Misty Orpin suggested calling in the early afternoon, naptime for her soon-to-be 3-year-old.
“Actually he’s awake; I’m staring at him right now,” Orpin said when she answered from the Fayetteville home she shares with husband Leo, owner of Black Apple cidery in Springdale, and a 14-year-old son who is schooling online.
Orpin is handing off her latest baby, the pandemic news and data site arkansascovid.com, which she birthed on her laptop and raised to indispensability. By covering coronavirus numbers graphically and in granular detail statewide, she gained some 11,000 followers, including state leaders, journalists and influencers. And she has helped shape policy discussions and spur some tough questioning of state officials, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The perfect new papa for the project, Orpin said, is Rob Wells, assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas and heavy-hitting journalist for more than 25 years with the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and The Associated Press.
Orpin had partnered with Wells back in May, getting access to an intern to help run the site. This month, Wells’ graduate data journalism class is taking over the project, as Orpin backs off, occasionally offering articles or commentary.
“It was taking up pretty much all my time,” she said. “I let my children go feral for the summer and I just wore myself to a point where I knew I had to quit dedicating so much time to it, and school starting was a big part of that.”
But people depend on the site for crucial information, so she couldn’t let it die. Wells saw the project as right in the wheelhouse of his data journalism class, which is learning to take numbers-based reporting and relate the real-world effects and human stories behind it.
“Arkansas COVID was something that people had come to rely on,” Orpin said. “If it hadn’t become as important as it did, I wouldn’t have kept it up as long as I did. I’m just very fortunate that Rob was willing to dedicate his time to it and his students to it.”
New graphic representations of data are coming to the site, said Orpin, who got an early peek. “They have such skills. He took my entire workflow, which took me several hours a day of just doing tedious stuff, and automated all of it. No more keying in numbers, running formulas in spreadsheets. They’ll have time for the really important stuff, which is communicating that data out to the public and asking questions so that people understand better.”
Wells told Arkansas Business that his class of six will run the site this fall, and that a graduate intern, Katy Seiter, “will be touching the site every day” to keep the data updated. “And the class will be doing stories, data visualizations and podcasts on top of that,” the professor said.
“We live in a digital economy and digital society, and so much of our daily lives is governed by data in some way or another, so having journalists with proficiency to understand the potential flaws and gaps in data, and to conduct an independent analysis of the material is quite important.” The Health Department’s COVID data feed was a perfect example.
“I want data journalism just to be part of all journalism,” Wells said. “It doesn’t have to be that complicated. I tell them that the numbers are one source in our reporting process. It’s called numbers-based reporting, but we need to find the human impact of the numbers.”
Wells rejected any notion of Orpin as a “citizen journalist,” noting her earlier life as a reporter for the Russellville Courier and Benton County Daily Record. “She has sophisticated and highly developed reporting instincts.”
Her skills left a solid foundation for his students to build on, Wells said. “I’ve never seen anything that’s had an economic impact like COVID since the Great Depression. It’s just all-consuming, and I’m really glad that my students get a chance to dig in and try to provide a public service.”
Orpin said that as she delved into Arkansas’ coronavirus numbers, she realized that the data needed context, and that the public needed accountability. The numbers led to “a lot of questions that needed to be asked about the data, and then that led down some investigative journalism paths.”
Orpin tried to stay off those paths, hoping established Arkansas media outlets would explore them. “My goal was never to attend press conferences and be calling down the Arkansas Department of Health for explanations of things,” Orpin said. “But one of the cool things about what Rob is doing with his team [is] he has the ability to provide the data and ask the questions.”