Why Think Tanks and Nonprofits Should Be Thinking Like (New Media) Newsrooms

Guest article! Troy Schneider makes the point that new tools let advocacy groups create sophisticated online information presentations, the kind of data- and graphics-rich applications that news organizations have employed to really make a point jump out at a reader. Troy should know of what he speaks: he’s been around the online political world since the halcyon days of PoliticsNow (ah, the mid-90s…) before jumping over to National Journal, where he served as Editor at NationalJournal.com and as Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the parent Atlantic Media Company. Nowadays, he’s New Media Editor at the New America Foundation, where he’s putting these ideas into practice. Pull you up a chair and hear what he has to say:

Why Think Tanks and Nonprofits Should Be Thinking Like (New Media) Newsrooms

Troy K. Schneider
Cross-posted at TroySchneider.com

Earlier this year, the topic of media outlets bringing programmers into the newsroom generated some interesting discussion (from Tim O’Reilly, Mark Glaser, and others). As O’Reilly put it, “the various jobs of journalism — gathering news, exercising editorial judgment, and presenting the story — can all be augmented by programming. In the new world of network-enabled information gathering and dissemination, programming is as critical a skill as writing and photography.”

He’s absolutely right. Adrian Holovaty is the poster boy for this type of innovation, and the creation of a “Tools Team” at WashingtonPost.com — talented developers who focus on content and are part of the newsroom, not the I.T. department — pays dividends for that site on what seems like a weekly basis. Data-rich, graphically creative packages are no longer limited to major events like Election Night or March Madness; they can be applied to almost any project where words alone won’t tell the full story.

But it’s not just media sites that should be paying attention. While that discussion’s focus was on different ways to hire and structure a news staff, there’s an important corollary here for non-profits and interest groups: It’s easier than ever to produce deep, data-driven projects, and your organization can often do it better than even the biggest media outlets.

“Easier” is relative, of course. But here’s why it’s time more of us started thinking creatively about what we can put online:

  • The Data is the Hardest Part.
    While news organizations gather information constantly, it’s only rarely compiled in a comprehensive way — and getting all that data into a clean, well-organized database (or even an Excel spreadsheet) is rarer still. This is changing, but it’s an uphill battle in the face of constant deadline pressures and journalists’ primary mission of filtering and distilling down the data they collect.

    At think tanks and policy shops, however, the more-academic dedication to thorough and detailed data is already there. Research that’s been done for white papers or books can be exported for online use, and the researchers behind it are often experienced in pulling and combining data from the government and other freely available sources.

  • The Work Won’t Go to Waste.
    Needless to say, WashingtonPost.com gets just a bit more traffic than a site like NewAmerica.net. And for the most part, non-profit and interest group sites aren’t at the top of most people’s mental lists when they’re looking for information online. So unless a project was central to an organization — think the League of Women Voters’ database of candidate issue positions, or the Center for Responsive Politics’ campaign-finance info — many groups shied away from investing the time and money.

    Google and the blogosphere have changed that equation — relevance and quality can quickly overcome a lack of “brand ID.” And the mainstream media has shifted as well; the idea of a “walled garden” is finally dead. So if you build something good, people WILL find it — often thanks to links from places like the Post or NYTimes.com.

  • It No Longer Costs a Fortune.
    Not too many years ago, big data-driven projects meant Oracle databases, dedicated servers and expensive outside consultants to build something from scratch. MySQL and open-source development have changed all that. Hosting is cheap, and many of the best tools are free. Outside expertise is still expensive, but you need far less of it today — sometimes even none at all.

    If you’ve read this far, it’s likely that you know a thing or two about building web sites — or work closely with a colleague who does. And with the software and mashups that have mushroomed in the past few years, that sort of yeoman’s knowledge is often all that’s required to turn a bright idea into reality.

    A great example is Drupal, the open-source CMS we use for New America sites. It’s free, it’s remarkably flexible, and there are hundreds of talented programmers constantly improving and extending it. Google Maps, meanwhile, can be integrated with almost anything. Want to chart your data on the fly? That software will cost all of $50. If you’re motivated and have a modicum of tech skills, you can assemble the whole toolkit yourself. Or find one of the many experienced developers to help scope out the project and get you started — either way, the cost is a fraction of what data-driven projects required even three years ago.

So Let’s Get Moving

It’s not just that we can do this sort of thing, or course. It’s that we should. Developing these kinds of online resources fits perfectly with the mission of most think tanks and issue advocacy groups. Unlike journalists, policy folks are not limited by what the top story of the day is, or hard-wired to present information in inverted-pyramid style. If your purpose is to educate people and inform the debate on key issues — and, ultimately, ensure that smart policy choices get made — maps, charts and interactive apps will beat an op-ed or white paper every time.

The New America Foundation actually has several of these in the works — quickie animations that help explain a complex issue or statistic; maps comparing all 50 states’ climate change policies; even an interactive database that compares all 14,000 U.S. school districts. (I’ll add links as they come online.) None of them are rocket science, but they’re all great additions to their respective issue areas. And they’ve all been built in-house.

And we’re hardly alone. More great tools and resources are popping up all the time, in the media and think-tank worlds alike. (I plan to spotlight some of them in future posts.) But there’s also a ton of untapped opportunities where the right group to create a great site or feature that also serves the public good.

Besides… why should the newsrooms get to have all the fun?

Thanks Troy — these are tools that advocacy groups would be crazy to ignore. I’m looking forward to seeing what you guys come up with.


Written by
Colin Delany
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1 comment
  • couldn’t agree more. Thanks Colin for this post, because that’s exactly the point I’ve been making to a think tank I’m working with. It is indeed possible to make data visually impactful. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then animated data is definitely worth a thousand boring white papers piling up on the desk of policy staffers.
    One guy can actually be credited for illustrating this point better than anyone else: it’s Hans Rosling, the Swedish professor who’s been taking his living data show around the world and getting a standing ovation everywhere, even here: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/92