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Data Delver: Cheryl Phillips, Seattle Times

Programming note: This Data Delver series was a lot more regular before I actually became a “Data Delver.” This is one of two interviews that’s been sitting in my draft pile.  I spoke to Cheryl Phillips back in March 2010, and the below interview should be interpreted in that context.  Sorry for the delay, Cheryl, but better late than never (I hope.)

One of the areas in journalism most ripe for data work, as I see it, is enterprise stories.  At papers with small CAR staffs, there’s often a serious strain on the time of CAR reporters and editors seeking to provide context and fodder for long-term projects, often investigative, and enhance shorter one-off daily pieces, often breaking news.  Spend too much time on one area, you’re neglecting the other.  At the Seattle Times, one editor is called the Data Enterprise Editor, and her time is largely based in project work, that breaks out of the daily story routine.  She works to include interactivity on the website, from searchable databases to Google maps.  And she works with a group of reporters focusing on suburban areas, that are too often undercovered.

It’s her job to organize and foster collaboration across the newsroom, to create the best data-based stories and projects possible.  The woman who holds this title?  The Seattle Times’ Cheryl Phillips.

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

Bolding within Phillips’ answers denote some of the quotes I found most interesting.

Please describe your role as Data Enterprise Editor.

The data enterprise work is basically me and a small team, two other people. We focus on computer-assisted reporting, and then try to take that CAR work a step further and do some interactivity online with it, like a searchable database, whether it’s a Flash piece, interactive map, or database. The stories vary, some are longer projects, some are, “Let’s just create this Google map for a feature piece.” That has nothing to do with investigative journalism, but it creates a more interactive environment for the paper. That takes a big chunk of my time. The other thing that takes an almost equal amount of time would be that I’m an editor for a team of three reporters that cover suburban communities. We try to make them pretty mobile, so they’re out often, but the idea is that they do enterprise. It’s not like a daily suburban story. It’s like, outside the city, what’s going on, what are the issues of note. One of my reporters is doing a big piece about all these revised floodmaps that are coming out, and what the impact is going to be on these rural communities.

When did you start?

I’ve been doing this job a year and a half, since Sept. ’08.

How long has the paper been doing suburban reporting?

We used to have an East Side bureau, but then, when we had cutbacks, we eliminated that bureau. We also had another bureau covering the suburbs to the north. So, this is an effort to make sure that we don’t forget about those suburban communities which still want to be covered, but we can’t cover every city council meeting, so we cover important news that matters. We can give a sense of place for our readers by telling these stories.

Can you tell me about your career path to the Seattle Times?

I’ve been all over the place. I started in the ’80s back in Texas, then I went to Montana, which is my home state, and I worked for a small Gannett paper there [Great Falls Tribune]. I was on loan to USA Today for about half a year. Got back in ‘95. Then I went to the Detroit News and was a CAR projects editor there. I went from there to USA Today, and was a database editor. You probably heard the story about how I left USA Today. I was fired for touching a piece of artwork, along with two other people. I did a project for Dateline on drunken driving, and then I was hired by the Seattle Times.

Can you pinpoint any marked differences between broadcast investigative work for Dateline vs. print reporting?

It was stunning to me, the difference. I hadn’t truly recognized it. I did a lot of work for this Dateline project special. The editor from Dateline did a lot of work, too. They did a lot of filming focusing on one woman who was hit by a drunken driver, and her recovery. I spent months analyzing data from four different suburban metropolitan areas, looking at sentences for manslaughter where someone had also received a DUI for vehicular manslaughter when they were sober. The result we found was that if you also had a DUI, you got the lighter sentence on average, so you got penalized more for being sober than you did for being drunk, which is kind of stunning, and it boiled down to two sentences on air. I could have written an entire newspaper article about that, but it was important for them. They were willing to spend the time to invest in my work, but it was just a piece of this visual narrative, so it was very different.

What is it that drew you to CAR in the first place?

I just felt like there were stories that were going untold, that you could tell if you understood what was happening in bigger swaths of information. You could use these technologies and tools and become a better reporter. One of my very first projects was really simple, it wasn’t a big chunk of data. I used a Lotus spreadsheet to analyze the partnership agreement for the Texas Rangers, back when George W. Bush was one of the owners of the team, to figure out how much he would get if he sold the team, and how much everyone else would get. It was a formula, so I had to use a spreadsheet to do it. It was the first time I’d been exposed to that. I had a CPA friend who helped me with it. And I was like “Oh, wow, I can actually do this,” and it was kind of amazing. It opened a new world for me and it kind of went on from there.

What’s your role in IRE?

I’m chairman of the board at IRE, and I’m a past president.

What’s fueled your involvement in that organization?

I wouldn’t have learned anything had it not been for IRE. I started going to conferences in the mid-‘90s, and I would have gone earlier if I had known about the organization. My first conference was when I was in Montana, and I was on loan to USA Today, and my paper from Montana didn’t really have the money to send me to a conference, and the other database editors at USA Today basically said, “Well, yeah, I’ll share a room with you. My point is, I had no money and a whole slew of people took care of me, from sharing rooms to not letting me buy meals, and it was really stunning. So, I ended up rooming with someone from USA Today, and literally, no one would let me buy anything . It was just great, and I learned a ton, and I saw what was possible.

I went back to my small Montana paper and started to incorporate that into my work, and turned out some pretty good stories that I couldn’t have done otherwise. So, my involvement in IRE has come because I wanted to make sure that other people could have that same experience, and produce some great journalism based on what they learned.

As far as the future of CAR, do you see this as a skill more reporters will be required to have? Do you see it more as the role of a CAR specialist?

There will always be a role for a CAR specialist, now more than ever, really. I hope more reporters will gain basic computer-assisted reporting skills, that they will all know how to use a spreadsheet, they will know how to calculate percentage change, basic stuff, especially as we try to develop searchable applications. But when it comes to dealing with really complex data sets, you’ve got to spend some real time in that world. Because, if you don’t use these skills often, then you lose that. I’m an example of that. It’s been a few years since I even used ArcView mapping programs, I’m pretty slow and clunky now and it’s because I haven’t had a need to do that, to use that map expertise. So I go to my CAR specialist, and I have him do it, because unless I’m going to be doing it all the time, I need him to make sure it doesn’t get screwed up.

I have reporters who don’t do it all the time, they’re not CAR specialists, but they do have computer-assisted reporting skills. I think the balance is that they do the work, which is great, and I want them to keep doing that work, but it gets run by a specialist or by me, to make sure that somebody checks that analysis, just to be doubly sure. Anyway, we always check, but it’s especially important when it’s someone who doesn’t use high-level CAR on an everyday basis.

How do you decide which projects are worthy of interactive and/or searchable database treatment?

I think it depends on a couple of things. It’s similar, I think, to how the graphics department thinks about the graphics that they do for the paper. Do they aid the reader in a better or deeper understanding of the story? That’s one piece of it. Another piece of it is: Would the reader be interested in more information? On the Web site, in a text file or just in the paper? A lot of people are often interested in diving down into the numbers, that’s something which I think can help with greater transparency. If it’s one where you think someone would be interested in those numbers, or it would tell them something useful, create a database for it. If it’s not, if you don’t think people are going to go to it, if they’re not going to be interested, or if it doesn’t illuminate in some way, then we don’t do it.

How is this work broken down at the Seattle Times?

Another part of the Data Enterprise piece of my job is that I work across departments. It may be that the business editor is having a reporter working on a story about home values. So, she’ll come to me and say, “Hey, do this with us. We can create something online,” and she’ll say something about what they’re trying to achieve. Then, I’ll go to the online department, and I’ll say “What resources do we have if we create this searchable interface? Can you do some design with it, or give it some extra treatment?” It’s sort of a collaborative conversation. Also, depending on the level of time involved, I think about if it would take our CAR specialist, or me, x amount of time, because we also have this project coming. It’s really a mix. We’re very collaborative, we talk about everything.

Do you try to bring all the departments in at the outset of a project?

Yes. Pretty much. In ’09, we did an interactive Flash map, it was an environmental graphic. We won the James V. Risser Prize for environmental journalism, Justin Mayo was the CAR specialist on it. We did this really nice thing that took quite a bit of time, it was very complex. We had brought in everyone from the beginning. The photographer was there, two reporters, Justin, and another reporter. And we had the Flash guy involved from the very beginning. We took a look at logging permits, and kind of showed how there was flood damage in particular areas that had been logged heavily. We ended up using these maps, we were creating these maps for our reporting use, to say, “Oh, look, here’s this hazard zone.” We found ourselves using it so much as a reporting tool that it dawned on us, in part because we had the Flash guy involved from the beginning, that we really needed to put this online. If we use it to help us understand a pretty complex subject, then it really would help the reader.

Speaking of readers, what feedback have you gotten from the community to this sort of work?

I don’t get a lot of phone calls, or things like that. They respond to our stories saying, “Thanks for getting this information,” or “Gee, I’m really glad I can look this up.” That’s really about the extent of it. I would say more feedback comes in the way of traffic, and our searchable databases get some pretty good traffic. Even something simple. We did election results, where we created a quick searchable database for the elections, and that got an incredible amount of traffic. You could go to the various counties, and see what those counties were doing, and people seemed to like having it all brought together in one spot.

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Data Delver: Andy Boyle, St. Petersburg Times » »