Quick tip: Stumbling on Excel databases

One interesting tip from the data session this morning:

Pull a search for “.xls” on a government or company website. This will bring up Excel spreadsheets, and you just may find something interesting— even something that should be hidden.

-Arvin, Pacific Daily News

Data resources

This morning’s final session about digging up data and documents was an excellent way to wrap up the conference. I definitely recommend downloading the powerpoint/ tip sheet for this one.

Here are a couple of the databases mentioned, which I’ll be searching through as soon as I get back home:

Happy hunting,

Arvin, Pacific Daily News

Small bites are also tasty

Mark Horvit, IRE executive director, said journalists too often figure that if they have a big story they have to spend months turning it into a project that runs over consecutive days.
IRE staffers, he told the “Storyboarding” session, see a number of investigations in which media outlets start out by publishing or airing their best stuff at the moment, then following up, following up and following up.
It’s nice to have the components for the next story mostly in the bag before publishing the first one if you take this approach, he said, partly because it helps you stay ahead of the competition.
And, that is often less of a worry than reporters think.
In the days after your organization has broken a story, “Who are people going to start calling with tips and extra information, you or your competition?”
Mark Barrett
Asheville Citizen-Times

NYT speech

If you missed Jill Abramson’s keynote speech Saturday and you bought the Sunday Boston Globe (I’m speaking to both of you here), you can read the Globe coverage of her talk on A2. The Globe has a paywall, so online is a problem.

Mark Barrett
Asheville Citizen-Times

Cody Winchester from Sioux Falls talks about advanced excel skills that are time savers.

Weave your data

I happened to sit next to Georges Grinstein, a professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, in a break between sessions.
I asked for and he delivered his pitch for Weave, open source software his Institute for Visualization and Perception Research has developed to allow nonprofits and governments to put all kinds of data on the web and let people play with it, especially via maps.
So, I went to his “Using Weave to provide interactive data visualizations to the public” presentation later that day. It looks intriguing and could be a way to get folks to spend lots of time and your site and even point out stuff in your data you overlooked. Nonprofits seem to be adopting it, including data centers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
I’m not qualified to say how this compares to similar software, but Georges is a really nice guy, his software is free and he is looking to spread its use to news organizations. Check it out.
Mark Barrett
Asheville Citizen-Times

He said, she said, let’s toss the whole thing out

In “Writing the investigative story,” Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times encouraged us to make stories into true narratives and to leave out all but the most necessary attribution to keep the story flowing.
Few things are more boring to a reader than a fat paragraph that lists all the interviews the newspaper did, the documents it found etc., etc., he said. Almost as bad is putting, “so-and-so said” at the end of every sentence or paragraph.
Armstrong advocates sticking all that stuff in a nerd box so people who want it can read it and those who don’t don’t have to. If you put the box online, you can hyperlink to the documents and databases you used for those who want to know more.
There is a good example of what he was talking about at the top of A1 in today’s (June 17) Boston Sunday Globe. Sarah Schweitzer got more than a page and a half of prime newshole to trace the lives of the perpetrator and the victim in an April murder-suicide in a small town in New Hampshire.
Schweitzer probably had never interviewed the popular Greenland police chief who got gunned down a few days before he was going to retire. But she talked to enough people to know that, for instance, “Maloney (the chief) hadn’t known anything other than police work really. Only a stint in the Army. But it was time. Perhaps he’d pursue a job in the private sector, definitely spend more time with his first grandson. And he and his wife, Peg, had scheduled a summertime cruise.”
I have never been to Greenland, N.H., don’t know anyone there and don’t even like “true crime” stories. I have other issues with the story, but they have nothing to do with attribution.
And, I read it all.
Mark Barrett
Asheville Citizen-Times

Sunday: Storyboarding

Things to think about on the front end of reporting breaking news or an in-depth project: What is the key question? Can we break new ground with this project? What’s the impact on people? What is the potential for reform? Who are the potential victims? Who are the key people, documents and data we’ll need to get this done?

Also, ALWAYS bring in photo, video, graphics and Web people from the beginning. They have different perspectives and can offer different angles than reporters might think about.

Lindsay VanHulle
Lansing State Journal

Transferring PDFs to usable data

Tired of getting PDFs?

Try these sites:



Jessie Balmert

The Advocate in Newark, Ohio

Sunday: Cool Web tools

Excellent Web tips from IRE. Tipsheet coming to the website, but here are a few:

CometDocs: Converts PDF data to Excel format. www.cometdocs.com

Zamzar: An alternative to CometDocs. www.zamzar.com

DocumentCloud: Allows you to post documents to the Web and annotate. www.documentcloud.org

DownThemAll: Downloads multiple files from a website at once. www.downthemall.net

Voyant: Pulls out frequently used words in documents (like governor’s speeches). www.voyeurtools.org

ChangeDetection: Alerts you when websites have been changed. www.changedetection.com

ExifViewer: An add-on of Firefox that allows you to look at metadata of photographs on the Web. Search for it in Google.

AllWhoIs: Domain search. www.allwhois.com

Wayback Machine: Lets you find former versions of websites. web.archive.org

BatchGeo: Create simple maps. www.batchgeo.com

Lindsay VanHulle
Lansing State Journal

Goodbye Boston and IRE

I leave Boston today, headed back to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. I had a fantastic time at my first IRE conference. I learned so much and met so many great reporters, my head is spinning. I know it’s going to take me at least a week to process my notes and everything I heard in panels, but when I do, corruption and wrong doing in Staunton better watch out. Thanks to Gannett for choosing to send me. And to everyone I met, please keep in touch and hopefully I’ll see you in San Antonio next year.
—Megan Williams, The News Leader

Just do it.

Rather than talking about how hard something is, just do it. Get it done, even if it means working from home on a Sunday.
- Sarah Cohen, Duke University
Cohen also suggests doing two to three coffees or meals a week with sources that have nothing to do with a story. And, always have two notebooks with you. Use one for the current story, and then take out the second afterward to ask new questions or pre-report for something else.

Sarah Reinecke, Argus Leader

Job Hunting?

Manny Garcia, executive editor of El Nuevo Herald gives tips on what recruiters look for:

1. Attend conferences like IRE: “This is a business of relationships.” Network, network, network.

2. A diversity of skills will set you apart.

3. Be able to write cleanly and concisely. Editors look for great ledes and great quotes in clips that tell powerful stories.

4. Cover letter: Make sure it’s engaging— editors receive tons of these letters.

5. Resume: Editors are looking for a continued path of growth, how you challenge yourself.

6. We’re looking for critical thinkers, problems solvers, and positive attitudes.

- Arvin, Pacific Daily News

What did Jessie Balmert learn at IRE?

Ken Armstrong, reporter at the Seattle Times and 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner in investigative journalism, is interviewed by Gannett’s Mackenzie Warren at the IRE Conference in Boston on Friday.  Click the photo to watch the interview.

Ken Armstrong, reporter at the Seattle Times and 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner in investigative journalism, is interviewed by Gannett’s Mackenzie Warren at the IRE Conference in Boston on Friday.  Click the photo to watch the interview.