Newhouse data journalism students support widespread look at collegiate sport finances

By Wendy S. Loughlin

September 27, 2019

Data journalism work by students at the Newhouse School is the foundation for several investigative stories published recently in numerous USA Today Network newspapers.

The students, enrolled in the Sports Data with USA Today course taught by Professor Jodi Upton, Newhouse’s Knight Chair in Data and Explanatory Journalism, gathered data about athletics spending at public Division I schools during fiscal year 2018.

With guidance from Upton and Steve Berkowitz, sports project reporter at USA Today, students produced data that was provided to both the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and USA Today. Their work expanded a data set that has been developed and maintained by USA Today for the past decade, and which includes some 14 years of financial information about collegiate sports. Upton was previously a senior database editor at USA Today.

The course met and worked throughout the spring 2019 semester. Berkowitz visited the class, talking to students about the open records request process and challenges he has encountered in his work, and offering hands-on training and support. He also made himself available to students throughout the semester via phone or email.

“We want students to become comfortable with using data and the idea of that as a powerful reporting tool,” Berkowitz says. “And we’re trying to teach them how to negotiate and navigate the open records process.”

Berkowitz and Upton both note that data work can be intimidating, especially for students without previous experience. “It’s a tough assignment,” says Upton. “Most of the students have never had to push for an open records request or deal with large public records databases. A few even had to argue with state officials. And it means keeping track of a lot of details for a big investigative project. But working with a professional journalist like Steve, they understand why it’s worth the extra effort, and they understand there are stories they can get from documents and data that interviews can’t provide.” 

When the dataset was released in August, a flurry of articles followed, with the Newhouse School named as a partner in about a dozen papers, according to Upton.

Headlines included “NCAA’s Power 5 schools see steep raise in pay for non-revenue coaches” (published in USA Today); “The cost of college football recruiting — and winning — is now through the roof” (published in the Louisville Courier-Journal); “‘No apologies’: Indiana basketball might not be back among nation's elite, but it sure spends like it” (published in the Indianapolis Star); and “Analysis: Tennessee football spends more on recruiting than almost every other school” (published in the Knoxville News Sentinel).

Sean Scott, a senior broadcast and digital journalism major, was a student in the class. “In my opinion, the best journalism pieces are investigative stories, and the best investigative stories typically begin with digging through data,” he says. “Knowing how to file FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests is a skill any budding journalist should have, so I am very glad to have had the opportunity to take Professor Upton’s class.”

Berkowitz, who previously worked for The Washington Post, joined USA Today in 2000 and has been involved in the development of annual databases of college sports compensation and the finances of schools, conferences and the NCAA. Over time, he says, data work has shaped reporting on the finances of college sports. The data has also been used outside of journalism, such as in court cases or congressional testimony, according to Berkowitz.

For students, the empirical data can be an impetus to delve deeper. “They began to ask questions, which is what you’d hope for in students who are aspiring to be journalists,” Berkowitz says. “They don’t just accept information, they’re curious about it. This is how the whole exercise is applicable to journalists just starting their careers. It’s another tool in the toolbox.”