When asked what data skills journalists need, I don’t hesitate to tout spreadsheets as the single, must-have day-to-day skill for every journalist at every organization in every mission. For those with a bit more time or motivation to experiment, I might recommend an acquaintanceship with database JOIN statements – it doesn’t matter if it’s in Access or SQLite or Postgres. This may not sound fancy, but even as a computer engineer, I rarely need anything fancier.
My go-to anecdote is Seattle Times reporter Daniel Gilbert, founder of The Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting, by way of a small-town newspaper – the Bristol Herald Courier – where he was awarded the Pulitzer Prizes’ most prestigious award for “illuminating the murky mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners in southwest Virginia.”
I’ve never met Gilbert, and while I can’t say I particularly care about natural gas royalties in Virginia, I believe Gilbert is an exemplar of how and why we do computer-assisted reporting.
In an article titled, “Serious Fun With Numbers: We’re drowning in data, but few reporters know how to use them”, Gilbert spoke with Janet Paskin from the Columbia Journalism Review about how the investigation came to light:
The story was already great, even before Daniel Gilbert opened his first spreadsheet. Thousands of citizens in the southern Virginia area Gilbert covered for the Bristol Herald Courier (daily circulation: 30,000) had leased their mineral rights to oil and gas companies in exchange for royalties. Twenty years later, they alleged, the companies had not paid, adding up to potentially millions of dollars owed. As Gilbert learned, the complaint was complicated.
…Gilbert requested the information he needed and received spreadsheets with thousands of rows of information. In Excel, a typical computer monitor displays less than a hundred rows and ten wide columns. Gilbert’s data was much too massive to cram into this relatively modest template.
So he started with one month’s worth of information, using the program’s “find” function to match wells and their corresponding accounts. One by one. Control-f, control-f, control-f. It was tedious and time-consuming. There was a story there, he was certain. But control-f would not find it.
Gilbert convinced his cash-strapped publisher to send him to a weeklong workshop held by the Investigative Reporters and Editors. In that short time, Gilbert picked up enough SQL to write the database query that would launch his eight-part investigative series. Via CJR):
Show me the accounts that correspond to wells where oil or gas has been produced, but royalties have not been paid.
Last year, the Investigative Reporters and Editors Journal published a 40th Anniversary issue (hopefully a digital copy gets uploaded, but the journal alone is worth the price of membership) and invited members to share testimonials.
This is what Gilbert wrote:
In 2009 I was working with two spreadsheets. One showed natural gas production in Virginia. The other showed royalties collected for thousands of wells. I could see there were discrepancies, but I didn’t know how to systematically identify them.
I learned how to query data after a week at IRE. The spreadsheets spoke. They helped show how Virginia’s system of paying natural gas royalties was broken. The reporting prompted changes in state law to pay landowners their due. Today I’m honored to partner with IRE to provide the same kind of training to other journalists.
There’s more to Gilbert’s success than just a couple of spreadsheets that became database tables, of course. As Gilbert said in interviews to Poynter and the Washington Post after the Pulitzer ceremony, there were the public records requests and the months it took to research the arcane laws and the narrative skill to “weave together enough of a narrative to carry people through the complicated, boring aspects of it.”
But as Gilbert told CJR, the scandal of energy companies cheating landowners had been known for years. Previous editors had even spiked past stories, ostensibly because escrow accounts and methane gas don’t a sexy story make.
Gilbert says he knew early on that he had a “pretty good story…But the data changed it.
“Instead of just asking the question, I was able to answer it.”