Q&A: Thunderdome senior data reporter MaryJo Webster

MaryJo Webster

MaryJo Webster

Award-winning journalist MaryJo Webster recently joined Thunderdome’s data team as our new senior data reporter, bringing with her years of experience in analytical and investigative reporting. She joins us from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she was the computer-assisted reporting editor since 2005.

In addition to being an expert on Minnesota’s public records law, MaryJo also teaches a data journalism class at the University of Minnesota. Her work has been both excellent and prolific, winning her two DFMies in 2012 for data journalism and investigative reporting.

What new and exciting things can you expect to see from the Thunderdome data team with the addition of MaryJo? We asked her to share some of her background as well as prospective projects, plus tips on reporting and her favorite thing to do in the Twin Cities.


Lives in: Arden Hills, Minn. (a suburb of St. Paul)
Hometown: Kasson, Minn.
Graduated from: University of Missouri-Columbia, University of Wisconsin-River Falls
Degree(s): Masters and Bachelors in journalism
Previous employers: St. Paul Pioneer Press, USA Today, Center for Public Integrity, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Oshkosh (Wis.) Northwestern, New Ulm (Minn.) Journal

On the job

What will you be doing in your new role?
I will be spearheading national, data-driven stories — doing reporting, data analysis, writing and/or project management, as needed. These could be stories developed by local reporters at one or more of the DFM newsrooms, or it might be something developed from Thunderdome, or it might be projects that other organizations (such as ProPublica or the Center for Investigative Reporting) are sharing with DFM. In addition, I’ll be conducting virtual or in-person training sessions on a variety of data journalism topics, for DFM reporters and editors.

What kinds of projects do you plan to tackle?
Anything! I especially love education and environment issues, but the stories that could be done in this job are truly endless.

What exactly is “computer-assisted reporting”? Isn’t most reporting computer-assisted these days?
Yes, the term “computer-assisted reporting” doesn’t seem to fit anymore, and increasingly it’s being called “data journalism.” Computer-assisted reporting (CAR) got its name in the early 1990s when desktop computers were still quite new to journalism and the Internet didn’t exist. Interestingly, even back then there were people who didn’t think this was the right name. The debate crops up among data journalists pretty much every year! Whatever you call it, the definition is the same. It’s a set of skills that enable journalists to do their own analysis of data, rather than solely relying on public officials or non-profit organizations. In the past decade, that skillset has broadened to include making data accessible online for readers to explore, either through interactive maps, graphics or searchable databases.

How did you get into investigative journalism?
I’ve had a passion for watchdog-type stories ever since I learned about the Washington Post’s reporting on Watergate, when I was a teenager. So, early in my career I looked for ways to get into a job that would allow me to do that full-time. After five years as a beat reporter at small daily newspapers, I found that data journalism skills would be the best way to get there.

What are some stories you’ve done that you are proudest of?
There are lots. But here are three:

When I was at USA Today, I wanted to measure whether it was true that high schools in more affluent neighborhoods/communities earned more state championship trophies than schools in less affluent areas. We spent months collecting lists of state championship winners from 13 states that we picked as a representative sample of the U.S. Then we matched that to various measures of income for the schools and the neighborhoods they were located in. The resulting analysis showed that the more affluent schools won state championships at twice the rate of those in the least affluent areas. The story is still online, if you’d like to read it.

Also while at the Pioneer Press, one of the suburbs of St. Paul started talking about imposing restrictions on where certain sex offenders could live in the city. The restrictions would require them to stay a certain distance away from things like schools, daycare facilities, parks, places of worship and bus stops. I plotted those places (except the bus stops) onto a map using ArcGIS mapping software, then added the restriction zones. The resulting map showed the proposed ordinance would effectively force these sex offenders out of the city. The only places not covered by a restricted zone were under a major freeway or in an industrial park. A few days after our story (and the map) published, the city council tabled the measure and has not brought it up again. Unfortunately, this story isn’t online anymore.

During my last year at the Pioneer Press, I spent a lot of time covering public pension issues in Minnesota. Getting up to speed on how pensions work was incredibly difficult. I think it easily took six months of reading and re-reading material and asking lots of questions before I understood it well enough to write this story about the financial footing of Minnesota’s public pensions, plus several other related stories. It was especially rewarding to get compliments from both pension experts and general readers about how well I had done explaining such a difficult topic.

What role does data reporting play in journalism now, and how do you see it changing? Is it more or less prominent than before?
Data journalism is increasingly becoming a core necessity in newsrooms. Nearly all of the information reporters seek from government offices is stored in a database or spreadsheet. And news organizations are seeking more opportunities to share data with readers, either through interactive maps/graphics or searchable databases. Both of these aspects require staff members to have at least basic data skills.

