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April 27 2012


At the International Journalism Festival: Can Data Journalism Save Newsrooms?

PERUGIA, Italy -- Here at the International Journalism Festival the launch of three large initiatives have generated a lot of the buzz around data journalism.

The School of Data Journalism, organized by the European Journalism Centre and the Open Knowledge Foundation, is composed of three panels and five workshops and dives into some of the key issues that media organizations are currently considering: "Is it worth my while starting out trying to do data journalism?", "Will data journalism make us money?", "How do you get data that you can search, filter and analyze with a computer?" and "How do I make data stories sexy?"


In addition, the 58 nominations for the Data Journalism Awards (DJA) were announced. DJA is the first international competition that recognizes and showcases the great work done in data journalism. Prizes are awarded for data-driven applications, investigations, and storytelling through visualizations. It's hoped that these awards will encourage more news organizations to embark on more ambitious data projects and alleviate the "loneliness in the newsroom" which some data journalists experience when their colleagues don't understand what they do. The six winners will be announced May 31.

And on Saturday, the Data Journalism Handbook will be launched. The handbook was born at the Mozilla Festival in November. It's a collection of tips, anecdotes and case studies from more than 70 leading data journalists and data wranglers, including contributions from The New York Times, Zeit Online, the BBC, the Guardian and many more. The book will be an open educational resource with key lessons a beginner data journalist should know. You can see a chapter overview of the handbook here and an excerpt from the first chapter here. A free version will be available online at datajournalismhandbook.org, and an e-book and print version will soon be published by O'Reilly Media.

So what is data journalism?

The School of Data Journalism, a series of panel discussions and workshops at the festival, was led by leading practitioners from all over the world and aimed to show participants what data journalists can do and why they should take the plunge and learn new skills.

The definition of data journalism varies depending on whom you ask. For some journalists, it's simply the courage to tackle sometimes huge and messy datasets. For others, it's being transparent and open about "showing the working" behind their conclusions, backing up their stories with facts and numbers where one might previously have only evidenced their point with "he said/she said." For others, it's a new way of presenting data through visualizations and interactive news applications; news is no longer simply static words on a page.

Increasingly, though, many are coming to realize that data journalism is a set of skills, involving new methods for acquiring, analyzing and working with data which simply weren't computationally feasible before. In an age that is positively drowning in data, we need more data journalists who typically have better storytelling skills than statisticians and can act as translators of complex datasets for the benefit of the public.

As activist and author Heather Brooke put it in the "Information wants to be free" workshop, data journalism is a misnomer -- one doesn't say "telephone journalism" if you contact your sources via telephone; journalists have to use data to do their job well.

Guerrilla Tactics: how to get started with Data Journalism

In the first panel of the school, "From Computer Assisted Reporting to Data Journalism," Pulitzer Prize winners Sarah Cohen and Steve Doig, highlighted their experiences working in the United States, where the notion of Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) has been around for several decades -- far longer than the budding data journalism scene here in Europe.

They described their experiences learning how to use tools and techniques -- unfamiliar to journalists but popular in other disciplines such as social science and history -- to stay at the cutting edge of journalism. They also described the "guerrilla tactics" they initially had to use to get their work into print. "If you produce an amazing visualization, your editor is going to find a way to get it published," Cohen said, adding that it's far easier to show someone what data journalism is than to explain what it is.


Next up, Aron Pilhofer described his journey to data journalism at the New York Times. He said it came from a feeling of frustration with the inefficiency of working practices and tools. This sentiment resonated strongly with the other panelists -- a common complaint concerned individual journalists holding onto their data, producing datasets that only they could understand, instead of resources that could be built on and expanded by others on their teams.

On the same panel, Elisabetta Tola of formicablu and Simon Rogers of the Guardian gave a European perspective on data journalism. Rogers demonstrated how the Guardian Datablog's interactive maps of the U.K. riots helped disband false statements by the government that the "riots were not about poverty." Tola then explained some of the more basic problems facing wannabe data journalists in Italy, some of whom would be lucky to get data even on paper, as it's common for officials to simply dictate the numbers to journalists.

The second panel, "How can data journalism save your newsroom?", examined perspectives and business models for data journalism, and attempted to answer the question: "Is it worth it?"

Caelainn Barr of Citywire urged journalists not to consider data journalism as a fix-all that will save anything. She warned that editors are unlikely to be considerate and give you more time just because you're using complex data or working hard to present it better. Barr said journalists are constantly playing a game of catchup; advertisers are moving elsewhere; and journalists have less time to produce their stories and are struggling to keep up. All of this means journalists have to be more agile and learn to do things more efficiently.

To solve this problem, Pilhofer said, the New York Times has built resources that live on for future stories, allowing both journalists and the interactive news team to spring into action as soon as a related story breaks.

"What is the simplest thing you can do to start with data journalism?" ProPublica's Dan Nguyen asked rhetorically. "Keep your notes in a spreadsheet." He said often, the skills required to find stories involve sorting, grouping and averaging the data. With skills this simple, can newsrooms really afford not to teach them to their journalists?

The Future of Journalism is Bold

What does the future look like for data journalism? "Data journalism is just becoming journalism," said the Guardian's Rogers -- which was possibly the most encouraging statement from any of the panelists here.

Data journalism is no longer limited to only those who can afford to pay $900 for a piece of visualization software. Now incredibly powerful, open-source solutions are available. Organizations such as ProPublica encourage others to use their approaches in other stories to bring data journalism to local levels.

