Spreading data journalism in the newsroom

A reporter called recently for tips on setting up “a CAR desk” in the newsroom of a decent-sized community newspaper. The editor had watched the reporter’s success at gathering and analyzing data and, as typically happens,  now wanted the reporter to train the rest of the newsroom.

Here was my advice:

Focus on a few: Instead of holding building-wide Excel classes or database journalism seminars, start with just one or two reporters who show a combination of interest and decent technical smarts. That lets you go deep on a couple of beats rather than spread yourself thin. Also, success breeds success. Watching a few reporters land great stories will possibly spur interest from others.

Have the right goals: Goals like “publish one CAR story a week” miss the point. Better objectives are to have data-thinking ever present in the reporter’s mind, have the reporter well-versed in her beat’s data sources, and have the reporter develop basic data skills. From that, stories will flow.

Inventory data: Speaking of data sources, have each reporter you work with find out the sets of data local governments keep. File FOIA requests for table layouts and database schemas. Get the data, then study it. That will spur story ideas.

Crawl first, run later: All the hot talk in data journalism these days is on Web frameworks and visualizations, but there’s plenty of work for the beginner in the land of Excel and Access. Build those skills as a starting point.

Your thoughts? Add a comment below …

2 responses to “Spreading data journalism in the newsroom”

  1. I agree with all this. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s overly optimistic to have everyone in the newsroom learn Excel — much less Access. But just as a working knowledge of public records law is essential for any hard news reporter, we ought to expect some basic level of data literacy. Even if you have specialists to crunch the numbers, the entire newsroom needs to adopt a data-oriented mindset.

  2. Anthony says:

    Yes. It makes for a smarter newsroom and better stories.

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