5 Tips for Staging a Successful Digital & Data Journalism Project

For the past six months, University of Minnesota student journalist Jeff Hargarten has been investigating how U.S. soldiers are doing in school.

In a special multimedia project for The Minnesota Daily, Hargarten, the paper’s web editor, worked to trace the “nontraditional educational path” taken by many recent veterans. He acquired and analyzed related enrollment figures and graduation rates from UMN and other Big Ten schools, while simultaneously gathering soldiers’ personal stories — shedding light on individuals who sometimes “feel alienated from their peers.”

The result: “Tracking Millions,” a comprehensive scroll-through report presented as a “response to lingering questions about veteran academic outcomes in the U.S. overall and at various universities.”

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What did Hargarten discover during his tracking?

“The U.S. has spent more than $30 billion in financial aid since 2009 for veterans pursuing college degrees,” he writes. “But when it comes to finding out whether those students graduate, answers can be hard to find. … Student veterans may have jobs, families or military obligations, in addition to the challenges that come from having spent time on the battlefield. Any of these can interrupt or elongate their educational journeys, making it difficult to track their progress. This means that, as a group of students who often need the most support — and whose education is publicly funded — they can sometimes fall through the cracks.”

As part of an extended Q&A, Hargarten, a professional journalism major from Minneapolis, shared his advice on how student journalists can tackle a project of similar data depth and digital breadth.

5 Tips for Completing a Digital & Data Journalism Project

1) To complete a project like this, start with data requests very, very early. Make it the first thing you do. Have a data request letter ready and be prepared to send it to multiple people, because odds are only one of those contacts is going to know what’s going on and will have what you need.

2) Reach out to lots of different sources. Even when you’re certain you have enough sources to tell the story, talking to that extra person may provide the color the story needs, something especially important with data-driven reporting. One of the primary veterans featured in the story didn’t sit down to talk with me until the last week before publishing.

3) Never take “we don’t have that” for an answer. When it comes to data, someone, somewhere, almost invariably has something, even if it’s not as comprehensive as reporters might like. It’s just a matter of being persistent and making certain the sources you’re working with understand what your story is about. I like to try inviting sources at various institutions, whether it be in the government or academia, along on my journey to answer questions. Pique in them the same curiosity about the issue that you have. They’ll be more likely to help you.

4) Think digitally. As data flooded in or was being mined from various sources, it became increasingly clear that there was far too much to include in a narrow story. That’s where visuals and web elements come in. It was important to try and make use of every relevant piece of data and share it in some fashion, even if it wasn’t present in the text.

5) If you don’t know some coding, learn some. I happen to be familiar with HTML, CSS and JavaScript, enough to be able to make use of the various open source code libraries out there. It made putting the website together fairly simple. We’re also fortunate enough to have the talent of Amber Billings, our visuals editor, to make the graphics look great. So if you have some talented visual artists to work with, loop them into the process with enough time to get things done.

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