However, a change in culture will be needed to get more journalists into the fold. As Tola explained, collaboration is key, both journalist-journalist and journalist-coder collaboration. As Wired Italy's Guido Romeo put it, "Journalism is a one-man band. Data journalism is clearly not."

As technology develops, the ways of presenting this information just become more exciting. Could Italy be a land of opportunity for data journalism? The enthusiasm with which the workshops were met gave the impression that he who dares first will have a serious competitive advantage.

The workshops will continue over the next couple of days, and many have spaces open. Any budding data journalists? Join us! The Data Journalism Handbook will be launched at 6:30 p.m. PDT on April 28.

May 03 2010


“Maximum information in minimum time”: Gauging social media’s merits

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently attended the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. One theme that became clear on panel after panel: in Italy, one of the lowest-ranked countries for press freedom in Europe, innovation is hampered not only by legacy journalistic infrastructure, but also by cultural and governmental traditions.

In that environment, social media simply aren’t top-of-mind for most Italian journalists — who, as Vittorio Zambardino mentioned during our chat the other day, operate under a licensing system that tends to emphasize traditional standards over innovation. (It’s a system that’s “literally medieval,” several Italian journalists put it to me, referring to the guild structure the licensing system is based on.) It wasn’t until last summer’s Iranian revolution, said Carlo Felice della Pasqua, the editor of Il Gazzettino, that many Italian journalists had even heard of Twitter.

Still, there’s arguably a market for social media in Italy. In a country where, per one study, many more people trust online news than trust TV news, social media could make inroads; the challenge, it seems, is convincing mainstream journalists that it’s worth their while to engage in it.

That was the theme, at any rate, of the festival’s Social Media Editing panel, which brought together social media mavens from Italy (della Pasqua and the ONA’s Mario Tedeschini Lalli, who served as moderator), the rest of Europe (Robert Baltus of the Netherlands’ NOS News and Vicky Taylor, commissioning editor for new media news and current affairs for the UK’s Channel 4), and the U.S. (Josh Young, social news editor for the Huffington Post) to discuss the role of social media in the overall media landscape.

Instead of the standard “whence social media” discussion, the panel ended up focusing more on the benefits of integrating social media into newsrooms that currently lack them. Here are some of the arguments the participants laid out.

Developing communities

Robert Baltus began by taking on a common assumption: When it comes to journalists’ use of social media, “we don’t have to build a community,” he said. Not because community doesn’t matter, but because “the community is already there.” It’s up to news organizations not to be creators, but to be developers — to identify and nourish communities that already exist.

To that end, “we encourage all reporters, all presenters, and all individual producers on each program to have their own Twitter accounts,” Taylor said — because, among other things, that practice “humanizes a side of the newsroom.” Channel 4 has also established a presence on Facebook, given that a whopping 80 percent of its users have Facebook accounts. But they’ve concentrated their efforts on Twitter, she noted, because though the Twitter audience is smaller than its Facebook counterpart, its users tend to be more engaged.

Developing stories

What The Huffington Post has found, Young said, is that Twitter is “a really good place to source stories — and that’s true not just in politics, not just in entertainment…but in every single vertical we come across.”

Responding to Tedeschini Lalli’s question about managing the volume of information on social networks, Young noted the recent earthquake in Haiti, a situation (like the Iranian revolution) where there were relatively few professional reporters on the ground at first, but relatively many Twitterers: NGO staffers and the like. The outlet created a page, which contained three columns of tweets organized by group — journalist, aid worker, etc.— and preceded by banner text: “Should you be in one of these lists? Send us an email.” The point was to curate information in a way that leveraged technology to achieve two of journalism’s basic mandates: sourcing and verification.

“One of the beauties of the Huffington Post is that we’re also a technology company,” Young pointed out. “We have about 100 people, give or take; probably 15-20 percent of those people are developers.” And “figuring out a technologically-driven solution doesn’t have to be all that hard,” he said. In the Haiti example, in fact, “you can imagine a whole range of clever little technological solutions to solve problems like this.”

Distributing stories

“I’ve found that a really good way to show the success of Facebook and Twitter is to show people the numbers,” Young said. “One upshot of working at the Huffington Post is that we’re obsessed with numbers.” And while “it can be taken to excess,” he acknowledged of the HuffPost’s (in)famous SEO facility, ultimately that obsession is about connecting with readers. “How much do the people you’re writing for actually like what you’re writing, as evidenced by the clicks on the page?”

“As a journalist,” Taylor noted, “ultimately you want the most people as possible consuming your work.” And “social networks are a really efficient way of getting the maximum information out in the minimum time.”

They’re also an efficient way of measuring distribution. “Social media makes content quantifiable,” Taylor noted — so “it’s giving a sense to journalists that people are actually reading their content.”

Baltus echoed that sentiment: “In the Netherlands,” he said, “journalists always look for some proof of their findings.” And part of his job is to demonstrate that social media itself can act as a route to that proof — and to be, as well, “a kind of ambassador to the more conservative sites around.”

Experimentation as an end in itself

Ultimately, trying something and seeing whether it works — even though you risk failure — is much more valuable than trying nothing and sticking with the status quo, the panelists agreed. “Nobody really knows how social media is going to affect the news,” Young noted. Because of that, “I think the challenge for a lot of us is to find something vague but really fundamental that we can build experiments on” — and to keep “trying to iteratively get to something less vague and more concrete. Nobody really knows what the future will hold, and it’s important to be humble about that, and open-minded.”

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