Using data to fuel our storytelling: An interview with Insider Inc.'s senior editor for data, Walt Hickey
Capturing an audience’s attention is harder than it’s ever been. And the demand for accurate and impactful storytelling is up. Here at Insider Inc., we’re laser-focused on producing stories that break through the clutter to capture attention, inform, and inspire.
Data is one way we get stories and packages to pop. Data contextualizes our journalism, adds color to our storytelling, and sparks conversation with our readers.
We recently sat down with Insider Inc.’s senior data editor Walt Hickey to learn more about his approach to data gathering and interpretation, and how it fits into our storytelling approach. Here’s our conversation.
Take us through your background and how you got started at Insider Inc.
So I graduated William & Mary in 2012 with a math degree with a focus on probability and stats. I worked for the student newspaper because it was healthier to not do math stuff all the time and to have other hobbies. That was around the time that you saw folks like Nate Silver come into vogue and get grabbed by the New York Times. You saw the presence of these statistically-enabled writers and you saw them starting to get some mainstream success.
I did an internship in college at a place called The Center for Responsive Politics. They're the folks who track all the money in politics — so all the donations, all the PACs, all those different groups. I worked for them for the summer to see if it was right for me and I had a great time. After graduating, I got a job as an intern at Business Insider on the military and defense beat. And it was certainly a crash course in how to write in a compelling style. It was out of my comfort zone and it wasn't a topic area that I had any kind of specific expertise in. While I was an intern, I ended up mentioning the data skills that I had, I did some coverage of the 2012 presidential election as a writer, and I joined the team full time.
Math storytelling was really, really starting to resonate. Eventually Nate Silver left The Times and he started FiveThirtyEight at ESPN. I was offered a job and I ended up working there for four and a half years. I had a chance to pick up some new reporting techniques, but I always drew a lot on the experience and growth from that first job at Insider Inc. I picked up different ways to do data analysis and different strategies to really drill down on what people are interested in. It expanded the size of my toolkit and I had a really good experience.
Last year, I left FiveThirtyEight and started a newsletter. I was also thinking about what I wanted to do ahead of the election cycle, and specifically what I thought places like FiveThirtyEight and others were doing right and where they could improve. I reached out to Nich Carlson and talked to him about how I thought data could help fuel a lot of storytelling at Insider and Business Insider. I saw an opportunity to unlock stories and get new information that other folks just weren't capturing.
So you’ve been at Business Insider twice now — from 2012 to 2013 and now in 2019. What’s changed and what has stayed the same?
Many things have stayed the same. Many things have changed, but I’ve been very impressed to find that so much of what I enjoyed about being at Insider Inc. is still here.
There’s been a serious effort to ensure this place has a vibrant culture and strong communication between managers and the folks who work for them. I always felt that transparency was really beneficial for me and my career. I was happy to find that while the culture hasn't changed, the ambitions are bigger and the scale is much larger. We’re now a true global news network. It’s very exciting to see how this place has managed to grow while holding on to the things that make it so unique.
In other places there’s the ghost of Cronkite or some delusional idea of a bygone golden age looming in the background, but this is a fundamentally new organization and this is its golden age. That newness brings its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
To me, the names of our media properties — Business Insider, Insider — are really a promise to the reader. What I love about data is that it allows a reporter get inside a story without the exclusive access and deep sourcing that many other outlets simply inherit. Data is an excellent resource to help us take readers inside the reporting and tell these truly exciting stories.
What does a typical day at the office look like for you?
No two days really look the same. Some are spent generating a brand new survey. Some are spent working with different editors and desks to try to figure out their larger ambitions and upcoming projects. Other days are spent collaborating across organizations and figuring out storytelling goals and how data can support.
When you’re working with editors and reporters, are you pitching story ideas based on data or are you more focused on finding data to support the stories that they’ve already brought to you?
It’s totally a mix of both — it’s really a conversation and collaboration. I love talking to reporters. Nobody knows their beat better than they do. And there’s no better way to get a sense for what would make their lives easier. A great example of this collaboration is with Dave Mosher, a senior correspondent who is aggressively covering commercial and government spaceflight efforts. He has been very forthcoming in sharing what would make his life easier and how we could write even more cool stories.
How is your team structured?
I’ve been working closely with Angela Wang, an editorial fellow who also works on data and real time investigations with John Cook and Keenan Trotter. There are lots of opportunities for collaboration. The best stories that I’ve worked on are typically spearheaded by a dedicated desk or team of reporters who are very enthusiastic about pursuing the topic.
What’s next for the data team? Can you share anything that you’re working on or are planning for in the coming months, years?
Not everyone needs to know how to run a Python script, but there are simple steps we can take to increase data literacy and make everyone more aware of what resources are available. One of my goals is to increase the overall data literacy of the newsroom, and to remind reporters what they are capable of doing on their own.
What have been some of the coolest or most memorable projects you’ve worked on here?
We've been conducting a weekly poll of more than 1,000 Americans via SurveyMonkey audience — about 15 questions per week — over the course of the election. We're getting some really cool data there. The added benefit of that polling is that we’re figuring out what the divisive lines are and we don't have to wait for Pew or Gallup to ask those questions. We can run polls for the politics desk, but we can also illuminate the actual stats behind controversies and current events.
I'm really proud of the new reporting technology that we've brought to the site. For instance, we have an interactive bot that scans for PACER filings that can keep us up to date on stories involving legal filings.
We’ve also done really cool surveys with Morning Consult in collaboration with the personal finance team, all about millennial attitudes toward money. We're working on building out more research panels for other teams like the one we built for the Markets desk about millennial investors.
If you weren’t at Insider Inc., what would you be doing?
If I weren’t at Insider Inc., I’d still be trying to tell stories — so probably what I’m doing now, but with fewer resources and less encouragement. Thankfully, I'm with a company that really finds a way to empower obsessions and in storytelling. I've had a really great set of opportunities here and I am so happy to evangelize. I’ve found that Insider Inc. rewards people who have a need to tell stories that make them very, very excited.