24 Oct 2015

What content should you focus on as a data journalist?

As a data journalist in a modern newsroom, you will have to seriously think about what type of content you want, and should, produce.

Quick, social-focused, data-led posts, designed to be churned out quickly with the news cycle; or longer-term projects, often investigative in nature, that use data for more serious purposes?

I have experienced this issue at The Telegraph - with my role primarily involving two things:
  • Bringing a different angle to the news cycle. This often means quickly producing content relating to the news cycle. It involves finding a trending story and thinking about what data relates to its topic. 
  • Using data analysis to uncover new stories. This takes more time, using your skills with data sourcing and analysis to investigate leads and uncover stories. 
Let's go through the advantages and disadvantages of both

Bar charts are the bread and butter of any data visualisation

Quicker stories relating to the daily news cycle

Producing a story that brings another angle to the news is a worthwhile application of your data skills.

These stories often perform very well online, due to their relation to trending news. If you aim to answer a question, debunk a part of the story, or simply aim to find a new angle to the news, the potential is there for it to do very well on social.

Many have worked at, and succeeded in, using data in this way - as proven by teams such as those at usvsth3m and Amp3dd. These have succeeded in making data personal and interesting, applying it in a way that make people care. Sometimes, data journalism can be criticised for being used for its own sake - but this method certainly solves this issue.

The downside to this approach, however, is that it can quickly become reduced to clickbait-type content with less journalistic value than other applications of data. If all you are doing is writing a related story with a quick chart of unverified, unsubstantiated or un-contextualised data, you are adding very little to the story and being driven merely by the hits.

Longer-term investigative data analysis

Data is an invaluable tool when it comes to longer-term journalistic ventures. It gives you the opportunity to look at vast quantities of information, and take the time to look at what it means. You can then investigate the data over time and, with any luck, with a story.

Such investigations may involve scraping, parsingfreedom of information requests or other techniques. It will always involve cleaning and analysis of data, in the process of finding your story in the data.

These often don't do as well as the former application of data - due to the fact that they seek to set the news agenda, instead of follow trending stories. They can also harder to apply to people's own lives, because they often are not naturally human stories. So the key before you set off on a data-led investigation is preparation: make sure it is a human story which will actually interest humans.

So which is better?

This, in many ways, is exactly the same dilemma a general news reporter faces. It isn’t just limited to data. Every newsroom has to find the suitable balance between longer or more serious projects and short posts designed to draw in the clicks.

Both approaches have their merits.

A lot of it comes down to time. A luxury in a newsroom. You could write at least ten quick social stories that relate to the news agenda in the same time that you just prepare and source data for your investigation. The social, trending stories will no doubt get more traffic, so why even bother with applying data to investigative use?

You can - and probably should - do both. I’ve found you just have to find the right balance and focus on using your time to apply data to both uses for the newsroom.


  1. Awesome..You have clearly explained ...Its very useful for me to know about new things..Keep on blogging..
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  2. I have been following you for a couple of months now but this is my first time commenting on a blog post. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. Keep up the good work. Already bookmarked for future reference.

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