Shortly after President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, journalists at the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat began pondering the effects it would have at the local level.
To do so, the paper started building an online interactive database using government data, which allowed readers to determine the placement of refugees in their own communities. Though it was meant to be a local look at the refugee problem, the Democrat’s database quickly became the foundation for a national project across parent company Gannett’s entire USA Today Network.
The American Strangers series officially kicked off during the first week of May with a series of stories published online by the Democrat and in print a few days later. Reporters Jeff Burlew and Nada Hassanein, along with the help of photographers Joe Rondone and Hali Tauxe, spent several months getting to know local refugee families and those helping them build new lives.
“It just seemed like a really smart and reasonable time to get a handle of our refugee numbers, where they were coming from and who exactly these people were,” said news director Jennifer Portman. “Once we realized that the database could be used for the entire country, it occurred to us that it would be the perfect project to do in this network concept.”
The database yielded a number of surprises for the paper, including the revelation that more refugees came to Tallahassee last year than ever before. Among them, were 35 people fleeing war-torn Syria.
“It has always been important to incorporate data into stories, that’s not new. What has changed is the need for that data to be interactive so readers can go beyond the trends we find and report on if they wish and parse numbers for themselves,” Portman said. “In a time when journalists battle ‘fake news,’ hard numbers can be our anchor.”
Overseeing the creation of the database was the Democrat’s own data specialist, Yoonserk Pyun, who downloaded relevant information from the Refugee Processing Center into a massive excel spreadsheet. Once that was done, he made the raw data easily searchable for users and built heat maps highlighting major resettlement cities in America and the most common countries of origin for refugees coming to the U.S. The process of building the database took several weeks and will continue to be maintained on a regular basis.
Executive editor William Hatfield alluded to a number of impressive work done by other papers in the network based off the database such as the Fort Collins Coloradoan, St. Cloud Times in Minnesota, and the Lansing State Journal in Michigan.
“Every single paper in our markets could tie into this database and do their own localized stories,” Hatfield said. “It really is a great example of the power of the USA Today Network and something Gannett is building its future around.”