Minkoff, Data Delvers and Yours Truly

Michelle Minkoff, perhaps the hardest-working journalism student I’ve ever encountered, for the last few months has been writing up a series of interviews with hacker-journalists and newsroom data nerds at her web site. Her subjects include include designers, coders and data lovers of all stripes. Among them are Pulitzer winner Matt Waite of PolitiFact fame, my Gannett colleagues Gregory Korte and Matt Wynn, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s Mary Jo Webster, whom I worked with for several years at USA TODAY.

Now add me to the list. Michelle interviewed me right after one of this winter’s east coast blizzards, and my cabin fever shows in the sheer verbosity of my responses. But it was fun reliving my early days — when I discovered the power of merging data and reporting. Here’s one quote:

A reporter in the newsroom came to me and said, “Hey, it would be really good if we could figure out what the most valuable properties are in the city of Poughkeepsie. And I thought to myself, “You know, this might be a good opportunity for me to go and make friends with the IT guy over in City Hall.” I went over and visited him, he was down in the basement of City Hall, in the computer room. Back in those days, they all had big mainframe computers in an air-conditioned room.

Actually, what I first did was I went to the tax assessor’s office, and I said, “I want a list of all the properties in the city of Poughkeepsie and how much they’ve been assessed for.” And they pointed me over to the corner where there were these big books filled with computer printouts, and they said, “Well, all the numbers are there, and you can just start copying them down.” And I thought to myself, “If they were printed on this piece of paper that looks like computer paper, then certainly they are in a computer somewhere in this building. And I can get that data on a disk that I can bring over and put into my computer.” And that’s how I really started figuring out that we can do computer-assisted reporting by going to the government and getting data.

That’s what I did. I went to visit that guy in City Hall, and I said, “Look, I know you’ve got a file on your computer. I’d love to have you put it on this floppy disk for me.” And he had to check with the local attorneys, and get their permission, and I called up a sunshine advocate in New York state and got him to weigh in, and they agreed that, “Yeah, the law says we can do this.” The next thing I know, I had that data on the computer and was going through it in Paradox. We wound up writing a couple of stories about different properties.

A hat tip to Michelle for a smart way to gain insight into our slice of journalism.

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