Tag Archives: 8000 holes

A case study in online journalism part 3: ebooks (investigating the Olympic torch relay)


8000 Holes - How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay lost its way book cover

In part one I outlined some of the data journalism processes involved in the Olympic torch relay investigation, in part 2 I explained how verification, SEO and ‘passive aggressive newsgathering’ played a role. This final part looks at how ebooks offered a new opportunity to tell the story in depth – and publish while the story was still topical.

Ebooks – publishing before the event has even finished

After a number of stories from a variety of angles I reached a fork in the road. It felt like we had been looking at this story from every angle. More than one editor, when presented with an update, said that they’d already ‘done the torch story’. I would have done the same.

But I thought of a quote on persistence from Ian Hislop that I’d published on the Help Me Investigate blog previously. “It is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops.”

Although it sometimes felt like we might be boring people with our insistence on continuing to dig we needed, I felt, to say the same thing again. Not the story of ‘Executive carries the torch’ but how that executive and so many others came to carry it, why that mattered, and what the impact was. A longform report.

Traditionally there would have been so space for this story. It would be too long for a newspaper or magazine, far too short for a book – where the production timescale would have missed any topicality anyway.

But we didn’t have to worry about that – because we had e-publishing.

It still seems incredible to me that we could write up and publish a book on the missed promises of the Olympic torch relay before the relay had even finished. Indeed: to also publish the day before the book’s main case study was likely to run.

But if we wanted to do that, we had about a week to hit that deadline, with important holes in our narrative, and working largely in our spare time.

First, we needed a case study to represent the human impact of the corporate torchbearers and open our book. Quite a few had been mentioned in local newspapers when they discovered that less-than-inspirational individuals had taken their place, but HMI contributor Carol Miers found one who couldn’t have been more deserving: Jack Binstead had received the maximum number of nominations; he was just 15 (half of torchbearer places were supposed to go to young people – they didn’t); and he was tipped to go to the next Paralympics.

We also needed to find out if there was an impact on the genuinely inspirational people who did get to carry the torch – I had been chasing a couple when Geoff Holt came through the site’s comments (see above). That was our ending.

For the middle we needed to pin down some of the numbers around the relay. Comments from earlier stories had indicated that some people didn’t see why it was important that executives were carrying the torches – unaware, perhaps, that promises had been made about where places would go, and what sort of stories torchbearers should have.

In particular, the organisers had promised that 90% of places would be available to the general public and that 50% of places would go to young people aged 12-24. I had to nail down where each chunk of tickets had gone – and at how many points they had been taken away from availability to the ‘general public’. Ultimately, the middle of the book would describe how that 90% got chipped away until it was more like 75%.

That middle would then be fleshed out with the themes around what happened to the other 25%: essentially some of the stories we’d already told, plus some others that filled out the picture.

Writing in this way allowed us to go beyond the normal way of writing – shock at a revelation – to identifying where things went wrong and how. For all the anger at corporate sponsors for their allocation of torch relay places, it was ultimately LOCOG’s responsibility to approve nominations, to publish 8,000 “inspirational” nomination stories, and to meet the promises that they had made about how they would be allocated. The buck stopped there.

Thanks to the iterative way we had worked so far – publishing each story as it came, asking questions in public, building an online ‘footprint’ that others could find, establishing collaborative relationships and bookmarking to create an archive – we met our deadline.

It was a timescale which allowed us to tap into interest in the relay while it was still topical, and while executive torchbearers were still carrying the torch.

8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way was published on day 66 of the 70-day Olympic torch relay. All proceeds went to the Brittle Bone Society, of which Jack is an ambassador. The publishers – Leanpub – agreed to give their commission on the book to the charity as well. This was all organised over email in 24 hours a couple days before the book went live.

We organised an interview with Jack Binstead which was published in The Guardian the day after – the day that the torch was to go through his home town and the day that he would be flying out of the country to avoid it. An interview with Journalism.co.uk on the ebook itself – Help Me Investigate’s first – was published the same day.

