Python and newsrooms: AMA with Winny de Jong

Conversations with Data: #25

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Ever dabbled in Python, but somehow didn’t persevere? Or is your newsroom looking to invest in a data journalist? In our two latest courses on, renowned Dutch data journalist Winny de Jong answers these questions and more.

But we know that sometimes you’ll still have lingering questions after finishing a course. So, in this edition, we have Winny with us to get you some closure.

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Winny teaching for the European Journalism Centre.

What you asked

How can non-coding data journalists first get started with programming?

“Simple: Pick a data story that isn’t too ambitious -- preferably one that you know how to make without programming and no deadline stress, figure out how to get it done with programming, then do it.

This way, you’ll be working on the edge of your comfort zone: You’re learning something new, but there is no deadline stress; you have a backup method when deadline stress begins to occur; and, if you’re not using it as a backup method, you can at least check on your own very first programming results. (And you’ll probably want to check on your first programming work -- I know I did.)”

How and why did you choose to go with Python, when there are so many other programming languages out there?

“When I just started learning data skills, I procrastinated by learning new things. Ever since I learned that about myself, I live by this rule: Only learn the things you have an immediate use for. So a couple years ago, I wanted to use more complex data analysis for my stories. I went with Python since that was already a popular programming language among data journalists, and compared to other languages its syntax is quite friendly. Also, I knew I wanted to do data analysis more than data visualisation. (Otherwise, Javascript might have been a better option.)”

What books can journalists use to learn Python?

“Personally I’ve always used the internet as my university. There are a lot of good Python resources out there, here’s a list of some favorites:

Over time I did use some books: Automate the Boring Stuff, which I liked for its immediate use cases; Python for data analysis (Paid); and Learn Python (Paid). There’s also this open e-book that goes with the Coursera specialisation, Python for Everybody, that I liked.”


Winny's courses on

What are the biggest challenges when newsrooms first hire a data journalist, and how can these be addressed?

“In my experience, culture and lack of knowledge are the two biggest challenges. The person who hired you might know what you do and how it adds value, but if no one else in the newsroom does you’ll have to work on that first. Organise data talks/lunches, create a data consultation hour, and collaborate. All. The. Time. With. Everybody.

When I started working at the Dutch national news broadcaster, there were a lot of conversations on what to expect when hiring a data journalist (me). Being a team of one, talking with editors, coordinators, and colleagues, managing expectations and creating open communication lines helped me to integrate into the newsroom pretty fast. Keep in mind that colleagues might not understand your data process exactly, but to collaborate it’s enough if they get the abstract version. For example, to discuss a scraper all parties need to know what it is, but not all parties have to know how to write one.”

What additional considerations are there for data journalists working at national and public broadcasters?

“Well, when working at broadcasters in general, if you’re doing data driven journalism it might be that your work is the foundation of a story -- but this foundation is not really visible. Some stories I’ve worked on for days, but no one would know. In the final product the anchorman says: ‘…our research shows that…’. But if you work on stories for the people affected by that story and not your ego, you should be fine. If a story is easier to grasp when you don’t show its data-foundation, you should be a-okay with it.”

Our next conversation

And now to a topic that all journalists will be familiar with: ethical dilemmas. Whether it’s concerns about the privacy of individuals in a dataset, biased data, or potentially misleading conclusions, we want to hear from you. Share the dilemmas you’ve faced, so that others won’t have to.

As always, don’t forget to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions.

Until next time,

Madolyn from the EJC Data team

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