Afraid of the d-word? Here are 6 tips to get you started in data journalism

BIGDATA

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of reports from five Digital First Media journalists who attended ONA13 through the Digital First Represents program.

Data, data, data.

Do you tremble with fear at the sight of that word?

The very thought of crunching numbers and analyzing rows of data is enough to send many journalists running for the hills. My advice? Don’t. 

Yes, data can be overwhelming. Numbers can be scary. But it’s time we show the numbers who’s boss. Thanks to the advancements of the digital age, data tools and numbers have become so much easier to manage. If we face our data fears, we can tell some really compelling stories.

I attended the Big Data, Little Newsroom session at ONA13 for a couple reasons. I too begin sweating bullets when someone says it’s time to open up a spreadsheet and look at some numbers. As a journalist, I thought this was  a good opportunity to challenge myself and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. 

This low-key session was led by Emma Carew Grovum, special projects researcher at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and was directed at smaller newsrooms with bigger aspirations. I found the session was as much about learning a new skill — data — as it was about working as a team.

If you have yet to take the plunge into the world of data journalism, here are three key points to get you started:

  • Every story can be a data story
  • Every journalist can be a data journalist
  • Every newsroom can produce kick-ass data projects

In addition to that, know your goals and know your audience when you take on a data project. Ask yourself what you want to convey? What do you hope to accomplish? Once you have your vision, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get busy.

1. Identify obstacles
Ok, so now you have your idea. But what obstacles are in your way? We all have them. From finding the data, to crunching the numbers, to technology and knowledge, or making the pitch to your editor. Here are some common examples:

  • Data is “dirty”
  • Story lacks focus
  • Too many moving pieces
  • Breaking news or daily news monopolizes time
  • Lack of coordination
  • Data is still dirty

How do you get past these obstacles? Know what you could be up against and plan your attack. Get into a “data state of mind” and get the ideas flowing.

We all have ideas, and those ideas can come from anywhere. But in a small newsroom, as Grovum pointed out, they should come from everywhere.

2. Choose skills over tools
Start with skills — who knows what? Use the known skills to jumpstart or aid the process, then identify the tools. As the projects begin to flow, pick a few tools and stick with them.

3. Think visually
Let’s show our audience what we’ve got by coming up with a way to display the content that is useful. I’m currently experimenting with TileMill, an interactive map tool. At first attempt, it seems fairly user-friendly. Other recommendations include Piktochart, Google Fusion Tables and Highcharts.

4. Data every day
Ask questions related to data. Think about the details that can help your coverage. The more data you have from the start, the easier the ideas will flow.

5. Stay organized
Use Google Calendar to manage your time, meetings and deadlines. Or try Trello. I created an account following this session and have been experimenting with it since. A great organizing and communicating tool, especially when working on projects that include multiple departments or newsrooms.

6. Always be learning
Let’s not forget that we are journalists. It’s safe to assume many of us got into this business because we want to learn more and ask questions. Look at data journalism and digital tools like this: New tools, new skills, new knowledge = more fun, more journalism.

One thing that Grovum said during the session has stuck with me. She said, “On every data project someone should always be learning.” 

How important is data to digital journalism right now? I believe this tweet from my colleague Daniel Tedford sums it up best: 

Kimberly Guimarin

By Kimberly Guimarin

Kim Guimarin is senior editor for the Los Angeles News Group. She works most closely with the inland cluster of newspapers -- Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, The Sun, Redlands Daily Facts -- and also oversees the photography needs of LANG.

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