Inside The Economist's "Off the Charts" newsletter
Conversations with Data: #79
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Welcome to our latest Conversations with Data newsletter.
This week's episode features Marie Segger, a data journalist at The Economist. She speaks to us about launching "Off the Charts", a newsletter taking us behind the scenes of The Economist's data team. She also tells us about her learning and career path into data journalism, along with her thoughts on the best way for data teams to collaborate.
What we asked
Talk to us about your journey into data journalism.
The first time I came across data journalism was at a Google event in Berlin many years ago. I heard a talk from the Knight Lab on how to create different data stories with interactive tools. At that time, I had applied to study for a Master's degree in Digital Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London. Led by Miranda McLachlan and Andy Freeman, the programme is half journalism and half computing. The computing side was split into different modules. We learned basic HTML, how to build a website and use WordPress. We also worked with Google Sheets and Excel and learned how to scrap data from websites. The course was practical, where you learned by doing.
Talk to us about The Economist's "Off the Charts" newsletter. Why did you launch it?
We launched the newsletter in February 2021, and it has been a very exciting journey. We developed plans and prototypes with the newsletter team. The motivation to launch it was partly because our team really enjoyed other data newsletters out there. Some of them include "Conversations with Data", Sophie Warnes' "Fair Warning", Gavin Freeguard's "Warning: Graphic Content," and Jeremy Singer-Vine's Data is Plural. Before this, The Economist published Medium articles talking about our work behind the scenes.
The newsletter is similar to that. We had some really interesting pieces. One of them is called "Mistakes, we've drawn a few" by Sarah Leo. This was one of our most popular pieces looking at lessons learnt from our errors in data visualisation. This educational content about our work makes it more accessible to our audience. I found this industry very difficult to break into and understand. That's why I love it when people make an effort to be more transparent.
What is the workload for this type of weekly newsletter?
The good thing is we are always rotating the workload. The data journalism team is made up of 15 people. It's a different person writing the newsletter every week. I write the introduction and edit the copy for each issue.
Who is on the team? What skills do they have?
We have a handful of data journalists, some visual journalists and two interactive data journalists. The data journalists gather and analyse the data and write the text. The visual data journalists take that data and create a design for our different sections: Graphic detail or Daily charts. The interactive data journalists create really beautiful interactives.
How have you worked with other editorial teams within The Economist?
The data journalists contribute to other sections besides Graphic detail and Daily charts. We work across the paper and collaborate with other people. During the pandemic, we've done a lot of stories with our health correspondents. I am hoping to work on a climate story this year. For that, I plan to collaborate with our main climate correspondent.
How has the pandemic shaped your work, and what are some shining examples to come out of this?
We've seen huge interest in our journalism during the height of the pandemic, especially during the first knockdown. My colleague James Tozer was the first to gather excess death data looking at excess mortality statistics. On the back of that, we started our Excess Mortality Tracker. Another colleague, James Fransham, looked at Google mobility data and people's behaviour during the lockdowns. After that, Google made the data public. The Economist also launched "The Jab", a podcast exploring the global vaccination race.
How do you come up with data stories?
I think there are two different ways of coming up with data stories. One is to find the data, analyse it and find a story in it. The other is to notice something in real life or be inspired by a recent news event. The next step is to look for the data. Some people in data journalism think that one way is more valid than the other. But I think both are excellent ways to find data stories.
What data journalists do you look to for inspiration?
There are so many really inspiring people in our field. Mona Chalabi is obviously one of the greatest inspirations. She's a trailblazer who has done some fantastic work. I also admire Jane Bradley, who is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. I follow academics, too. I reviewed Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West's book, "Calling Bullshit", which is about detecting shoddy data and lies. It is very similar to Tim Harford's Data Detective books, another person I follow.
In 2019 you spoke at a BBC conference in Manchester on breaking into data journalism. What advice do you have for fellow journalists trying to do the same?
I'm passionate about trying to show that there are so many different ways into data journalism. Getting into journalism full stop is hard. It's not always a straight line. I didn't graduate and then start as a data journalist at The Economist. Millennials have very high expectations, and we expect a lot from ourselves. It's essential to take your own time with it.
I always recommend networking, which can be difficult during this pandemic. I started by going to a brilliant meetup called JournoCoders in London. It's organised by Max Harlow, a developer who works for the Financial Times and Leila Haddou, an investigative journalist. Hacks/Hackers is another meetup I recommend. This isn't purely a data journalism meetup. Instead, you'll find a mix of developers and journalists giving presentations from different organisations.
Latest from DataJournalism.com
Drones aren't just for photojournalists. Data journalists can also take advantage of them for their stories. Monika Sengul-Jones explores how to boost your storytelling with this technology, as well as the potential pitfalls for using them. She also provides a guide for journalists getting started. Read the full article here.
Our next conversation will feature data journalists Duncan Geere and Miriam Quick, the co-hosts of Loud Numbers, the new data sonification podcast. The pair will speak to us about what sonification means for data storytelling, how they got started and what stories work best for this medium. Prime yourself by reading the long read data sonification article they wrote earlier this year.
Tara from the EJC data team,
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