We published data on where torchbearer places went in The Guardian’s datablog two days after that, and serialised the book throughout the week, along with some additional pieces – for example, on how LOCOG missed their target of 50% of places going to young people by other 1,000 places. A lengthier interview with Jack and his mother was published at the end of the week.

In theory this should have captured interest in the torch relay at just the right time – but I think we misjudged two factors.

The first was beyond our control: the weather changed.

Until now, the weather had been awful. When it changed, the mood of the country changed, and there was less interest in the missed promises of the Olympic torch relay. But it also coincided with another change: the final week of the torch relay was also the last few days before the opening ceremony – and as the weather changed, attention shifted to the Olympic Games itself.

The torch relay, which had been squeezed dry of every possible angle for nine weeks, was – finally – yesterday’s news. It was no longer about who was carrying the torch, but about where that torch was going, and who might carry the last one.

Still, the book raised money for a deserving charity, and its story is not over. There’s a long tail of interest to tap into here, which having an ebook increases. When the next torch relay comes around, I wonder, will it benefit from a resurgence of interest?

Get the free ebook for the full story: 8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way - Leanpub.com/8000holes

A case study in online journalism part 3: ebooks (investigating the Olympic torch relay)

8000 Holes - book cover

In part one I outlined some of the data journalism processes involved in the Olympic torch relay investigation, in part 2 I explained how verification, SEO and ‘passive aggressive newsgathering’ played a role. This final part looks at how ebooks offered a new opportunity to tell the story in depth – and publish while the story was still topical.

Ebooks – publishing before the event has even finished

After a number of stories from a variety of angles I reached a fork in the road. It felt like we had been looking at this story from every angle. More than one editor, when presented with an update, said that they’d already ‘done the torch story’. I would have done the same.

But I thought of a quote on persistence from Ian Hislop that I’d published on the Help Me Investigate blog previously. “It is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops.”

Although it sometimes felt like we might be boring people with our insistence on continuing to dig we needed, I felt, to say the same thing again. Not the story of ‘Executive carries the torch’ but how that executive and so many others came to carry it, why that mattered, and what the impact was. A longform report. Continue reading

A case study in online journalism: investigating the Olympic torch relay

Infographic: Where did the Olympic torch relay places go? What we know so far

image by @CarolineBeavon

For the last two months I’ve been involved in an investigation which has used almost every technique in the online journalism toolbox. From its beginnings in data journalism, through collaboration, community management and SEO to ‘passive-aggressive’ newsgathering,  verification and ebook publishing, it’s been a fascinating case study in such a range of ways I’m going to struggle to get them all down.

But I’m going to try.

Data journalism: scraping the Olympic torch relay

The investigation began with the scraping of the official torchbearer website. It’s important to emphasise that this piece of data journalism didn’t take place in isolation – in fact, it was while working with Help Me Investigate the Olympics‘s Jennifer Jones (coordinator for#media2012, the first citizen media network for the Olympic Games) and others that I stumbled across the torchbearer data. So networks and community are important here (more later).

Indeed, it turned out that the site couldn’t be scraped through a ‘normal’ scraper, and it was the community of the Scraperwiki site – specifically Zarino Zappia – who helped solve the problem and get a scraper working. Without both of those sets of relationships – with the citizen media network and with the developer community on Scraperwiki – this might never have got off the ground.

But it was also important to see the potential newsworthiness in that particular part of the site. Human stories were at the heart of the torch relay – not numbers. Local pride and curiosity was here – a key ingredient of any local newspaper. There were the promises made by its organisers – had they been kept?

The hunch proved correct – this dataset would just keep on giving stories.

The scraper grabbed details on around 6,000 torchbearers. I was curious why more weren’t listed – yes, there were supposed to be around 800 invitations to high profile torchbearers including celebrities, who might reasonably be expected to be omitted at least until they carried the torch – but that still left over 1,000.

I’ve written a bit more about the scraping and data analysis process for The Guardian and the Telegraph data blog. In a nutshell, here are some of the processes used:

  • Overview (pivot table): where do most come from? What’s the age distribution?
  • Focus on details in the overview: what’s the most surprising hometown in the top 5 or 10? Who’s oldest and youngest? What about the biggest source outside the UK?
  • Start asking questions of the data based on what we know it should look like – and hunches
  • Don’t get distracted – pick a focus and build around it.

