5 Tips to Kickstart Data Journalism in Newsrooms


Kuang KENG Kuek Ser


For newsrooms that realise the value of data journalism and want to start integrating data components into their storytelling, the beginning could be hard and require many experiments to find the right workflow, tools and people that fit their newsroom culture.

From my experience in studying and working with small and medium newsrooms to produce data journalism, their scale of human resources and economy are very different from large publications. For example, The New York Times has over 1,200 editorial staff, and the graphic department that produces data components alone has about 40 members; in smaller newsrooms like Foreign Policy, there are 40 people altogether, equal to only one department in The Times.

In an ideal scenario, a newsroom starts by hiring just one experienced data journalist who can work with other reporters on data projects and become the data evangelist in the organisation. However, many small newsrooms that operate on tight budgets are reluctant to make such an investment before confirming the outcomes. In some countries where data journalism is still new, finding a good data journalist is harder than most people think.

So what can you do if your newsroom is small and doesn’t want or cannot afford to hire a new data ninja? Here are five tips:

1. Start small

Instead of struggling to produce a wholly data-driven story that blows everyone away, start by adding small data components into planned stories such as elections or the national budget. Start by collecting small sets of public data and storing them in simple Google spreadsheets, and build simple charts and tables to go along with the stories.

2. Form a pioneer team

Before involving most newsroom members in data projects, form a small team consisting of two to four journalists who are more techsavvy, eager to experiment new things and who don’t see maths as an enemy. They can then experiment with using different data components in their own stories or their colleagues’ stories and communicate the outcomes to the whole newsroom.

The newsroom should make sure that successful stories created by them are promoted internally to not just editorial members but also other departments. This is crucial when you need to get their buy-in to invest more resources in data journalism.

3. Give them time and resources

The most common challenge faced by journalists who want to innovate in storytelling is time. Every journalist in a small newsroom is busy with the daily routine — breaking news, updates or follow-ups. It is impossible for them to experiment without being given sufficient time and resources. This requires cutting down on routine stories that bring minimal value. Such decisions can be informed by web analytics that show the performance of each story.

Besides time, these journalists also need, among others, the expertise of beat reporters if their stories are related to a particular beat, input from graphic designers, technical support from developers if the stories require coding, social media promotion after their stories are published and web analytics tracking from the marketing department or the editorial desk.

4. Use free online resources

One common misunderstanding about data journalism is that it requires some badass coding skills. This may be true for some data components created by data journalists or data teams in major publications. However, many can actually be produced using off-the-shelf data visualisation tools that don’t require coding. Most of these tools use a freemium model that provides basic functions for free.

Often the hardest and most time-consuming part in the production of any data component is not the visualisation but collecting, verifying and understanding the data. Instead of coding, it usually requires basic knowledge of statistics, use of spreadsheets, and conventional journalistic skills of finding and validating data sources.

Once you have a clean data set, you can generate a simple chart in just a few minutes. Some of the visualisation tools I recommended to newsrooms are CartoDB for making maps, TimelineJS and StoryMapJS for multimedia storytelling, Datawrapper for making charts, and KUMU for network visualisation.


5. Get an external consultant/trainer

If the publication could allocate some budget for newsroom training, this could be an effective way to get things started. The consultant should understand the newsroom culture, skill level, workflow, types of stories produced, business model (how stories generate revenue), budget, technology infrastructure (e.g. CMS) and, most importantly, the needs of the newsroom before identifying the necessary data tools and training. The ideal consultant should also give training and tutorial to newsroom members and continue to provide support to them after the training.

When done right, it could save time and money as it is a one-off investment compared to hiring a permanent data journalist, and the newsroom does not need to experiment from scratch. Another advantage is that it incentivises newsroom members to make the most of the training when they know the trainer will not be with them for a long time.

For non-profit publications or newsrooms with very limited budgets, look for international journalism organisations that provide grants and resources for data journalism training such as the School of Data Fellowship programme.

Want more tips? Here’s another 5 tips shared by La Nacion, an Argentinian news organisation that has produced award-winning data journalism in a hostile political environment with no freedom of information laws.


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