Expert Commentary

National Journal’s Jody Brannon on demographics, data and stories: Research chat

2013 interview with veteran digital journalist and educator Jody Brannon, who now oversees a pioneering demographics-driven news project.

Jody Brannon (National Journal)
Jody Brannon (National Journal)

Jody Brannon is a veteran digital journalist and educator who currently serves as editor of National Journal’s pioneering demographics-focused project “The Next America.” At Arizona State University, she served as director of News21, an alliance of 12 schools that are a part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education (of which Journalist’s Resource is a member.) With its data-driven focus, “The Next America” represents a distinctive hybrid of news reporting and original empirical research; the project also sponsors original survey research.

As part of the site’s ongoing “research chat” series, Journalist’s Resource recently caught up with her to talk data, demographics and lessons learned. The following is an edited transcript:


Journalist’s Resource: Tell us about “The Next America.” What might other journalists learn from what you’re doing?

Jody Brannon: The editorial director of National Journal, Ron Brownstein, in mid-year 2010 wrote a cover story for National Journal called “The Gray and the Brown.” It was a demographic analysis of the changing landscape in America as it becomes older and more diverse. He uses “browner” as a metaphor for all people of color, mostly first-, second- or third-generation immigrants. But as that group as a cohort ascends from lower-income levels into the next cohort, and into the middle class, it will not only support the “gray,” but it also has political ramifications. So Ron began to see this as a genuine niche focus where National Journal could be a forerunner, and he began to look around for possible underwriters, just as PBS looks for underwriters for particular niche journalism. Along the way, he inspired the interest of many organizations. The first was the University of Phoenix, largely because its parent group, the Apollo Group, is deeply interested in this cohort as prospective students, who also might find it as an easy entry point into education and eventually middle income. This allowed us to venture into this space. I was brought in largely to shepherd a website into existence.

To start, the business model behind it involved National Journal and Apollo Group asking questions on matters of race and identity that have policy and political ramifications; it also had a series of special events that are held with thought leaders around the country on occasion; and then we have an actual print supplement to the magazine, which has so far come out twice. So it really represents a well-rounded foray into looking at demographics, through text, digital, the spoken word — meaning events — and also data points. I think it’s a fascinating model that we hope will generate others within National Journal or more widely at Atlantic Media.

And clearly it’s a topic of great interest: The changing demographics of America were what this past election was all about.

JR: For beat reporters in local communities who may not be using demographic data a lot in their coverage, what would you say to them about the possibility of stories within the data? Any pointers on localizing data?

Jody Brannon: It’s good to get a data-savvy reporter on any team. The data has just become voluminous out there. I read a lot of nice features about people of color, or first-generation immigrants, or people of color who have an interesting story to tell; and there might be an obligatory sentence about them being part of the largest-growing group of immigrants in America. But more importantly, what we look at is a treasure trove of data made available by the Census Bureau, and Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), on its coaching site, has some tools to help you decipher the data points. It really takes having someone who is comfortable with, not only spreadsheets, but in extrapolating onto the Web and becoming comfortable with Google Fusion, which thankfully is a free tool. We’re into free items just like anyone else.

I hired a producer who has become comfortable working with Tableau. It’s all about acquiring a skill set that allows us to do demographic analysis. It’s kind of the chicken-and-egg problem. But once you find the data points, then you have to do the shoe leather reporting to find the people behind them. It’s been fascinating to look at American Community Survey data at the neighborhood level and see demographic and migratory shifts. Recently we’ve been looking into the purple states [political swing states with mixed Democratic and Republican affiliations] and what they might be in 2014 and 2016, based on population trends and growth. I’ve seen stories saying that 2012 was all about the young voters, or people of color and African-Americans; they were responsible for returning President Obama to power. But frankly, if he had not done well with any one of them, he probably would not be returning to the White House. We’re looking at those issues at the national political level.

More locally at “Next America,” we’re looking at issues impacting people of color, particularly on that sweet spot of their acquisition of education and wealth. By “wealth,” I don’t mean they’re becoming a “1-percenter.” I just mean that they are moving into the middle class. There is this very precise chemistry in how education brings on better jobs, and then better jobs brings them to maybe buy a house and better educate the next generation of children. We’re looking at the socio-economic trends behind the demographics that will be the arenas that Americans, both at the civic level and at the legislative levels, will look at when enacting policies, from neighborhoods to the capital,  that will impact people of any color or creed. These sorts of demographic analyses are increasingly something that even a school superintendent or a parks manager might pay attention to.

JR: Do you feel that every local journalist should analyze American Community Survey data for his or her beat? It’s so specific and rich.

Jody Brannon: Ideally, sure. But realistically that’s not always going to happen. Every newsroom would be wise to have someone who can use the data, or at least is wise and patient in helping other people get comfortable with the data. You almost have to work hand-in-hand with data people. You might have one journalist who is gifted in extracting data from spreadsheets; but it might take another journalist to bring that data to the Web and make it really come to life. What good is a story unless someone sees it, right?

We’ve been trying to find ways to be more strategic and bold in ways to make our data points consumable by more people. Instead of just putting links in Facebook and Twitter to the story, we are cognizant in making the data rich and playing with a tool called Share as Image, which is a rather cheap one. What it allows you to do is: Say you’re on an HTML page, and you take a quote and highlight it. Then you go into this browser app, a plug-in, that allows you to take that font and mess with it, and change the background of your image. So it generates, without having to go into Photoshop, a kind of pull-quote treatment, that you can then put into Facebook. We found that the share-ability and like-ability are well worth the effort. We can then highlight a factoid from the story that has as much relevance and impact as the search-optimized headline itself. This is another avenue, given that many of our stories are more timeless and deserve more attention than just the general flow of news. We can reshare in the social sphere by bringing out these different nuggets of information that are worth thinking about, longer than the terrible churn that is “one and done.”

JR: Could you walk us through a story that has some implications, in terms of information or even technique? Maybe a model that others could learn from.

Jody Brannon: A recent piece that I’ve worked on, “160 Minority Candidates Seek Congressional Office,” focused on all members of Congress who were running for a seat and who were people of color. We looked at who they were running against and whether they won [Also see “Meet the Victors: Mapped Minority Members of Congress.”] It was a manageable target. I could imagine young journalists and local journalists running a similar analysis on local candidates. What we did was take a look at the winners and the losers based on the data points of race, ethnicity, etc. I later put them into a Wordle, and took at look at the winners and losers by color and by party. You could quickly see through a visual that it was largely people of color who are Democrats that won — probably not surprising; in turn, if you looked at the Republicans who won against people of color, it was quite considerable, too. Within both of those visuals you could see a story. I’ve taken that to another level by talking to social scientists about name recognition and the voting booth, and whether there’s any bias in it. [See “Surname Racial Bias? Winners and Losers in 2012 Election.”] That’s one story we’ve done. It allowed me to leverage a deep-dive into the demographics of candidates and ultimate winners and then look at why they won or not.

My producer who has become capable in Tableau did a story, “Analysis: Top U.S. Cities to Live in Are Still Fairly White and Well-Off,” about where people live and how much money they earn, based on whiteness and people of color. She’s able to point to the 10 cities across the country where the ratio of diversity had a correlation to how much money people earn or how much they have in their households. So it was a data mesh of household income, geography and demographic data points. It was basically trying to find out the level of diversity based on cities deemed to be the most livable. So we’re looking basically at the most livable cities based on diversity.

JR: What are some of the Web resources that you think journalists should know more about and find are really helpful?

Jody Brannon: For tools, we use the Google suite, just because it’s easier for our graphical designers to also use. On the content side, we’re deep into Pew Research Center and Census data, of course. Though the government only asks those big Census questions every 10 years, in point of fact they are doing data analysis all the time. They regularly release onto their website — three or four times a month — a great collection of data that presents interesting, more nuanced stories. It might be based on household income or neighborhood trends. It takes a few years after the 10-year data comes out for them to actually crunch it in a way that has more relevance. That certainly is an area that we turn to. The Pew Research Center has many arms within it — organizations that focus on education, politics, Hispanics and ethnicity, as well as religion and other areas that are of interest to us. At “Next America,” we’re basically interested in American tribes and how policymakers consider them. There are also a lot of Washington, D.C., think tanks that are crunching data to make their positions known and to help them influence policy well.

JR: You’re an educator, too. Are there lessons you have learned as you’ve worked on this project that are worth pondering for the journalism education community? Where should journalism education go on these fronts?

Jody Brannon: What my experiences over the past year have made concrete is the need for journalism schools to turn out very agile, smart, flexible, adaptable reporters. Unlike maybe the traditional definition of a reporter, it’s not just going out with your notepad and collecting quotes and background information. Rather, it’s taking advantage of and making sense of data — and screening out a lot of irrelevant data — and trying to find fresh ways to dive into a story. This kind of journalism takes as much time at a keyboard as it does out on the street. The whole phenomenon of how you produce the story — I deliberately don’t just use the word “writing,” because that is just one of the steps toward getting it produced and disseminated — requires that a person fully understand the many ways that it is possible for that information to be presented, so that it can be best consumed and make a difference.

I am constantly thirsty for ways to tell our stories in a different way; and I’m very cognizant of looking for tools that are quick and easy to use, that don’t require you to spend your whole weekend looking at code to get familiar with them. Gradually this is happening. I certainly recall the early days of the Web when I would open up HTML files on Notepad; those days are gone. Things like WordPress make it easier to get the words out. But the social strategies and the data visualization tools are so numerous that it’s another level of both opportunity and noise that educators have to be aware of.

Tags: research chat, data journalism

About The Author