Taking ‘Broccoli Journalism’ Hyperlocal

Mediameister Jeff Jarvis is the pluperfect phrasemaker. “There’s no why there,” he memorably summed up the Mark Zuckerberg-Facebook biopic The Social Network.  But I wish his jibe about “broccoli journalism” didn’t prove so hardy.

Jarvis coined the phrase in 2009 – in an attack on a report calling for federal subsidies to prop up the cost of reporting “serious” news stories. Google has compiled 798,000 search results for Jarvis’ journalistic put-down – most recently in the new FCC study “The Information Needs of Communities”: “As editors prune beats to leave only those that generate buzz — or, in the case of Web sites, traffic — they are tempted to serve fewer portions of ‘broccoli journalism,’ i.e. stories that might be both unpopular but good for you.”

If your quest for information online is weightier than simply where to find the best pizza in NYC or a great mani/pedi for $35 in Washington, why should that make you a Debbie Downer-like consumer of news? Besides, why does Jarvis have such old-fashioned Joy of Cooking ideas about broccoli? Doesn’t he know that New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman made the vegetable a headline ingredient of one of his “three revolutionary meals” of 2011?

News that’s “good for you” can be as appetizing as Bittman’s stir-fried broccoli. But it takes the creativity, zest and attention to detail that make Bittman the influential food expert he is. Look at how Oakland North visualized federal stimulus spending in Oakland (below).

In straight-text form, the story would have glazed over any eyes lingering on the page. But the visualization, with its simple but information-packed chart, bold icons and actionable key phrases, as well as catchy headlines, invites the user to get engaged.

Just a couple of years ago, the visualization could have taken the Oakland North’s small staff a prohibitive amount of time to compile. But most of the information already existed on the new, easy-to-repurpose recovery.gov site, so the Bay Area hyperlocal was able to do its impressive work within staff constraints. The end result is “broccoli journalism,” but definitely stir-fried.

Obesity is another “serious” story that could glaze eyes, but it too can be stir-fried. I charted the obesity rates in a group of communities in metro Washington, DC, and added a second value for recreation and fitness facilities in each community (see chart below).  There are sharp and possibly revealing contrasts between the two values among some of the 10 communities.

I got the obesity numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the fitness/recreations numbers from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Food Environment Atlas.  It took me less than half an hour to put everything into an Excel spreadsheet and produce the chart.

The data virtually cried out to be visualized.  A text story, no matter how well written, would have become a muddled fact heap in trying to describe the possible relationship between obesity and fitness and recreation facilities among some of the 10 communities.  The blue bars and the red line of the chart are worth a thousand words.

Once again, “broccoli journalism,” but with a dash of Mark Bittman instead of Jeff Jarvis.

Hyperlocals that want to make their serious journalism more engaging should check out the Knight Digital Media Center, which offers free basic online tutorials on data visualization, as well as fee-based courses.  As more open data becomes available on the Web, hyperlocals need to be prepared to use it to connect with their users.   And remember, stir-fry.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column, which appears every Thursday on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories, including K-12 schools, health and wellness, housing, fun and vision.  The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from Local Experts and users of the site.

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  1. sherry
    June 25, 2011

    Hi Tom, I like the idea in theory, but bars and lines don’t really tell a whole story. There are no characters and no emotional impact. A story about obesity or federal tax dollars doesn’t have to be a “muddled fact heap.” In the hands of a good journalist, it can be work that tells a defined story and make a lasting impression. That’s the job of a real journalist, not an Excel spreadsheet.

    1. June 25, 2011

      You’re right that data should not be the last word.  But on a website that engages users, it can start an online conversation that evolves into a story that’s enriched with people’s reactions.  It’s true that a reporter can weaves quotes into a story about obesity or how federal tax dollars are spent, but this labor-intensive work can’t routinely be done by tightly staffed hyperlocal publications.

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