On spreadsheet journaling, structured journalism, swipe files | The Humane Club Made with Humane Club
Hi 👋 This blog written by me, Ritvvij. All views are WIP hypothesis & personal.
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I've 15 years of experience in media, product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. On weekends, I read & write on media products. Most recently, I was a Knight Fellow w/ International Center for Journalists for 3.5 years.
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I've 15 years of experience in media, product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. On weekends, I read & write on media products. Most recently, I was a Knight Fellow w/ International Center for Journalists for 3.5 years.
Block Pattern: Slim Fit

What Spreadsheet Journaling is, What it is not

More than a decade ago, I was working as a consultant/sales at Amdocs US for AT&T. Every day I would spend 6-8 hours on the phone with business experts from AT&T. My job was to understand AT&T’s business plans and propose technical or design solutions that would result in a software change request for Amdocs. I used to journal meticulously in an excel sheet all the people I encountered and the progression of each idea’s discussions. Later, at Pykih, I started keeping most of these same details in a CRM as contacts, deals, and customer requests.

But it wasn’t until I joined my fellowship with the International Center for Journalists that I encountered a formal, domain-specific name for this. The journalism space calls it Structured Journalism. Marketing calls it swipe files. Design calls it mood boards.

Duke Reporter’s Lab defines structured journalism as publishing news, research, or reportage as entries in a database, enabling the audience to explore the content in ways that reveal trends and patterns. In his blog (Re)Structuring Journalism, Reg Chua of Reuters says that structured journalism is part database-driven journalism, part wiki-driven journalism, and part template-driven journalism. 

Personally, I would rename it to spreadsheet journaling. Why? Most people I spoke to could not understand, much less visualize, the word structured. The word journalism makes this an activity only for journalists — which it isn’t.

Who is spreadsheet journaling for?

Short answer – anyone who wants a long-term impact/career on a specific topic!

Evidence isn’t something that one can creatively cook up. It takes significant time, effort, and investment to collect data in a structured fashion that can be verified. This includes businesses that focus on a niche, reporters who cover a beat, researchers, and Ph.D. students, activists who deeply care for a community, think tanks that work on a topic, and so on.

Is spreadsheet journaling a replacement for traditional work: prospecting, research, reporting?


Spreadsheet journaling does not replace traditional work but goes one step forward. Every time you do something or encounter a new piece of information, you annotate it and log it in a continually updated spreadsheet.

Is spreadsheet journaling the same as data analysis or data journalism? 


In spreadsheet journaling, you create data from everyday events (stories, if you are a journalist). The data then gives you insights (or stories). In fact, Duke Reporter’s Lab adds that the database IS the story in structured journalism (spreadsheet journaling).

In contrast, with data analysis or data journalism, you find insights from already existing data.

Source: https://medium.com/@alicanacanerler/farklı-haber-formatları-gazeteciler-için-yol-gösterici-olabilir-mi-2a5d61430386
Block Pattern: Slim Fit

Are you trying to build a case for implementing a spreadsheet journaling project in your organization?

If yes, here is how you build a case. Any ROI can be articulated with two variables:

  • Returns: The returns are very contextual to your organization’s purpose/mission and situational context at that time.
  • Investment required: How much effort will the project take and for how long will we need to continue to pour in the effort?

This gives us four business cases:

  1. A finite project with low effort: Curate data for events.
  2. A sustained project with low effort: More value from everyday work.
  3. A sustained project with high effort: Build evidence.
  4. A finite project with high effort: Investigate or explain a complex phenomenon.
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1. Curate data for events

Sometimes the data or information already exists, but it is barely usable because it is not organized, has poor hygiene or readability, and presentation. A significant event has or will happen. You can reuse this existing data or information to achieve a business objective.

In news and journalism, the event can be a national election, a terrorist attack, or a war. You want to do a unique project that attracts and engages the audience. As an advertisement agency, you are about to pitch to a major client and build up a swipe file for inspiration.

These projects have a well-defined start and end. Once implemented, these projects do not need to be maintained. After the event, such evergreen research has evergreen utility and can pull in long-tail traffic.

Low effort for a finite amount of time is the best way for your organization to start experimenting with spreadsheet journaling.

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10000ft Dashboard: Spreadsheet Journaling: Curate data
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2. More value from everyday work.

Daily there’s a lot of hustle-bustle and activity at work — we prospect, meet people, research, read, build.

For some of us, like salespeople or daily-beat reporters, our role is to produce regular, consistent output. However, that output has a shelf-life of only a few days. Think of it like notifications in your Facebook account — useful now, not so much later. Additionally, many such daily grunt-work often never reach a logical conclusion — leads drop off, stories are not filed, etc.

Using spreadsheet journaling, you can convert daily activity into a strategic asset, where a bigger and better picture shapes up. Over time, this asset gives insights in the form of patterns, outliers, etc. This way, you start productizing your byproducts.

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10000ft Dashboard: Spreadsheet Journaling: Everyday work
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3. Build evidence

“What is measured is what’s managed,” or so goes the saying.

Some issues happen sporadically — geographically or temporally. Hence, there is no clear evidence of their occurrence. Additionally, no formal agency (or government or company) is tracking this issue formally. Without evidence, there is no credible way to understand the magnitude of the issue or act upon it in such situations. In such situations, use spreadsheet journaling to build evidence.

There are two ways to build evidence. Either you do secondary research and collate data from secondary sources. Alternatively, you connect with people and report from the ground to collect evidence.

Such projects are too costly to execute, yet many niche organizations do it since they are well-connected within a community or deeply connected with the mission. Some projects in the below swipe file that falls under this category are Yemen Data Project, EBWiki, Homicide Watch.

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10000ft Dashboard: Spreadsheet Journaling: Build Evidence
Block Pattern: Slim Fit

4. Investigate or explain a complex phenomenon

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10000ft Dashboard: Spreadsheet Journaling: Explain or Investigate
Block Pattern: Slim Fit