There are probably few things that intimidate journalists like reams of data. Unemployment might be high on that intimidation list, but you could argue that that’s a numbers issue, too. In fact, the growth of data journalism and information visualization has created new opportunities that buck the downsizing trend in newsrooms everywhere, so it might behoove journalists to learn to love data.
“There are an incredibly small number of people who are qualified to work at the speed that we work at, to work with the ethics, and understanding and fairness that we do in journalism, and who are really good at coding,” said John Keefe, senior editor of data news at WNYC. “And anybody who put any effort into being good at that and having those qualities is going to have a job probably before they can graduate.”
This burgeoning journalist-programmer population is redefining how we gather, process, and present information. The tools to work with data could soon become as commonplace as a pen and notepad.
“I definitely think that coding now is a kind of a literacy, no matter what position you are in,” said Louise Ma, WNYC’s data news interaction designer. “I taught myself HTML and CSS and all the basics when I was in grade school,” she said. “I would not have gotten the opportunities that I had without going through that period.”
In the last few years, the expanding palette of digital tools has become more accessible. Many websites publish free instructions or lessons online on how use data software. Detailed tutorials like the ones on Flowing Data help journalists learn how to create complex visualizations such as maps, graphs, and even animation. (The online magazine .net discusses 20 popular programs here, from entry-level to professional tools.) These tools create new ways to tell stories and communicate with audiences, and news outlets like WNYC are employing them to ramp up their data journalism coverage.
WNYC’s build-up began in 2011, Keefe recalls, when he learned how to customize Google Maps on his own. “We knew the 2010 Census would be coming out,” he said. “One of our reporters said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do some census maps?’ And we knew the NYT would do something beautiful, because they always do, and so we thought we could link up to that. And he (the reporter) said, ‘Yeah, but what if we had our own?’”
Using mostly Keefe’s self-taught programming, WNYC produced maps that captured shifting demographics all over the city. Sure enough, they were a hit. Web traffic shot up, and Keefe pressed WNYC to use more graphics.
Then Hurricane Irene hit. Hard. Hard enough to knock out New York City’s website and its evacuation map — but not WNYC’s.
“We got more traffic on that map than any singular piece of thing we’d ever made at WNYC, up to that point,” said Keefe.
Today, WNYC’s data team consists of four members. They create fresh visualizations almost everyday, from election maps to dog registrations.
In the end, data is only a source; the journalist still must dig in to locate the story. Stephen Reader, WNYC’s data news reporter, said, “Sometimes the best way to drive a point home is to pick one good thing the numbers tell you and show it to other people.”
Right now these roles seem plentiful, but journalists will have to move fast to fill them before competition grows too fierce. Keefe’s own daughters are already learning how to construct digital visualizations. They are seven and nine years old.
Bao holds a M.I.A. in international finance from Columbia University. Her email is email@example.com.
In addition to an M.S. in journalism, Mok is working on his M.I.A. in international affairs at Columbia University. He was previously an aid worker and radio host in East Africa. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Tags: Between the Spreadsheets, data journalism, WNYC