What skills do you teach students in your “Database Reporting” course?
I teach a combination of the thought process that goes into analyzing data, along with specific skills in various types of software. We analyze data in a spreadsheet program and a database manager, use various tools for cleaning inconsistent data and then also learn some basic tools for creating online graphics and maps. The underlying message that flows throughout the entire course is the idea that data is a source. Much like your human sources, it can tell you the wrong answer if you don’t ask the right question. And it can give you some answers, but also often leads you to more questions.

What are some important do’s and don’ts for aspiring data reporters?
The most important thing to do is to practice, practice, practice. Learning how to do data analysis is like learning a foreign language. It takes some work to reach fluency.

On the flip side, don’t set out trying to do a really big, complex analysis/investigation on your first go-around. Find a small, relatively benign story to tackle first. Then work your way up.

What’s some background that others probably don’t know about you?
I had almost zero knowledge of sports statistics when I took the job at the USA Today sports department. At one point when we were getting an insanely huge database from the PGA, I had to go to the golf editor and ask him to explain the game so I could understand the data. He very nicely pulled out a piece of paper, started drawing and said, “This is the fairway. This is the green …”

How will you be splitting your time between Minnesota and New York?
Mostly I’ll be camped out at my home office, but will try to make at least a couple visits a year to the New York office. With this being a new position that no one has ever tackled before, it’s hard to say how we will operate.

What’s a great data resource you think more journalists should know about/utilize?
The database library at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (an affiliate of Investigative Reporters and Editors). They obtain, clean up and then make available (at a small fee) to reporters dozens of national datasets. Many of them are either difficult or time-consuming to obtain, or require a bit too much cleanup for the average reporter to do themselves. The staff will also do analysis for a news organization (for a fee) .

Real talk

Why journalism?
I want to hold public officials accountable for how they spend our money.

Do you subscribe to any print publications?
The St. Paul Pioneer Press, The New Yorker, Women’s Health and Parents. Although I must confess that I’m starting to read the New Yorker on my iPad. It’s handy having them all in one place, especially since they pile up on me and I usually have 2 or 3 months’ worth at a time to read.

What would happen if you were disconnected from the Internet and your phone for 48 hours?
I would probably have some withdrawal-type symptoms, worried that I’m missing some important email. But as long as my kids were with me (so I could physically make sure they’re okay), I think I would get by. My husband, on the other hand, would be freaking out and trying to figure out how he could fix it.

If you could have unfettered access to the documents of any company or organization in the world, which would you choose?
Good question. I think I would choose the Pentagon. I think there are far too many secrets — or at least things that are not routinely published — about how the military operates and, more importantly, spends our money.

What was the first thing you read this morning?
My email. Beyond that, I can’t remember.

Who is your all-time favorite sports team?
Minnesota Vikings. I spent so many Sundays as a child, sitting with my father, watching the Purple People Eaters and asking him a million questions about the game. I still remember being so excited to go to summer training camp, where I got Tommy Kramer’s autograph.

If you could interview any historical figure, who would it be?
Probably one of the legislators who helped craft the Bill of Rights. I’d love to try to answer that question that the Supreme Court always wrestles with: “What exactly did they mean by this?”

What’s for lunch today?
Homemade chili.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?
I haven’t done karaoke in at least 20 years!

You’ve lived in a number of Midwestern cities — which one wins your heart?
I don’t know that I can come up with a particular city. But I can safely say that the Twin Cities is truly an awesome place. Yes, everybody knows us for the bitter cold and tons of snow (especially this year). But there’s something about the people here — it’s more than just the “Minnesota Nice” that we’re known for. People tend to be hardworking, willing to help anyone at the drop of a hat, and committed to taking care of the world around us.

What’s your favorite thing to do in the Twin Cities?
Go to my family cabin. And BTW, you aren’t considered a true Minnesotan until your family has a cabin “up north.” Mine has been in my family since 1937 — even before my mother was born. And I love watching my children learn to love it as much as I do.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?
The “Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver. Fabulous book.

Name someone we should all follow on Twitter right now.
Instead of a person, I’m going to recommend you track the hashtag, #NICAR14, for the next few days (through March 2). There will be a deluge of tweets from the National CAR Conference that is being held in Baltimore. (Editor’s note: Follow all the Digital First Media tweets from Nicar.)

How can we reach you?

Twitter: @MaryJoDFM
Email: mwebster@digitalfirstmedia.com
Tout: MaryJoDFM
LinkedIn profile
My Pressfolios website

Laura Li

By Laura Li

Laura Li has interned at Thunderdome since last September; she worked with the breaking news team in the fall and is splitting her time between national news and data this spring. She is finishing up the final semester of her Master's degree at NYU, where she is enrolled in the magazine program.

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