Breaking into data journalism

Conversations with Data: #90

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Welcome back to our Conversations with Data newsletter! After a long hiatus, we are excited to be back with a new podcast episode.

The latest Conversations with Data podcast features Paul Bradshaw, a professor from Birmingham City University, Michelle McGhee, a journalist-engineer from The Pudding and Carmen Aguilar Garcia, a data journalist from Sky News. This episode is from a Discord live chat held in May 2022, where we explored how to break into data journalism.

Drawing on the panel's varied experience, the trio provided helpful advice and learning resources for those fresh out of university, in web development or journalism, moving laterally into the field.

Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Paul Bradshaw, Michelle McGhee and Carmen Aguilar Garcia below.

What we asked

Paul tells us how the data journalism educational experience has evolved over the years.

Paul: Data journalism is much more popular than it has ever been. For a period of time, a lot of journalism students perhaps thought data journalism skills were nice to have, but they'll be okay without them. I think that's changed in the last few years. And it's become, in my case, more popular than other courses and more international. It's also been interesting to see it pass across different parts of the world. I've had students coming from South America and Europe in previous years. This year, I've got many students interested who are from Asia.

Paul, talk to us about how some of your students have moved into data journalism roles. What do these people seem to have in common?

Paul: In terms of the students who work in the industry, it is very difficult to pick out a common feature. We have students who come with journalism experience, and that helps. We also have students who come with no journalism experience but have a technical background in web development. We've also had students do well coming straight out of university. So it's challenging to pin down a particular quality because I think that the variety of jobs and organisations hiring is so wide It's not just news organisations telling stories with data. You've got charities and data visualisation studios as well. But one thing I would say is that a mix of technical skills and editorial skills certainly helps. It's not just about doing something technically, but having ideas and being able to communicate those well.

Michelle, you've got a technical background. How did your university background tie into a career in data journalism?

Michelle: I guess I'm slightly puzzled by it because I had no idea that this was the career I wanted when I was in university. I started doing things that interested me and meeting people I thought were interesting. I believe that always pays off no matter what -- that's especially the case in this field where people come from many different backgrounds.

Carmen, tell us about your move into the data journalism industry.

Carmen: I started my career as a TV reporter, and I always thought that that was what I wanted to pursue. But when I moved to Chile, I jumped into the digital world. While working for a 24-hour news station, I worked on a data project for the local elections. My editor and I took an online course, and then we built a dashboard and did feature stories about the different aspects of local government in Chile.

I enjoyed the journey, but it was also challenging because I didn't have the right data skills. When I finished that project, I knew this was the kind of journalism I wanted to do. So I started taking online courses, and during my third online course, I told myself it was time to enrol in a master's for my career. And that's why I came to Birmingham City University to study with Paul Bradshaw. I got my job at Sky News while finishing my master's project.

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Paul, You teach the Data Journalism MA programme at Birmingham City University. What advice do you have for students studying data journalism? How can they make the most of it?

Paul: My advice is to take advantage of the opportunity you have that you won't get in a newsroom. When you're studying, you certainly make more mistakes. You can experiment more. And actually, employers will be interested in that because they don't have a chance to take as many risks as you might take on your course. Don't be afraid to take risks. One of the things to always remember about a good course is that your mistakes will be part of what you learn and what you talk about in interviews.

The other important thing is to work on projects that will showcase what you can do. Build a portfolio, choose projects carefully in terms of how they will develop you, and build contacts, knowledge and skills. Be mindful of how these projects will show something that will really grab the attention of people. That's something you won't necessarily often get a chance to do.

Michelle, you visualised every spell in the Harry Potter books and put it on GitHub. How did you use that project to help you get a job at The Pudding, where you currently work as an engineer-journalist?

Michelle: I was a software engineer and was thinking about transitioning careers because that career path wasn't entirely aligned with my interests. I discovered the world of data journalism through several publications, including The Pudding. I set out to emulate what I thought were cool and interesting topics to me. The Harry Potter piece was a learning project that I was using to replicate various things that I had seen that I thought were interesting. I worked on this piece for a month or so, and I learned a lot of things.

At that time, I was a patron of The Pudding through Patreon. The Pudding has a Slack channel for all the people who are patrons. I reached out to a member of The Pudding team at the time, and I just asked for feedback. I asked how they thought I could make it better. It felt a little nerve-wracking at the time because I admired them. But that's also why I was interested in what they thought of it. The person I sent it to gave me some feedback and was nice and generous.

They also made it clear that I should pitch a story to The Pudding. This led me to later pitched a story to this person. I worked with them, and they offered me a full-time job a year and a half later. I look at that moment as one where I was able to experiment and create a project that led me to directly reach out to someone I admired and form a connection. That is why I have my current job, and I'm grateful for that.

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Michelle, how did your software development experience help you transition into data journalism?

Michelle: I was coming into the field with a pretty strong foundation, having studied computer science in university. However, almost none of it involved web development. I had taken one course covering HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. When I started, I had to try to learn more web-based data storytelling techniques and the basics of web development. While I had some foundation in this, I needed to strengthen it. This was especially the case for learning about D3 and DataViz in web development. Luckily, there are so many resources that are great for self-teaching. Amelia Wattenberger makes some of my favourite blog posts and tutorials on DataViz, D3 and web development tools. In the early days, I had those open tabs all the time. This took a lot of practice and time to get comfortable with.

