Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sometimes the numbers are just behind the story

My contribution to journalism in the last 20+ years has mostly been technical or behind the scenes. I started as a copy editor and page designer, but eventually moved into the web side of things around 2001. Since then, my life has been HTML, workflows and other online tools. It's been about getting the content online, not getting the content.

That's changed some recently as I've spent more time working with data, helping the reporters and editors of the Statesman's investigative team with their projects. Often that means I end up publishing the data online, which I've outlined some in this blog.

But sometimes the numbers just allow you to find the story. It isn't about the numbers, it's about the people and events behind the numbers.

A good example of this is the story I recently helped Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski and KVUE reporter Keli Rabon on the cost of settling lawsuits for the City of Austin. Through a public information request, we got a list of all the checks written for settlements in the last five years.

Sure, the data showed us that the police department was responsible for most of the cases that lead to settlements, but that wasn't all that surprising, really. What makes Tony and Keli's story compelling is the human faces that they were able to match to spending categories and check amounts ... that's far more interesting that searching through a database of checks. Heck, those are already online if you know where to look for them.

So I feel my work was an important part of the story, but don't ever forget we are writing about people's lives, not about numbers. That is the real story.

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