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From CAR to news apps and back again

Reporting and app development don’t have to be separate processes. In fact, the earlier these workflows are integrated, the more efficient both processes can be. This makes for better reporting and presentation, which amplifies your value for your audiences.

This was the main take-away from a power-panel of Lena Groeger, Ted Mellnik, Charles Ornstein, Serdar Tumgoren, Derek Willis, and Sarah Cohen, moderated by Troy Thibodeaux of The Associated Press. These folks, who have produced some of the best CAR projects and news apps around, shared what they’ve learned on the job, as the field of news apps has been invented largely at their hands.

To make integration work well, reporters and developers should start talking early. A prime example was the case of a reporter at the Washington Post who had been hand-annotating and manually recalculating reams of data for 18 months before bringing her project to the development team. They were able to create a data dashboard to improve her process, which also started their process of creating a public-facing application to let readers find their own stories in the data.

The audience of your news application may not be your general readership, though. For example, ProPublica’s nursing home inspection database is used by the organization’s own reporters and also by family members of residents, researchers, other news organizations and even regulators.

When this many people are using your news application, determining your update strategy is a key decision that’s best made early. You’ll also want to figure out how you’ll communicate to your audiences once the decision is made to stop updating. As Sarah Cohen points out, you don’t want to leave data online for so long that it becomes misleading.

Finally, focus more on the roles that matter for well reported news apps than anyone’s job titles. You’ve got to have an editor for the project, a reporter, a developer, a designer, a data cruncher, and perhaps more. Individuals can play multiple roles, but those roles have to be covered.

What makes good news apps editors was a bonus conversation at the end of this session. They might not have deep data knowledge, but they have ability to ask good reporting questions and they need to know how to bullet-proof the application.

More than anything, the editor and all members of the team need to treat the news application as a story in its own right, and the take-away must match that of the narrative version. The more reporters and developers do to integrate their workflows, the more clearly aligned the story — in all its forms — will be.

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