Data-Driven Journalism

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Over the course of the semester we’ve talked a lot about disruption and how it affects media.  Disruption always causes change, for better or for worse.  A friend of mine sent me an article last week about a news site he frequents that is going through a transformation period.  He thought I would find it interesting, being a journalism and mass communication major.

The news organization is Five Thirty Eight.  I had never heard of it before, but have spent the past week checking out their site, which is different from many out there.  Five Thirty Eight is primarily driven by data journalism.  They are probably most known for their prediction in the 2012 presidential election in which they called 50 out of 50 states correctly.

Until a recent shift, Five Thirty Eight was primarily dedicated to politics.  Nate Silver, the founder  and editor in chief of Five Thirty Eight, thought it was time for a change.  The re-launch of Five Thirty Eight will expand their focus to five categories:  Politics, Economics, Science, Life and Sports.  However, all of these topics will still be covered though the process of data journalism which Silver thinks adds value to traditional news stories.  Five Thirty Eight will include written stories alongside statistical analysis data visualization, computer programming and data-literate reporting.  A good site for a news thirsty computer nerd.

Five Thirty Eight will also be collaborating with ESPN films and Grantland to produce original documentary films.  This will likely draw in a more diverse audience than Five Thirty Eight has experienced.

Their staff has expanded with former employees of prestigious, traditional journalism organizations like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and The Washington Post.  “Conventional news organizations on the whole are lacking in data journalism skills,” Silver says.  So he brought in the pros of their business to his business.

Silver offered an inside look at Five Thirty Eight’s approach through the context of hockey.  Esteemed hockey coach Brian Burke mentioned in an interview that statistics could not measure the perseverance of a hockey player.  He expressed this by wondering if one of his forwards would retain the puck when Zdeno Chara, a rather large (6’9″) defenseman of the Boston Bruins, was coming for him.  Silver sees this concern as a challenge.

“Often, general managers and CEOs and op-ed columnists use the lack of data as an excuse to avoid having to examine their premises,” Silver said. The NHL might install motion-detecting cameras in their arenas to capture the action on the ice.  These cameras will create a “record of each players x- and y- coordinates throughout the game,” allowing Five Thirty Eight to measure a hockey player’s perseverance when going agains tough opponents.  And then, with this data, Silver would consider these questions:

1. Is it smart for a player to keep control of the puck when Chara (or a similarly gifted defensemen) has him in his sights? Might the player yield fewer turnovers if he passed the puck instead?

2. Would measuring a player’s perseverance give us meaningful information beyond what is reflected in “box score” statistics, such as goals, assists and plus-minus?

3. Do players who persevere under threat match those who are regarded as “tough” or as having lot of “heart” by coaches, scouts and commentators? If not, is the metric flawed, or are the coaches biased?

This is a perfect example of what Five Thirty Eight hopes to accomplish in their transition.  They don’t seek to replace traditional journalism, just to offer a more data-driven spin on it.  And traditional journalism organizations should prepare themselves, because Five Thirty Eight won’t be the first to cover a story, but they’ll be the first to get it right.


Nate Silver on their logo, because it’s cool.

Our logo depicts a fox (we call him Fox No. 92) as an allusion to a phrase originally attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways.