat down with Griff Palmer at that time, who had been sent up by the Oklahoman to recruit interns for that next summer.  He mentioned at that time, while I’m at Missouri, they had an excellent computer-assisted reporting program at NICAR there, he said, “You should check out what they’re doing.” So, when it came time to register for classes in the spring, I registered for a computer-assisted reporting class.  Meanwhile, I’d sent off several applications for internships that following summer.  The Oklahoman called me back, and said, “Would you like to come be an intern?” and I said, “I would love to, but could I also maybe work with Griff on some data stuff?”  At that point, interns were rotating around the newsroom at the Oklahoman.

I spent three or four weeks on the copy desk, so I had some experience with that.  I spent three or four weeks doing data work with Griff Palmer, and got my very first computer-assisted reporting story done that summer.   I looked into the Coast Guard’s voting accident database, and did a little quick story on jet ski accidents in the Oklahoma lakes.  That came out in a July weekend edition that summer, and I was pretty excited about that, and pretty proud of that project, and Griff helped me out with a lot of that.  We also did an intern project that summer as a whole intern group, there’s probably about 15 or 20 of us total, and we did a project on open records.  We did an audit of every county in the state of four or five different types of open records.  It was us, and the Tulsa World that did the project that summer.  That was my entry into computer-assisted reporting, and once I went back to Missouri, I refocused and decided that was my career path.  I took more classes there, and then went off and did the Washington program for my last semester at Missouri.  My thesis was about how credit is assigned in computer-assisted reporting stories.

I did a survey of NICAR journalists about how they felt, if they were getting credit for their work that they were helping other reporters with.  It’s probably less of an issue now, but at that point it was a pretty big issue in terms of “Are you just a data jockey crunching numbers and then handing off the results to reporters who are getting the byline, and you’re only getting a credit line, where they couldn’t have done the story without your part?”  There were some varying degrees of concern with that at the time.  I haven’t seen it be much of a concern lately. I think everybody’s role has kind of morphed beyond just doing those parts.  We’ve got more database editors who are doing data analysis and writing, we’ve got more reporters who are doing writing and a little bit of data analysis.  Everybody’s fields have merged a little bit more, so I don’t know if that’s an issue anymore.  But that was definitely something I focused on in my thesis when I was a masters’ student.

What did you find in your research? Was it a big concern at that time?

You’re asking me about something I haven’t looked at for many years.  But briefly, of the 80 or 90 people who responded to the survey – and NICAR was a great benefit, and they gave me their mailing list, so I could mail out surveys, and this was before they had SurveyMonkey, so I’m dating myself, there weren’t online surveys you could fill out.  Well, maybe there were, but we weren’t using them.  I sent all these envelopes, and stuffed them, and put the stamps on them.  Basically, what I found out was that on the print side, among the people whose title at that time was database editor, there was a lot of concern about them not getting credited, and there were a couple of stories.

It was an anonymous survey, so I just followed up with people that gave me permission to follow up, but some anonymous comments were people missing out on prizes, which obviously is an integral part of a lot of journalism advancement and praise and career development.  People had missed out, they didn’t credit for a story they worked on, or a package of stories they worked on, there was some lingering bitterness over that.  But more than anything, there was just a realization that you have to fight for your byline, and fight for your credit line, because no one’s just going to hand it to you.  No one’s going to remember that you did that, unless you point it out to them.  You’re dealing with editors that are on deadline, and stuff is mislaid and forgotten about when it gets to crunch time on a project.  It’s just more of a cautionary thing, I think, from the survey, saying you just have to make sure that you’re credited, and you have to speak up for yourself.  It was an interesting thing to work on, and it gave me an idea of some of the pressures of that type of job.  Of course, I say that and did all this work in grad school, and came out in 2001.

I actually interned while I was in DC, and that last internship was with Dateline NBC.  I got a little view into the TV side of things, and thought about that as a possibility.  I basically worked in the Washington bureau of Dateline NBC when they were doing, I think, three to five shows a week, so they were really busy coordinating with the New York office, which was the main Dateline office.  But I was in charge of doing some of the data analysis for some of the stories.   I worked with a producer in New York, it was Andy Lehren, who’s now at the New York Times, at that time he was working with Dateline.  He helped me out a lot when I was working on the professional projects side of my Washington semester.  It wasn’t strictly related to my thesis but it was part of it as well.  I got a good idea of how TV news magazines handled computer-assisted reporting at that time.

I graduated from Missouri in 2001, and defended my thesis, and went off and became a cops reporter at the Waco Tribune-Herald, down in Waco, Texas, which I have no regrets about.  Coming from wanting to focus on computer-assisted reporting, there just wasn’t a whole lot of entry level computer-assisted reporting jobs at that time.  It was an interesting time in journalism.  It’s not as bad as it is now, but there weren’t a whole lot of jobs when I came out in that summer.  I went to Waco, and was a cops reporter for just over a year. I had a fantastic time doing that, I loved being out on crime scenes.  Tried to use some CAR skills while I was there, but mostly was doing regular cops reporting with a little bit of enterprise.  Looked at some jail inspections, that sort of thing.  It was a fun time to be a reporter, but it wasn’t exactly what I was focused on.

