Spreadsheets bridge gap between developers and reporters

This is my first NICAR, but someone mentioned that NICAR 2012 was “The Year of the Map”, with panels, tutorials, and discussion otherwise centered around new, exciting tools like Mapbox and Leaflet.

We invented new terms like BoyerMaps and used the rest of the year to make some incredible map-based news apps.

If NICAR 2013 has a theme among its divergent, widely varied sessions, it is the resurgence of an antiquated tool: the spreadsheet. From Tasneem Raja's tabletop.js session to Chase Davis's powerful session on exploratory data analysis, which used spreadsheet-compatible data in a csv, many of NICAR's speakers returned to the trusty spreadsheet and found new levels of power within it.

What truly makes the spreadsheet so powerful is how inclusive the use of spreadsheets, especially when done through Google, can be for the newsroom. Reporters with no technical skills understand spreadsheets. Reporters can contribute to spreadsheets. And as Tasneem Raja explained on Friday, spreadsheets are a great tool to explain how the structure of a data-driven news app is constructed.

After participating in their first app construction experience, Raja said, reporters began to understand what was possible for a news app. That is incredibly powerful. When reporters in the newsroom can not only help in the data gathering and reporting process but also contribute to the brainstorm and idea generation process constructively, we have succeeded. We have infected the newsroom. We are creating “inclusive story crafting.”

Among the conference's variance has been a certain divide between beginner-focused sessions focused on training and expert-level theoretical sessions focused on thinking and solving the problems that have arisen from news apps. As a developing developer, I found myself splitting time between both extremes, trying to gather new skills as well as enrich my already established skills. In the beginner sessions, I found myself surrounded by reporters trying to get a handle on something, anything that will help them understand the changes occurring in their industry.

Sisi Wei's Code With Me, Dave Stanton's For Journalism and internal initiatives such as those put on by the Chicago Tribune News Applications Team teach journalists how to code and try to bridge this gap of understanding. These are noble, worthy causes, and ones that can generate incredible impact in the newsroom. They are direct examples of programs that should exist not only at the professional level but also at the journalism school level.

But not every current journalist will learn how to code (though every future journalist *must*). And we need different ways to get them involved. Maybe instead of talking about total code literacy in the newsroom, we should be talking about the more general inclusive story crafting. How can reporters be included in our process, even if they cannot or will not learn how to code?

I am not prescribing the spreadsheet as the catchall solution. There are serious problems with rate limits on Google, and spreadsheet-based data leaves out more innovative ways of exploring data. But it is a *great* way to explain structure and allow reporters to do what they do best — report and research — and let news developers do what they do best — develop, design and iterate. Beyond that, the spreadsheet is accessible enough to everyone that reporters can contribute to the code, and developers can contribute to the reporting. They act as a mediator between two disciplines that have encountered friction. They make collaboration possible. Let's get more people involved with spreadsheets, and I bet we'll find more solutions once we do.

About the author

Tyler Fisher

Undergraduate Fellow

Latest Posts

  • Introducing StorylineJS

    Today we're excited to release a new tool for storytellers.

    StorylineJS makes it easy to tell the story behind a dataset, without the need for programming or data visualization expertise. Just upload your data to Google Sheets, add two columns, and fill in the story on the rows you want to highlight. Set a few configuration options and you have an annotated chart, ready to embed on your website. (And did we mention, it looks great on phones?) As with all of our tools, simplicity...

    Continue Reading

  • Join us in October: NU hosts the Computation + Journalism 2017 symposium

    An exciting lineup of researchers, technologists and journalists will convene in October for Computation + Journalism Symposium 2017 at Northwestern University. Register now and book your hotel rooms for the event, which will take place on Friday, Oct. 13, and Saturday, Oct. 14 in Evanston, IL. Hotel room blocks near campus are filling up fast! Speakers will include: Ashwin Ram, who heads research and development for Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence (AI) agent, which powers the...

    Continue Reading

  • Bringing Historical Data to Census Reporter

    A Visualization and Research Review

    An Introduction Since Census Reporter’s launch in 2014, one of our most requested features has been the option to see historic census data. Journalists of all backgrounds have asked for a simplified way to get the long-term values they need from Census Reporter, whether it’s through our data section or directly from individual profile pages. Over the past few months I’ve been working to make that a reality. With invaluable feedback from many of you,......

    Continue Reading

  • How We Brought A Chatbot To Life

    Best Practice Guide

    A chatbot creates a unique user experience with many benefits. It gives the audience an opportunity to ask questions and get to know more about your organization. It allows you to collect valuable information from the audience. It can increase interaction time on your site. Bot prototype In the spring of 2017, our Knight Lab team examined the conversational user interface of Public Good Software’s chatbot, which is a chat-widget embedded within media partner sites.......

    Continue Reading

  • Stitching 360° Video

    For the time-being, footage filmed on most 360° cameras cannot be directly edited and uploaded for viewing immediately after capture. Different cameras have different methods of outputting footage, but usually each camera lens corresponds to a separate video file. These video files must be combined using “video stitching” software on a computer or phone before the video becomes one connected, viewable video. Garmin and other companies have recently demonstrated interest in creating cameras that stitch......

    Continue Reading

  • Publishing your 360° content

    Publishing can be confusing for aspiring 360° video storytellers. The lack of public information on platform viewership makes it nearly impossible to know where you can best reach your intended viewers, or even how much time and effort to devote to the creation of VR content. Numbers are hard to come by, but were more available in the beginning of 2016. At the time, most viewers encountered 360° video on Facebook. In February 2016, Facebook......

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More