When I received a Rural Computer Assisted Reporting fellowship, I was the city hall reporter for The Bulletin daily newspaper in the small central Oregon city of Bend. The fellowship allowed me to attendthe Investigative Reporters and Editors CAR bootcamp in January 2013 during a challenging financial time for the newspaper. After the editor in chief learned that I received the R-CAR fellowship, he agreed to cover my travel cost.
With the skills I learned at the bootcamp, I don’t have to take the word of a public official or other source when data on a topic is available. I can also find stories in data that other reporters might not uncover, but which are important to our readers and the public.
In 2013, I used my new skills for a story on a dramatic decline in the frequency of fire safety inspections following cutbacks at the local fire department. I trained other reporters in our newsroom and found opportunities to use data in daily stories.
I began to tackle larger data sets in 2014, and I also worked with the newspaper’s graphics reporter to better illustrate the data for readers. Oil train crashes were in the news and although officials said railways were not shipping crude through central Oregon, the train tracks run through the middle of town so any type of spill could have a big impact on residents. I wondered how often other types of hazardous materials had spilled from trains across the state.
After researching the data available, I ended up using data from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality because it included more detail than federal data. The story focused on how little first responders know about train cargo traveling through their communities and some of the more serious hazardous materials spills in recent Oregon history. I found more than 100 spills of waste oil, chemicals and other substances that exceeded 100 gallons. The data also revealed that 31 of the spill incidents involved a train derailment. We mapped the data using a Google Fusion Table and used the map to provide background for continuing coverage of the issue, including when we broke the news in May 2014 that railways were shipping an increasingly large amount of crude through our region.
Other examples in which I used data for stories at The Bulletin include a story about hot spots for bike crashes in Bend, a story on city and county medical marijuana dispensaries around the state and a story about the increase in vacation rental homes in Bend.
A few months ago, I accepted a new job covering state government in the Oregon capital for two community newspaper companies, whose publications include the East Oregonian in Pendleton and Daily Astorian on the coast. I’m excited to continue using the skills I learned through the R-CAR fellowship on this new beat.