The Oklahoman called me up and said they had an opening on their business desk for a business reporter.  I told them, “It sounds interesting, but I have zero experience in business reporting.  I’ve never done it before, I’ve never really paid much attention to accounting, or anything like that, or even business while I was in college or grad school.”  But to me, I started thinking about it, and it was more of a challenge, and I thought, “Well, I’ll give it a shot, and see how I like it.”  And I really started enjoying it.  It was a lot to learn at the outset for someone who had covered mainly government and police before.  I covered some state capital and county government stuff while I was at Missouri.  But business reporting, to me, was this weird subset of reporting that I had no clue about and had to learn on the job.  Which I think, sometimes, is the best way to do it, to learn all these things, how to decipher a financial statement from a public company, strategies for getting people at companies, who don’t have to talk to you for any reason, to talk to you.   It was a little different tack than going after stories from government who are a lot of times compelled to make themselves look good, or tell you stuff under their open records act.  Business is a little different, because you’re dealing with the public relations side of that, and also a lot of small private companies didn’t have to tell you anything if they didn’t want to.  So that was more of a challenge for me.  You’ve got to say, “Well, can I do this?”  And I really started enjoying it.

I covered business for five years here at the Oklahoman.  Basically covered manufacturing, and some of the local public companies and the local economy.  So I covered unemployment and economic indicators and that kind of thing. It made it easier that I had a little bit of CAR background, so I was comfortable with numbers, and not afraid of dealing with them.  That made it easier for me to slide into the business beat, which is just so numbers driven when you’re doing a company earning story every quarter, or looking at financial statements every year.  It was something I didn’t shy away from, But then I was a little rusty in my CAR skills.  While I was there, we had two people, John Perry and Ryan McNeil, working as database editors, and so my skills got rusty, to be honest.  I was still pretty good with a spreadsheet, I could get into Access when I needed to, but when I took over as database editor, I had to give myself a quick refresher on some of the SQL skills that I hadn’t done on a regular basis for a while.  But it was like any other job, it’s just a process of managing what you can do right away, and a long-term plan.  I really need to get into this, and learn this, so that’s my goal for the next six months.

I’ve been database editor now for more than two years now, and sure, there’s still frustrations, like you deal with in every job with editors and deadlines and expectations, but I’d say I’m happy with my job 85 percent of the time.  It seems like there’s more to go after now in terms of data.  That’s been one of the things that I’m getting more into — the data visualization thing. Here, I’ve got to credit my predecessors too.  They have established that the database editor position has some pretty good tools to work with.  We’ve got Arc GIS, we’ve got SAS.  In the last year, I bought Tableau Desktop, which I think is a great little tool, just for some quick analysis. Nothing you couldn’t do already, probably, in Access or SQL Server, which we also use.  But if you want to visualize some stuff real quick, and point you in the right direction so you can run some more detailed queries later on, it’s great.

The data viz side, especially when it comes to Tableau and open source tools like Many Eyes, is great.  Tableau actually just released the free Tableau Public, which I’ve been excited to check out.  That’s all an area of passion for me right now, because I see these mashups that are on these other Web sites, doing all sorts of cool things with data and visualization, and to me, as someone who’s been a copy editor, and a business reporter, and a cops reporter, I like the visual side of things.  I liked it when I was a page designer, which I did briefly, it was less than a year, but I enjoyed it.  I like seeing that side of data, too, and presenting data in different ways.  A standard table gets pretty boring after a while.

Do you feel any pressure from management to expand into Web development? Is there an undue amount of pressure on your time?

There’s some pressure, but it’s mostly self-generated.  Our management is good. The way we do things here at the Oklahoman, we have a couple people in the newsroom that are pretty well skilled on the Web side of things.  The Web editors, our blog experts that can do WordPress and add-ons.  In the last year or two, we’ve looked more at a separate side of the news business that’s audience development, which focuses on the Web side. The newsroom is still putting out the paper, still contributing to the Web site, but we have another part of our company now that’s audience development and is focused on new Web platforms.  It’s not necessarily journalism-related, but we have this application and Web site that started out about a year and a half ago.  It started out as a directory and a calendar, and it’s now morphed into a local search engine for listings, and entertainment listings, and that kind of thing.  We’ve seen a lot of development on that from our IT folks.   And the newsroom side hasn’t really enjoyed that level of emphasis.  And I want to be diplomatic about it, because I don’t want to point fingers, I think we’re doing the right thing as a company as a whole, but I don’t think we’ve pushed very far into what the newsroom can generate in terms of Web development stuff. We’ve got some great people that do Flash animations, we’ve got some good things out of that.

But as far as data-driven applications, like you see maybe at other newspapers and other media companies, we haven’t gotten to that level yet.  But they have allowed us, meaning me and a couple other people in our newsroom, to spend some time on learning some other ways to do this stuff. We’ve got, including myself, three people who are doing some stuff on Django.  We’ve started doing that in the last year, we’ve gotten a little development server that we’re working on.  One of the Web guys in our newsroom has been working on some story walls, small projects he’s running through Django now.  My big goal is to learn a lot more about Django and Python specifically, and get some data-driven apps that we can replace Caspio with.

We’re using Caspio right now.  I know a lot of people, a lot of the purists, knock Caspio. Ryan McNeil bequeathed it to me, and now I don’t think he likes it very much.  Caspio, for all its detractors, when you’re a one- or two- or three-man operation, in a pinch, works really well.  It’s really easy to get into.  And if you just wanted to put a quick, searchable table up there, we’d use that.  I can’t say that’s our long-term goal, but to me, it’s more of a stop gap and a way that we can reach to the next level, in terms of some of the more robust applications.  But we’re hoping to move to Django.

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