David Leonhardt, the editor of “The Upshot,” a New York Times website focusing on politics and public policy, visited the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Tuesday to discuss how mathematics is mixing with the news industry.
Leonhardt is at the forefront of the growing world of “nerd journalism,” a term he uses to describe a new way to convey news using data, analytics and statistics.
“We are not shy about being nerdy,” Leonhardt said. “We all want to be the nerdiest.”
He explained that the website’s goal is to improve clarity surrounding important events.
“Our basic mission is to write about big, complicated events in a conversational way,” Leonhardt said. “We want to help people understand events they otherwise may have trouble comprehending.”
Leonhardt started The Upshot at The New York Times to fill the void left by Nate Silver after he took his immensely popular FiveThirtyEight blog to ESPN. Silver famously correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election, creating popular interest in data-driven journalism. The Upshot will now look to capitalize on this growing field by taking more unconventional routes to report news.
“In order to give people information that they don’t already have, journalists now often need to go a level deeper,” Leonhardt said. “One of the ways to do that is to do nerd journalism. It is to go heavily into the numbers behind something, get really wonky about it and try to explain to people what is going on in a way an eleven-hundred word newspaper story cannot.”
In an age where housing foreclosures and unemployment rates are staples on the front pages of newspapers across the country, Leonhardt and The Upshot want to ensure that anyone can interpret the news.
“People want to understand the details and the numbers and the facts that they are surrounded by in a very deep way,” Leonhardt said.
The Upshot will feature not only in-depth reporting and infographics, but also data-driven charts, tables and animations to help readers understand complex topics.
“What we are doing is really nerdy stuff,” Leonardt said. “Yet it is all meant to appeal to people who don’t have any sort of expertise, who don’t have any sort of degree in economics. I like to think of the audience for this type of journalism as really smart people who come into something knowing absolutely nothing.”
The evolution of “nerd journalism” forces the next generation of reporters and writers to do more than just tell a story, Leonhardt said.
“I want an article to teach me something that I don’t already know,” Leonhardt said. “A lot of times, I don’t really care if you show me something showing that you covered a big story. What I’m looking for is something that can help me understand something even better. It’s writing a story that no one else has written.”