‘It Can Really Make Information Come Alive’; Neal Award Winners Talk Power of Data Journalism

Data has become a focus of many B2B media organizations and will be one of the many focuses for BIMS 2023, Feb. 23-24, in Orlando. “The stuff that is going to really set your journalism apart is learning how to [use data] on a day-to-day basis in your stories and getting story ideas,” Winsight’s Jonathan Maze told us in a recent Editorial Training Session.

“It’s important to remember that data only supplements a report, it does not replace it,” said Maze, Winsight’s Restaurant Business editor in chief. “You have to still talk to people, you have to get the lay of the land, you have to make sure you’re sourcing right and that people can help you provide proper information.” (Winsight and Maze won the 2022 Neal Award for Best Editorial Use of Data for Restaurant Business’s Top 500.)

Maze cited instances where “running data past internal sources found that the data was completely off or there was something wrong and it saved me. So it’s still important to cover your beat very extensively when doing these pieces.”

Data Journalism 101 co-presenter Todd Dills, editor of Randall-Reilly’s Overdrive Magazine and a multi-Neal Award-winner himself, backed this up. “Data is no substitute for reporting, but it can really make information come alive.” He pointed to a download they put together that showed a key inspection trend for the trucking industry. “One of the things that I want to point out is that when you’re reporting, you get great examples that illustrate a trend you’re seeing in data, but you also get the opposite. And it’s the exception to the rule sometimes that’s even better.”

Here are more insights from that session:

Find story leads. “You can find story leads and ideas simply by looking at numbers,” Maze said. “It also really helps provide context, which is super important. You can’t have a good story without really good context.” He also said that if you do not know Excel really well, you should take training on it. And he emphasized the positives of persistence and that just gathering data over time can eventually yield some big stories.

Prioritize mobile when it comes to visualization. “Generally speaking you’ll have to prioritize mobile at this particular point,” Maze said. “Because that’s where we’re getting most of our page views. So it’s super important that whatever you do has to work for mobile. If it doesn’t, you have to figure out a way to make it work.” Added Dills: “I totally agree [but] it’s not easy. We’re all sitting in offices working on this talk, and they look really great and then you go, ‘oh wait a second.’ This is not going to look [like this] for our guys that are behind the wheels of trucks out on the road. Datawrapper does a pretty decent job of accounting for mobile.” Maze said Instagram also works well.

Drive feature stories. Maze showed us a story he did on Crumbl Cookies. “It’s one of the hottest restaurant chains in the country. We have access to data from Technomics, our data arm. I crunched some data and found out Crumbl grew by 463% over the past two years, and we hadn’t written anything on it. I also got some franchise disclosure document data which is really important if your industry has any franchises. I found out that the average local Crumbl unit makes $2 million, which just selling cookies is actually really good. And I used that [and a podcast interview with the CEO] as a foundation for a story on why it was successful.”

Call companies out. Executives may sometimes overemphasize their success, Maze said. He pointed to a story he did on Subway, which liked to take a victory lap for sales jumps at its restaurants. But by going over the data, he found that 25% of its restaurants averaged a 26% decline. “Sometimes data journalism is just simple mathematics,” he said. “We did another story more recently on a pizza buffet chain and found some data that said it actually is not doing nearly as well as its competitors. Again, [data] helps you call out when companies are not necessarily giving you the full story. It helps provide proper context, [and that] is super important.”

Make the extra effort. “You should prioritize making that extra effort [with data] and making it a part of your routine,” Dills said. “Persistence is key. We do small stories with data; we do bigger ones in different ways that evolve over time. And, to this day, they’re still evolving so it’s pretty nice.” He also pointed to examples of crowdsourcing and polls that they’re doing.

Put stories in context. For a story on jobs, Maze saw that private companies hit pre-pandemic levels, but restaurants didn’t. So he went and got access to bls.gov (the Bureau of Labor and Statistics) to look at the historical data. “You could go to the tables to find your industry and very, very quickly find out total job growth in that sector,” Maze said. “I was able to find that the restaurant spaces were actually [thousands of] jobs short of where it was before the pandemic. That’s a pretty important story—that could be done in a day and just a few clicks—and helps put job growth in the restaurant space in proper context.”


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