2016 Google Fellow Brett Murphy and former NICAR Database Library Director Liz Lucas work on a project.

Are you a college journalism student who enjoys holding government officials accountable, scouring public records or working with data? If so, consider spending your summer at IRE through the Google News Lab Fellowship.

Eight participating organizations in the U.S. select students who will spend ten weeks working on projects focused on data journalism, online free expression, building news apps, and rethinking the business of journalism. Each student receives an $8,500 stipend and $1,000 travel fund. Be sure to apply by Jan. 3!

IRE and NICAR are both based out of the University of Missouri. We’re a small crew – but there’s no limit to the scope and impact of the work you can do here.

We asked our 2016 Google Fellow, Brett Murphy, to describe his summer at IRE. Brett is currently an investigative and courts reporter with the USA TODAY Network in Southwest Florida.

 

An investigative editor and IRE board member told me once that a crucial quality in her reporters is self-sufficiency. They can diagnose their own problems and then solve them. They understand a project’s broad goals, but don’t need hand-holding to get there. 

I don’t think there could have been a better environment for that than Google’s News Lab Fellowship at IRE. I split my brief time in Columbia, Missouri (great town, by the way) between the IRE Radio Podcast with Sarah Hutchins and the NICAR Database Library with Liz Lucas.

Producing the podcast helped hone my audio editing chops. But more importantly, it gave me an excuse to read, vet and talk through investigations every week. Understanding how reporters approach their stories, I think, is key to producing them yourself. You can learn a lot through autopsy. 

I interviewed the Pulitzer-winning team behind the Tampa Bay Times’ mental health hospital investigation; the Mother Jones reporter who went undercover at a private prison in the South; and the journalists at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who uncovered a nationwide phenomenon of sexual abuse in the medical community. 

In each episode, we cracked open their reporting and produced a 30-minute episode on their findings, processes and challenges. Sarah and I talked through each episode to distill the unique lessons listeners could take away.

My second role at IRE was in the data shop, which I divided into quick turnaround work and one long-term project. Most of the daily stuff involved cleaning and slicing large, complex data sets for reporters around the country. I had the benefit of working a wall away from one of the smartest data journalists in the country, so no task ever seemed out of reach. Every week, Liz helped me learn advanced functions and queries, as well as new programs and techniques for handling large data sets that might have otherwise overwhelmed me.

My big project was wrangling a massive trove of federal education data. The “College Scorecard” was a labyrinth of performance and “outcome” data, which measured with precise detail who gets into what school and what they do after graduation. With Liz’s help — as well assists from Annie Waldman at ProPublica and Andrea Fuller at the Wall Street Journal — I created a simplified, Excel-ready version of the database, along with a data dictionary and step-by-step guide to how journalists can analyze data specific to their beat. 

I now feel confident I can tackle a data project of any size with the skills, techniques and patience I learned in the NICAR library. 

Every day at IRE, I felt like I was actually learning a new hard skill or gaining a better understanding of the industry. The Google Fellowship was not only a nice transition from journalism school to the real world, but it also prepared me for an investigative career in ways no class could have.

 

If you have questions about IRE’s portion of the fellowship, Sarah Hutchins at [email protected].