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So Much For Scoops: Newspapers Turn To Data-Crunching And Context


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Verticals, context blogs, explainers, those are the buzzwords of the news business. From some of the nation's oldest papers to the newest digital news startups, there's a rush to create sites that emphasize context rather than good old-fashioned scoops. The focus now is to blend fresh writing, number crunching and striking graphics. NPR's David Folkenflik reports on this evolution.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Earlier this week at the celebration for the New York Times' new explanatory site, even the appetizers required explanation in exacting detail. I was offered a Brooklyn Bryant Moroccan pickled veggie flatbread.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That is quite a mouthful.

FOLKENFLIK: The Upshot is the Times' new blog focusing primarily on politics and policy with a heavy diet of economics, too, yet in an informal tone.

DAVID LEONHARDT: One of the things that we've discovered over the years is that there's a big audience for that kind of conversational voice. Not dumbed down, but talking to people in the same language that they would use in everyday life.

FOLKENFLIK: That's David Leonhardt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning economics columnist who is now editor of the Upshot.

LEONHARDT: It allows for more direct questions and answers. What parts of Obamacare are working? What parts of Obamacare aren't working? What parts of education reform are working and not working? Who's ahead in a political campaign?

FOLKENFLIK: Readers have favored the paper's specialty blogs on health and Wall Street finance, but political obsessives flock to its number-crunching FiveThirtyEight blog, which, during the home stretch of the 2012 election, accounted for a staggering proportion of the paper's web traffic. The site and its creator, Nate Silver, have since left for the riches of ESPN, where the new FiveThirtyEight made its debut earlier this year.

And other context blogs have made splashes, too. The editors behind Wonkblog at The Washington Post decamped to create, while The Post hired new editors and writers for Wonkblog. There's Atlantic's Quartz and Bloomberg's more modest QuickTake, too. Again, David Leonhardt.

LEONHARDT: Readers want more of this journalism than we're giving to them and, as a result, I think whether it's Vox, whether it's FiveThirtyEight, whether it's the Upshot or whether it's other sites that I'm sure are still going to come, I think we're still at the point at which if people do this well, they're going to succeed.

FOLKENFLIK: Leonhardt has hired scholars and reporters to write data-driven posts on areas of expertise stretching to technology and even food. At ESPN, Silver's FiveThirtyEight now routinely writes on sports, but recent articles have also informed readers when to hold out for lower airfares and what medical studies say about the use of paper toilet seat covers.

Vox's chief writers became known for coverage of healthcare and the economy, but have widened their lens.

SARA CLIFF: The thing that ties it all together is the approach that we're taking.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Sara Cliff. She used to report and edit for The Post's Wonkblog. Now, she's a senior editor at Vox.

CLIFF: You see already a variety in the different things that we cover from porn stars coming out to their parents to one about global warming. I wrote one recently about Vermont's efforts to set up a single pair system. And it's really easy to cast a wide net with explanatory journalism.

FOLKENFLIK: At Vox, recent headlines have included, "Your Odds of Getting Killed By An Asteroid Just Went Way Up" and "The Case Against Otters." Certainly, data-driven, certainly fun, certainly click bait. In fact, it's as though these digital ventures called verticals are competing with each other, Buzzfeed, Slate and Wikipedia all at once.

The journalists I talked to were all enthusiastic. More in-depth reporting, more context, more jobs, what's not to like, right? Yet there are limits to their enthusiasm. At that New York Times reception, I spoke to Andrew Revkin who runs the New York Times blog Dot Earth about global population growth and energy use.

Revkin likes what he has seen of Vox and the Upshot, but adds...

ANDREW REVKIN: I've had this sobering experience since about, well, almost 10 years. I've been writing about the social science of how people accept or reject information. You can have clear data, but people who are dug in on an issue just go out and select the data set that reinforced their predisposition.

FOLKENFLIK: That is, people relying on them to support their beliefs, not to challenge their views. Two blogs and two days later, I sat down with Dean Starkman, who runs the business section of the Columbia Journalism Review and is author of "The Watchdog That Didn't Bark" about the failures of journalism in warning the public about the global financial crisis.

DEAN STARKMAN: When you think about the financial crisis, it wasn't like there was an absence of data.

FOLKENFLIK: Starkman says transcripts showed that even the leaders of the Federal Reserve Board didn't see the financial collapse coming, despite all that data flowing to them. The story, he says, was only seen by others.

STARKMAN: These are reporters working on the streets of Roanoke and the streets of Pittsburgh. This story was something that had to be reported from the bottom up. The quality of these transactions under which these mortgages were made, that was only gettable through basically ground-up reporting, talking to people who were outside the system.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet, as newspapers slashed budgets, studies from the Pew Research Center and elsewhere showed that the number of American reporters doing that kind of local coverage is on the wane. Leonhardt of the New York Times says the Upshot and its competitors can't fix all of journalism's problems. He says they're filling one of its gaps. They're seeking to help readers understand how the world actually works, researching and writing away from the demands of daily deadline reporting one data-driven post at a time. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.