This last point is notable. As I looked for mentions of Olympic sponsors in nomination stories, I started to build up subsets of the data: a dozen people who mentioned BP, two who mentioned ArcelorMittal (the CEO and his son), and so on. Each was interesting in its own way – but where should you invest your efforts?

One story had already caught my eye: it was written in the first person and talked about having been “engaged in the business of sport”. It was hardly inspirational. As it mentioned adidas, I focused on the adidas subset, and found that the same story was used by a further six people – a third of all of those who mentioned the company.

Clearly, all seven people hadn’t written the same story individually, so something was odd here. And that made this more than a ‘rotten apple’ story, but something potentially systemic.

Signals

While the data was interesting in itself, it was important to treat it as a set of signals to potentially more interesting exploration. Seven torchbearers having the same story was one of those signals. Mentions of corporate sponsors was another.

But there were many others too.

That initial scouring of the data had identified a number of people carrying the torch who held executive positions at sponsors and their commercial partners. The GuardianThe Independent and The Daily Mail were among the first to report on the story.

I wondered if the details of any of those corporate torchbearers might have been taken off off the site afterwards. And indeed they had: seven disappeared entirely (many still had a profile if you typed in the URL directly – but could not be found through search or browsing), and a further two had had their stories removed.

Now, every time I scraped details from the site I looked for those who had disappeared since the last scrape, and those that had been added late.

One, for example – who shared a name with a very senior figure at one of the sponsors – appeared just once before disappearing four days later. I wouldn’t have spotted them if they – or someone else – hadn’t been so keen on removing their name.

Another time, I noticed that a new torchbearer had been added to the list with the same story as the 7 adidas torchbearers. He turned out to be the Group Chief Executive of the country’s largest catalogue retailer, providing “continuing evidence that adidas ignored LOCOG guidance not to nominate executives.”

Meanwhile, the number of torchbearers running without any nomination story went from just 2.7% in the first scrape of 6,056 torchbearers, to 7.2% of 6,891 torchbearers in the last week, and 8.1% of all torchbearers – including those who had appeared and then disappeared – who had appeared between the two dates.

Many were celebrities or sportspeople where perhaps someone had taken the decision that they ‘needed no introduction’. But many also turned out to be corporate torchbearers.

By early July the numbers of these ‘mystery torchbearers’ had reached 500 and, having only identified a fifth, we published them through The Guardian datablog.

There were other signals, too, where knowing the way the torch relay operated helped.

For example, logistics meant that overseas torchbearers often carried the torch in the same location. This led to a cluster of Chinese torchbearers in StanstedHungarians in Dorset,Germans in BrightonAmericans in Oxford and Russians in North Wales.

As many corporate torchbearers were also based overseas, this helped narrow the search, with Germany’s corporate torchbearers in particular leading to an article in Der Tagesspiegel.

I also had the idea to total up how many torchbearers appeared each day, to identify days when details on unusually high numbers of torchbearers were missing – thanks to Adrian Short – but it became apparent that variation due to other factors such as weekends and the Jubilee made this worthless.

However, the percentage per day missing stories did help (visualised below by Caroline Beavon), as this also helped identify days when large numbers of overseas torchbearers were carrying the torch. I cross-referenced this with the ‘mystery torchbearer’ spreadsheet to see how many had already been checked, and which days still needed attention.

But the data was just the beginning. In the second part of this case study, I talk about the verification process, SEO and collaboration.

A case study in online journalism: investigating the Olympic torch relay

Infographic: Where did the Olympic torch relay places go? What we know so far

For the last two months I’ve been involved in an investigation which has used almost every technique in the online journalism toolbox. From its beginnings in data journalism, through collaboration, community management and SEO to ‘passive-aggressive’ newsgathering,  verification and ebook publishing, it’s been a fascinating case study in such a range of ways I’m going to struggle to get them all down.

But I’m going to try. Continue reading