Erin Petenko

Category: Young journalist

Country/area: United States

Organisation: NJ Advance Media,VTDigger

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

My journey through the world of data journalism began my last semester at Rutgers University, when then-NJ.com data journalist Steve Stirling came to my class and introduced me to the idea of combining statistical analysis and data visualization with traditional investigative techniques. I soon realized it would be a perfect beat for my background as a public health major and longtime student paper reporter. I joined Steve as an intern, then a full-time journalist as the company’s roster of data reporters expanded from just the two of us to a team of six reporters and an editor.

During my three years at NJ.com, I learned skills to approach my reporting from many angles: Python to analyze large chunks of data, Javascript and D3 to visualize it and the art of public records requests to gain a deeper context for my reporting. Those skills helped in the largest NJ.com data project ever attempted: The Force Report, a 18-month investigation into police use of force that included a never-before-seen database of five years of police force in New Jersey and a series of articles delving into our findings. For the project, I wrote an article examining victims’ stories and created a map of police force rates, but I think my biggest contribution was the months of data cleaning and analysis I did as part of the team. My time on the project convinced me that collaborative journalism is the key to producing high-quality local journalism reporting, particularly when it comes to giving readers access to hidden or challenging datasets.

In September 2019, I moved to Vermont to take a job as data reporter for the VTDigger, a small nonprofit newsroom devoted to watchdog governmont reporting. Although I’m still learning about the state, my goal here is to spend more time working on high-quality reporting for Vermonters. While I don’t mind an occasional lighthearted story —like counting the number of beachgoers from a plane or tracking how much plastic I throw away —my passion is for a blend of investigative reporting and data journalism that delivers real impact for the public good. I also love to mentor reporters as they delve into data journalism. I’ve taught several classes on creating charts and using Census data in the newsroom, and have led conference sessions on D3 and coding. My hope is that my teaching will inspire another young reporter to try this new field the way Steve inspired me that day in class.

Description of portfolio:

My last investigative solo project for NJ.com was also, in a way, my first: I started looking into Jay’s Bus Service, a local bus vendor with an oddly high crash rate, back in October 2017. My progress was slow at first, halted by my time working on The Force Report and a number of failed records requests. But when I uncovered their court records showing a history of lawsuits tied to deadly crashes, I knew I had to forge ahead. Along the course of the investigation, I gained a deeper background on Lakewood, New Jersey — the crucible of some of the state’s toughest cultural and economic divisions — by attending meetings, developing sources and writing minor stories in my free time. I met a man permanently injured in a crash with a Jay’s school bus and spoke with many parents who had seen the buses’ dangerous behavior firsthand. Although the story failed to make an immediate change to Jay’s contracts in the area, it got a lot of passionate responses from locals and questions about the safety of private bus companies. 

I’ve also decided to include my story for the VTDigger about out-migration in Vermont, one of the most-read pieces of all time on the site because of Vermonter concerns about our shrinking population. I later followed that story with an analysis of migration within Vermont

I included links to my bio pages for each newsroom in case you would like to see a broader swath of my work. It has examples of several major pieces I did with other reporters, like a tool I created to see the quality of your nursing home and another that lets you create an interactive list of the best towns in New Jersey for you. But I’m excluding those from the portfolio itself because I can’t tell if I’m allowed to include collaborative projects, even if I did the data journalism aspect of the work.


Project links: