Felippe Rodrigues has come a long way from his time as a law school student in Brazil. In 2018, Felippe graduated from Northeastern’s School of Journalism with a Master of Arts in Journalism, Media Innovation. Now, Felippe is using his experience in data visualization, design, and computer programming in his work at VTDigger. The data he uses allows him to go deeper into stories in his work in sports and political journalism.
We recently spoke to Felippe about his time in the industry, his current work, and his insight into the Northeastern Journalism graduate programs.
What spurred your interest in journalism?
Back in Brazil, I was a very unhappy law school student. When I got involved with the athletics department at my college (they are usually student-run in my country) it spurred an unstoppable drive towards sports and sports journalism, so I changed tracks and basically restarted school to study journalism. It has been a long road, I’ve tried covering as many sports as I could think of. Through all that, I found myself doing data journalism.
You’ve had a focus on sports. What about the subject attracts you?
There are two main things, and they are somewhat connected. I grew up a huge sports fan. I’d watch it, try to understand the rules, and I’d research the athletes. I’d get into these bingeing zones where I’d watch as many matches, events, or races of one sport as I could find on cable television. The Summer Olympics were always my favorite, but they were only once every four years. Then I discovered the Winter Olympics. There’s also the youth version of each game. I also try to follow that as much as possible. The other thing about the subject that I like is the puzzles. I like going down rabbit the hole to figure them out. A big element of sports is data, so understanding games and competitions through that lens has always been enticing for me.
You currently work on Data and Development at VTDigger. Walk us through the type of work you do there.
I also analyze data for reporters and for stories that I am reporting on and writing. I use Python for most of that work too, but there is a surprising amount of work that I get done with Excel.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your work?
Local and state-level data is a complicated matter. In a small state like Vermont, the lack of consistency or even the lack of data can get frustrating. The aging technology and standards used by some government agencies is also something that ends up causing more work to be done.
How would you say you’ve worked to overcome that challenge?
There’s a lot of problem-solving happening here, which I enjoy. I try to face every project as a puzzle that I need to put together. For some of them, I already have a little program that I can modify a bit and quickly get an output — a chart, a cleaned dataset, a subset of a big database.
For challenging tasks that are more complicated, something that has worked well is getting on the phone with the people at government agencies to understand how a system works. Or asking peers for help. The data, visualization, and news dev community is a great resource.
Why did you choose to come to Northeastern to study?
I was looking at something completely unrelated at a university in Barcelona. I wasn’t even thinking of grad school, but I decided to click on this link to the Sports in Society Center in Boston. From there, I found my way to the Media Innovation page and started thinking of the possibility of grad school.
The freedom to create my own track in the program sold me on it.
What experiences studying Media Innovation do you think best prepared you for your professional life?
I came into the program knowing little to nothing about programming, and I can now call myself a competent coder. That skill allows me to report on complicated stories through a data lens. It also helps me build tools that save the newsroom time we now use doing what reporters do best – asking questions and holding the powerful accountable.
Writing for Storybench at Northeastern, what was your process for approaching your stories?
Anything that made me curious was a potential piece for Storybench. My favorite thing about Storybench was talking to people who did the work I do now. I would pick their brains about how they solved tasks or ask about what crazy story ideas they’d had when they were programming that they turned into reality.
What are some of the biggest takeaways from your work with Storybench?
People love talking about their work, and this part of the news community is really open to sharing.
Most newsrooms these days are very aware of the need for transparency. They publicize methodologies, data analysis, their complete databases, and the open-source tools that they build in-house. This knowledge is invaluable to the news industry, and we should be taking advantage of all that.
There is a tutorial I wrote for Storybench about a year ago on how to scrape Reddit — that is public as a GitHub repository. Every month there’s a new email in my inbox from someone asking for help. I try to answer all of them.
What advice would you give someone considering joining one of Northeastern’s graduate programs in journalism?
If you want to know how someone put together a story or if you’re curious about how you can apply some of the concepts in data analysis to your own stories, reach out to the creators. They will likely be glad to chat.
Try branching out and learning a new skill that can make you a better journalist. For the people interested in data, learn Excel and then move to more powerful tools like SQL, Python, or R. You can always find me on my email if you need help getting started.