This story is part of a series on Innovative Journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.(*)
In 2010, political reporter Diego Cabot of Argentina's La Nación received a leak with the potential of shaking up one of the key ministries of President Cristina Kirchner's first term. It was a CD with 26,000 e-mails from the Minister of Transport. For two weeks, four journalists tried manually to find relevant facts from the thousands of documents. But, after then-IT manager of the newspaper, Ricardo Brom, structured a search engine for journalists to consult data from the leak in an automated way, success came in just 40 minutes.
The experience showed the newspaper's management that bringing the technology department closer to the newsroom could yield good results. Momi Peralta, then-multimedia development manager, had the final confirmation that it would be worthwhile to invest in a data team for the newsroom.
"By the end of 2010 I had been observing the open data movement in the U.S. with Obama, the UK data.gov.ukplatform, events and hackathons promoted by outlets like The New York Times and the Guardian. At the same time, we received this challenge of the minister’s thousands of emails. In early 2011, we organized a meeting with the management team and three interested journalists and formed the embryo of the data unit of La Nación. From there we began to see all the opportunities of joining journalism and technology," Peralta said.
This team, which is dedicated primarily to special data journalism projects, is still led by Peralta and includes six permanent members. It collects national and international awards, including the prestigious Data Journalism Award, the Oscar-equivalent for those who invest in digging out stories from databases. Since the first edition of the awards, in 2012, the newspaper has been a finalist every year and has been victorious four consecutive times - from 2013 to 2016.
While Latin American media outlets reduce costs and layoff journalists, La Nación saw its investment in a data journalism unit as an efficient way of producing unique and high-quality content for its various platforms. For Momi, the success of the team - and its maintenance even in times of crisis and massive layoffs - is explained by the relevance of its work to the audience.
"We cover public policies, education, public spending, human development, the environment. Themes that are not always the champions of page views, but that help build bonds of trust with communities. We create services that help people understand and follow complex issues, like votes in Congress," she explained. "And the more products we launch, the more efficient we become, because we keep updating the data and it stays relevant even after a long time."
The link with communities established by La Nación Data is not restricted to news consumption. Some of its most recognized projects involve crowdsourced investigations, with citizen participation.
One was launched in 2015, shortly after the presidential primaries. With the electoral system under suspicion of fraud, the team made a call for civic collaboration to check 90,000 poll worker reports- originally available in PDFs. After being able to revise 20,000 documents and structure them in a single dataset, data analysis revealed that 48 percent of the monitoring reports had some type of irregularity. The results sent a message to the government indicating the same kind of social control would apply to the final elections.
Florencia Coelho, data unit training manager - and an assumed open-source evangelist - was one of those responsible for investigating the monitoring reports.
According to her, the transparency and the collaborative spirit of the team members allow this type of product, which strengthens the credibility of the newspaper. "A project of great impact like this can not be done alone. We have collaborated with hundreds of citizens, civil society organizations and university student groups. It also adds credibility to the newspaper's product. It is not 'La Nación criticizing the government,’ it is society involved in what is of public interest," she said.
Another impactful collaborative investigation was the checking of 40,000 phone tapping audio recordings of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman, found dead in his home in 2015. He was investigating an attack in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, considered the biggest terrorist attack in Latin America. In both cases, verification was possible thanks to an open collaboration platform developed by the data unit for collaborative checks of public documents.
VozData, as the platform was named, is an example of La Nación's strategy to develop software and applications with replication capabilities from which to draw distinct stories. "We seek to be hyper-productive. We think of long-term projects. Weekly, we offer quality multiplatform content for print, online, TV, social networks. We seek synergies to generate value to many sections of the newspaper, and this demonstrates that investing in data journalism in the long term is a good deal,” Coelho said.
With a lean team, betting on projects of more breadth has been as important as expanding the data culture for the entire newspaper. "It's unfair to say that we are just six (reporters). We are constantly growing and increasing in journalistic muscle, because other journalists see value in what we do and reach out. We are not a corner in the newsroom, we help generate a data-driven mentality internally."
Seven years after helping the political reporter find the stories he sought amidst thousands of emails, Ricardo Brom has almost entirely spent his time on editorial activities and is one of the six experienced team members. He turned from IT manager to data intelligence manager. Brom is the in-person proof of the change of mentality that has put the newspaper in the position as an international player in data-driven investigations.
Brom sees the diverse profile of the data unit as its greatest advantage.
"What makes La Nación Data so successful is that it brings together people who are able to cover the entire data life cycle, from the retrieval to presentation. We have a specialist in the access to information law, who knows where to look for the data. We have a specialist in data mining, we have visualization specialists. And we also count on the work of Florencia and Momi to relate to different communities, bringing the culture of open data to public agencies and other spaces and showing the importance of this to produce better journalism and have a more informed society," the engineer said.
To stay at the forefront of data journalism, training, hackathons, conversations with experts and participation in international hacking and open data events are part of the team's routine as well as uncovering stories hidden in databases. These activities, according to Coelho, help generate a virtuous circle between journalists and civil society. "It's something that takes a lot of energy, but we think it's important. We have a role that is almost like an NGO. We build and open databases, break with the exclusivist paradigm, we even train competitors!” she said laughing.
Looking at other teams specializing in data from Latin American newsrooms, Coelho points to smaller organizations such as Ojo Público and Convoca, both of Peru, as examples that it is not necessary to count on a large investment to make high-quality data journalism.
For her, it is more important to create a culture that encourages learning and the exchange of knowledge. "It is necessary to seek allies, and the allies are not always inside the newsroom, sometimes it is a group of activists who can help, a programmer interested in public transparency. There is no impossible project if we apply technology and collaboration.This is in the DNA of La Nación Data and it's what makes us what we are today," she concluded.
(*) This story is part of a special project by the Knight Center that is made possible thanks to generous support from Open Society Foundations. The "Innovative Journalism" series covers digital news media trends and best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean.