From class project to Sunday Post

For MATC student and political reporter John Frank, work in the online classroom fueled a section-front story in the The Denver Post and an accompanying blog post earlier this year.

Having already noticed a trend of division among Republicans in the Colorado Senate, Frank began exploring related data after the MATC course JOMC 890: “Digital Data and Analytics” got him into “the data-mindset.” In the following term, he analyzed the data for "JOMC 717: Information Visualization.” The resulting infographics appeared in a January blog post, a dayafter his print story informed by the data analysis ran on the front of the Sunday metro section. (Frank later turned another MATC class project into a section-front story. See the update below.)

Frank (right) described the process in a recent Q&A via email:

When and how did you start thinking about examining this data underlying a Republican split in the Colorado Senate?

The story about the dynamics in the Republican-controlled state Senate came from dedicated beat reporting. For the 2015 session, I covered the Senate where Republicans took power for the first time in a decade by a single vote and sat in the spotlight with a Democratic House and governor.

I made an effort to sit at the press table in the chamber each day to watch the debate and votes. A couple months into the session I started to recognize a pattern. A substantial—at times a majority—of the GOP caucus voted against legislation that its leaders brought to the floor. I began to envision the story in March 2015, but the chaos of a legislative session didn’t allow me the time to do an in-depth analysis of the voting patterns. Once session concluded in May, I began to collect and analyze the data.

How did you investigate the data as part of JOMC 890?

Before entering the digital data class, I had significant experience with computer-assisted reporting. But the class certainly helped put me in the data-mindset—which is half the battle—during the session and primed my thinking on the story.

What was the goal of your related project in JOMC 717?

Even though I knew data reporting and politics, Lisa Villamil’s 717 class represented my first foray into design or information visualization. But I have long believed in the power of graphics to not only communicate news but find stories.

The final project asked us to create an infographic from a provided prompt, but knowing I was sitting on a pretty interesting dataset about Senate votes, I asked Lisa if I could go a different direction. She enthusiastically said yes.

Before I could start, I had to put hours and hours into cleaning the data and verifying it. But once I started analyzing the spreadsheet, I found a few interesting threads. However, it wasn’t until I began to chart and graph the data that the patterns really came alive. The numbers in a table are helpful in understanding a story, but visualizing the data allowed me find the real story.

Did you always envision translating your class projects into a story for the paper?

In each class for the MATC program, I look for ways to translate my learning into practice at the newspaper and build my portfolio. And in this case, the timing proved perfect. I had a dataset I wanted to explore and I had the opportunity to apply it to the visualization methods I was learning in class.

What was that process like, taking the class project and turning it into print and online stories?

The pitch I made to the professor for the final project focused on publishing it in The Denver Post. So I designed the voting pattern graphics to specifically fit the specs of the Post’s political blog. And I submitted a draft blog post as my final project.

By then, though, it was July and a little stale given the time that elapsed since session ended. So I held the data and updated the story for January as a preview of the 2016 legislative session. Now, my graphics didn’t appear in the print edition—our amazing graphics reporter, Michelle Doe, herself a former student of Lisa’s from Ohio University, made a far more advanced illustration as a section-front centerpiece that ran the Sunday before the session’s start.

But I still published a couple of my graphics from the class project on the newspaper’s political blog under an SEO-driven headline, “What you need to know about the Colorado legislature in 2016.” It linked to my in-depth analysis but added value with a more detailed look at the voting patterns.

UPDATE: Frank turned his final project from a spring MATC course--JOMC 718: "Media Law for the Digital Age"--into another big Sunday story. The article, titled "Five ways to improve government transparency in Colorado," was the lead story in the Perspectives section. For the newspaper version, Frank significantly edited his JOMC 718 project for length and reworked portions based on feedback form media law professor Tori Ekstrand.