‘It Really Helps Provide Context’; Neal Award Winner Shows Many Modes of Data Journalism

“The stuff that is going to really set your journalism apart is learning how to do this on a day-to-day basis in your everyday stories and getting story ideas,” Jonathan Maze, Winsight’s Restaurant Business editor in chief, told us recently in our Editorial Training Session titled Data Journalism 101. Here are some insights from that session.

“There are a million things that you can do on a day-to-day basis [with data] that just helps your overall body of work, and it really does not actually have to be that hard,” Maze said. “You’ll find out how to enrich stories, find ideas and how to best use them.” (Winsight and Maze won the 2022 Neal Award for Best Editorial Use of Data for Restaurant Business’s Top 500.)

Tony Silber, AM&P Network’s director of content and programming, moderated the event, which also included multi-Neal Award-winner Todd Dills, editor of Randall-Reilly’s Overdrive Magazine. (For today, we’ll focus on Maze and come back to Dills another time.)

“Data is such a multifaceted concept,” Silber began. “It could be product oriented, it could be audience-oriented, but it’s also journalism oriented and that’s a really, really important aspect of data. Turning data into content is an unbelievably valuable use of a resource for audiences distinguishing brands from their competitors—and it certainly, provides the basis for a high-margin, revenue-generating product or multiple products.”

(Three Editorial Training Sessions remain from the total of nine: Content Benchmarks—How Do Your Digital Products Stack Up? on Sept. 22; One Subscriber or 48,000 Pageviews? Understanding Editorial Economics on Oct. 20; and Refresh Your Podcast Strategy on Nov. 17. You can still sign up for individual sessions or get all nine on demand, including this one on data journalism.)

Here are some takeaways from Maze’s presentation:

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.

Drive feature stories. Maze showed us a story he did on Crumbl Cookies. “If you haven’t heard about it now, soon you absolutely will. 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, 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, 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 out bs. Executives may sometimes over emphasize 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.”

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.”

Supplement, don’t replace, talking to people. “It’s important to remember that data only supplements a report, it does not replace it,” Maze said. “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.” He 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.” Dills backed this up. “Data is no substitute for reporting,” he said, “but it can really make information come alive.”

Don’t be intimidated. Maze finished by urging peers not to be “afraid or intimidated when thinking about using data in your reporting. It can be super helpful in your journalism and a lot easier than you think. If you just learn to use it every day and be persistent and patient, it can be very beneficial.”

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