In the small world of datajournalism, a handful of newsrooms seem to run the show. The Guardian, The New-York Times and ProPublica regularly produce compelling interactive features, build curated databases over months and have their own R&D labs. They have developers, graphic designers, datajournalists and, obviously, dozens of award-winning journalists.
Are you doomed if you can’t find 800,000€ to start your datajournalism team? Not at all. On the contrary, “datajournalism is like punk music”
, as The Guardian’s Simon Rogers puts it. Anyone can do it. You need very little to get started, but it’s important to make the right choices in the right order.
Find a hacker
At the very beginning, datajournalism is about hacking. Not hacking as in “crashing websites”, but hacking as in “try anything”. It’s about finding people willing to look at journalism in a fresh way.
Two examples: The Swedish National Radio
hired Jens Finnäs
as its first datajournalist, a journalist with a degree in Political Science who learned to code on his own. Le Monde
, the daily of reference in France, hired Alexandre Léchenet
, who holds a BA in computer science and previously worked as a project manager.
Neither Jens nor Alexandre were award-winning journalists (they’re too young for that), neither were they outstanding developers. They are hackers and feel good about shaking traditional journalistic processes.
How do you find hackers? Look for the bloggers who play around with data. Go to meetups and hacker spaces (like Makers@Bruch
in Sarajevo), look for them on Twitter.
Once you found an enthusiastic young datajournalist, the danger is that she will feel daunted by the advanced fossilization of your organization’s processes. If she gets bored, her creativity will suffer. On the other hand, if she feels that she has support from management, her enthusiasm for new tools will probably spill over to her colleagues and start a positive trend.
As she gets better at providing content for your newsroom and refines her datajournalism skills, she’ll probably develop an appetite for more ambitious projects. At this point, you will need editorial developers.
How do you find editorial developers? Developers are not a homogeneous group. At one end of the spectrum, some of them code gigantic, million-euro industrial applications using technologies that require days to deploy. At the other end, creative geniuses create highly unstable, revolutionary products that only a minority of advanced users understand. You need to spot those in the middle.
To work in a newsroom, developers need to adapt to the time constraints of journalism and accept to work a whole night if the news agenda demands it. They need to understand user experience so that their products can be used by the demographics of your media. And they need to work by iterations, releasing their work quickly and building upon the feedback from users.
These developers are rare and chances are that the engineers running your organization’s IT infrastructure are nothing like them. For them to come to you, your organization can sponsor or organize a hackathon
, an event where developers are invited to work intensively on short projects.
Designers, statisticians and other skills
There is more to datajournalism than hacky journalists and developers. If you want to analyze trends or build a statistical model, a statistician should come to help. If you plan to produce a big infographics for print, a graphic designer is an expense that cannot be spared. If you set up an application in which users are involved, contracting a UX designer can make a big difference in participation rates. And any topic-specific project requires oversight from an expert from the field.
Although these points are very important, they are not at the core of a datajournalism team. The datajournalist should act as a project manager: identify the missing skills and find ways to provide for them.
Should you have these skills in-house? No! Statisticians, for instance, are an easy one. Quite a few of them work for insurance companies and are bored to death. Present them with an exciting, witty journalistic project and chances are they will help you free of charge. All you need is to befriend a couple of them.
For graphic design, chances are your news organization already has an art desk. Make sure that they can help you when you need them. Finally, traditional journalists have long lists of experts they can call when you need advice on a specific topic.
In the end, datajournalism is about hacking. It’s about finding new ways to collect and display data-rich content with low budgets.
To get started, don’t hire a consultant. Hire a punk.