Four keys to building successful data-journalism teams

by Michael Zanchelli
Oct 30, 2018 in Data Journalism

Now that outstanding journalism is as likely to appear in an interactive map as on the front page, many newsrooms are rethinking how journalists and coders can best work together.

A new report from the International Center for Journalists takes a behind-the-scenes look at seven data-journalism teams, finding some key characteristics that have allowed those teams to produce high–quality, data-driven reporting.

The report found four key factors in building successful data-journalism teams:

  1. Locating the data-journalism team close to the news desk: Members of data-journalism teams emphasize that being close to the news desk gives them critical access to editors and reporters as they and the data team develop and plan data-driven news coverage. Simon Rogers, editor of The Guardian’s Datablog, reinforces this claim: “News organizations are all about geography — and proximity to the news desk. If you’re close, it’s easy to suggest stories and become part of the process; conversely out of sight is literally out of mind.”

  2. Encouraging reporters and developers to work together to come up with ideas for data-driven stories: Because developers and reporters often have specialized skill sets, it’s important to bring them together to brainstorm story ideas. When Mc Nelly Torres, co-founder and associate director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, worked with a young developer at the Sun Sentinel, she observed that the developer “didn’t know what the readers wanted to learn. He missed the story, where I could find it in the data.” Torres used her background as an investigative reporter to ask developers for specific data that ultimately helped her to paint a more-complete picture.

  3. Recruiting reporters and developers who bridge the skills gap: Find or develop people who can work as journalists and developers on your data journalism team. Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at The New York Times, says newsrooms should invest in making journalists comfortable with basic data skills such as spreadsheets and data analysis, even when that means hiring a strong reporter who is willing to use new tools over a journalist who is a stronger writer but less eager to learn new techniques. And don’t forget to look outside the newsroom. “Wander around, visit the technology and IT departments and you are likely to strike gold,” Pilhofer writes in the Data Journalism Handbook.

  4. Producing stories that show what data mean and why the audience should care: Data-driven stories about topics affecting the lives of news consumers produce impact and drive Web traffic. An example from Zeit Online, a German media outlet: During the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan – the result of a massive tsunami – Zeit attracted users by publishing an interactive map showing the concentrations of Germans living at varying distances from nuclear plants. Sascha Venohr, development editor, says the result of this project was “lots and lots of traffic” with the map going “viral over the social media sphere.”

Read the full report here.

Michael Zanchelli is program officer for the Knight International Journalism Fellowships.

CC-licensed on Flickr, courtesy of enda_001.