Carmen, tell us about starting up a data team at Sky News? How did the Master's programme help you navigate the newsroom?

Carmen: When I joined Sky News, I was the first data journalist working there. So I had a big challenge because I needed to show them what data journalism is and how it adds value to Sky News' traditional reporting. So one of the things I based my strategy on was collaboration. This meant working with other reporters, designers and developers to find and uncover new stories where it might be difficult for them to do it without me. By working together, I showed we could publish impactful stories.

Another element that played a big role was visualisation. In broadcasting, editors want visual elements. I ensured my data visualisations meant we could also create more visual stories across the newsroom. Apart from collaboration and finding new stories, I spent time training journalists, designers and developers in the newsroom. The design team now regularly works with Datawrapper and Flourish. I'm very proud now that the team is not just only me, and we work across the newsroom with broadcast, digital and social media.

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What advice do you have for pitching data story ideas and managing expectations when you approach an editor?

Paul: The most frequent thing I say to my students is to tell me in one sentence what is happening. Don't tell me what you're going to do. The editor cares about what is going to come at the end. What's the result? What's the story, and why does it matter? Emphasise who is affected and what's the human dimension of your story. It might be technically impressive and exciting as a process, but will you have something that someone in the street will be surprised by at the end of that process? Is it going to be something that tells us something new? Does it shine a spotlight on important issues that tell us the scale of a problem or that something is getting worse or better? Keep it simple. Tell the editor who is doing what and what is happening.

Carmen: After the pandemic, I would say that editors are more interested in data stories than ever before. The challenge is managing their expectations with the time and resources needed to publish the story. I don't have a magic formula for that, but one thing I have learned from working with developers is to try to budget more time than you think you will need. That is not always possible if it is a reactive story. I suggest adding a few more days to the deadline for stories with a longer lead time.

Michelle: Based on my experience reviewing pitches to The Pudding, we sometimes receive pitches where people haven't prototyped their idea yet. Or perhaps they haven't done the initial data analysis to see if this is actually interesting. Of course, some stories can take lots of time and need buy-in before you invest in them. But I like to see freelancers show us the low hanging data exploration and check if there's data available. There are clear steps to help prove the point and bolster the pitch even more. My advice is not to wait until you get approval to get your hands dirty in the low hanging fruit.

Name one tool you could not live without for your data journalism work.

Michelle: I could not live without the Svelte JavaScript framework. Our team at The Pudding has recently fallen in love with this. It is a lot more readable, and it has a lot of excellent features for DataViz.

Carmen: I regularly use Excel and Python daily. But there isn't just one tool I'd choose, as it depends on the story. Each story is different and requires specific tools. For me, the story determines my tool of choice.

Paul: I'd say it's pretty difficult to think of a tool that I couldn't live without. It's difficult to do a story without using spreadsheets at all. OpenRefine is very useful for data cleaning. OutWit Hub is very useful for scraping. If I didn't have R, I would use Python. If I didn't have Python, I'd use JavaScript. There's always another way of achieving the same kind of results. But the one tool I think you really need is a telephone. You need to speak to people to determine the human impact of those numbers and why they matter.

What approach do you take to interviewing the data for a story?

Paul: I would always recommend treating data as a source the same way you would treat a human source. Data can be biased in the same way it can be collected for a particular purpose. I would be just as sceptical of the data as you are of humans. When you interview your data, it might tell you something, but ultimately you're relying on something being measured in the first place. There are many blind spots in data, which reflects power imbalances in society. I would speak to people involved in that particular sector, not just experts, but people who work in that field and who are responsible for that field. Try and get an overarching view of that system.

Finally, what are some of the best resources for those new to learning data journalism?

Michelle: The Pudding has a resource page if you are interested in making web interactives similar to what we publish. The page includes many videos and tutorials showing you how it is done.

Paul: My advice is to pick the area you're interested in and focus on that. If you're interested in visualisation, I would read The Wall Street Journal Guide to Infographics. If you're interested in the analysis, Jonathan Stray has written The Curious Journalist's Guide to Data. Darrell Huff's book How to Lie With Statistics is a classic. I also recommend listening to the More or Less: Behind the Stats podcast. I've also written a few books about data journalism, which, hopefully, people will find helpful.

Latest from

Data journalists get their ideas in various ways — from questions and tip-offs to news events and data releases. But if you're new to the field, sometimes finding inspiration can be a challenge. If you're looking for data journalism ideas, read Paul Bradshaw's guide to generating them — and the types of stories they might produce. Read the full article here.

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If you have been wondering whether you should learn to program for data journalism, this latest blog post by Simona Bisiani explains what to know for those curious about R or Python. This blog provides a valuable comparison between the two languages for those who've already learned one of them. Read the full blog here.

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It's no secret that data journalism has had to adapt and change in recent years. To get a better sense of the field's current state, we launched The State of Data Journalism Survey 2021. This involved asking journalists about their work, tools, and thoughts on the future of data journalism. Read the full blog here or watch our panel discussion at International Journalism Festival in Perugia in April 2022.

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Want to be on the podcast or have an idea for an episode? We want to hear from you. Don't forget to join our Discord data journalism server for the latest in the field. You can also read all of our past newsletter editions or subscribe here.


Tara from the EJC data team,

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