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Lessons learned from building a data journalism team

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Lessons learned from building a data journalism team

Sandra Crucianelli | January 24, 2013

Argentina's daily newspaper, La Nación, is on a mission to take data journalism to the next level.

A year ago, it was well on its way: it had put together a data team, led by Momi Peralta Ramos, that knew how to extract and manage large amounts of data.

The next step was to integrate reporters so that the team could truly practice the art of data journalism. I worked with La Nación on this goal as part of my Knight International Journalism Fellowship. The result is what you see in the photo: a true data journalism team.

In a country that lacks open data or a national law on access to public information, we had to be flexible as we built the team. Any theory could be subjected to critical review until we found the best path. Here are some tips gleaned from this experience:

Find out what has worked for other organizations

During my participation in the study of data-journalism teams published by the International Center for Journalists, I was able to analyze the work of major data journalism teams from around the world and, more specifically, from Latin America, such as the team from Costa Rica's La Nación and from the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. We were able to use what other teams had learned as we integrated our own team of journalists and technologists.

Appoint a coordinator

It's important to have an expert in data processing who attends meetings with editors in which decisions are made about how to cover the news of the day and the week.

Evangelize

Talk informally with reporters to share success stories with them. Many reporters associate data journalism with mathematics and statistics, which can intimidate them. But when they realize they can find high-impact stories from large volumes of data, that perception changes.

Set attainable goals

Medium- and long-term goals work best in data journalism. Especially when the reporters on the team are only working on data-driven stories part time, it's best to relieve them of daily or real-time deadlines. To do this, editors agree on what portion of a given week interested reporters can give to this type of journalism, knowing ahead of time that the result they'll get is not the same story that the competition might have, but that it will be an original product.

Give the project greater visibility

La Nación went beyond giving the team's data blog a prominent space on its website. La Nación created the content tag "Nación Data" and designed a data channel to unify its data-driven content. The section appears in the homepage toolbar.

Agree on best practices Here are a few examples we identified and use:

  • Verify data with other sources.
  • Do random data checks on a sample from the pool under study, at least three times.
  • Create narratives which are not too long or overloaded with numerical information.
  • Present conclusions visually and mention supporting documentation.
  • Highlight interactive visualizations. Use a range of resources that are not too extensive, but sufficiently versatile to be able to provide solutions to every type of variables under study.
  • Share open data with the audience using Google Spreadsheet.
  • Show the audience the complete original supporting documentation using Document Cloud.
  • Maintain fluid internal communication that includes all members of the team involved and, specifically, the editors.
  • Maintain open channels of communication with the audience through participatory channels such as comments and social networks.

Develop an intensive training program

In early 2012 there was no comprehensive global training program on database journalism. Some programs were based on case studies and other on conditions too context-specific that could have worked in a particular country or did so only in major media outlets with plenty of resources available, but weren't the best fit for smaller media. To do this, we designed a program along two axes: a general one, which could be replicated in any other country, and a second, more specific that could be applied to Argentina's context and could easily be adapted to any other Latin American country.

For those who believe that building a data team is based solely on mathematical and statistical training, think again. Training is only part of the process. Instead, it's about creating the right conditions in a news infrastructure so that every professional interested in being part of a team of this nature can have the resources and time to uncover the stories hidden behind the numbers.

Image: The data team of La Nación, led by Momi Peralta Ramos.

Sandra Crucianelli is a Knight International Journalism Fellow an investigative journalist and instructor specializing in digital resources and data journalism. She is working as a consultant for La Nación, one of the most important news sites and newspapers in Argentina.

The original version of this post was translated into English by Nathalie Cornet.

@spcrucianelli

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