Four ways to include data journalism in bootstrapped newsrooms

byKuang Keng Kuek Ser
Jun 04 in Data Journalism

In the previous post, I discussed five tips for small newsrooms to get started in data journalism. After it was published, some journalists who read the newsletter asked me: Can small publications that are still struggling to make ends meet - especially those independent newsrooms in developing countries - produce data journalism?

I believe the answer is yes. This is also the main reason behind the efforts to start DataN - to help small newsrooms with limited budgets create great data journalism.

Here are four tips to make that happen:

1. Train existing journalists

Hiring an experienced data journalist, data scientist or developer who is data savvy can be expensive. In many countries where data journalism is still new, it can be hard to find talents who fit the job requirements and are willing to take a pay cut to work in a small newsroom.

With the right training and tools, it is possible to train your existing journalists, developers or designers to become data wranglers. Observe each newsroom member closely, you might find someone who has a hidden crush on data and creative storytelling. During my data journalism training for Malaysiakini, the most visited news website in Malaysia, I found two promising reporters out of 11 who came for the training. One has a degree in computer science and another is a data geek. Their hidden talents were never revealed to the newsroom before.

Many young journalists that I encountered were eager to experiment new ways of presenting stories but they were not given sufficient opportunities, resources and training to prove themselves. This brings us to the next point.

2. Join online courses

A very affordable way for journalists to gain new skills is taking online courses, also known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). Some courses are conducted by prominent journalism schools or journalism organizations based in U.S. or Europe and they are usually free or offered at a minimal fee. Just google “MOOC journalism” and you will find plenty of them. One such course on data journalism that [commenced] June 1, 2015 is “Math for Journalists Made Easy: Numbers and Statistics” put on by the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

Online courses allow working journalists to learn at their own pace. This flexibility however is a double-edged sword. Sometimes I found myself registered for an online course but could not allocate time to follow it through. On the other hand, I have never missed a physical class in my NYU journalism graduate program due to time constraints. Self discipline and commitment is the key.

In the past few years, the popularity of online journalism courses has grown significantly and the organizers have made great efforts to improve their user experience and user interface. The discussion platforms in the courses allow participants to engage with fellow journalists from all over the world and, most importantly, to learn about how journalism is done differently in other places.

However, this one-size-fits-all approach cannot address specific circumstances and issues faced by newsrooms, especially those in developing regions where public data is limited if not totally absent or unreliable.

3. Use free and open source data tools

Today we are experiencing a boom of free data journalism tools or those that adopt a freemium model (free to use basic functions and pay for premium features). Some free tools like TabulaTimelineJS and StoryMapJS are developed by journalists to serve other journalists, and they don’t require coding skills. Google has also developed a bunch of tools for journalists. Google Spreadsheets are a good starting point for newsrooms to store and share datasets.

Most of the data tools or data projects developed by newsrooms or data journalists are made open source and shared on Github, a popular code sharing and publishing service (think Facebook for programmers). There’s even a special Github aggregation page for them, although not all are aggregated there. However, a fair level of coding abilities is required to install, customize and use them.

The problem faced by newsrooms that want to start producing data journalism is not finding affordable data tools but rather identifying tools that fit their demands and technical capabilities. Learning and experimenting with different tools to find the best fit, even though they are free, could be a frustrating and time-consuming task. This is why you might want to consider the next tip.

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4. Get an external trainer

When done right, getting an external consultant or trainer to provide data journalism training for journalists can save the newsroom a significant amount of time and resources. A well designed or customized training program can help newsrooms to identify not only the data skills and tools they need, but the data projects they can do as beginners.

Argentine daily newspaper La Nacion, which is known for producing great data journalism in an environment where open data and information rights are highly limited, started its data journalism initiative with an introductory data journalism course.

You might think that getting help from a consultant or trainer might cost you an arm and a leg. However, several international journalism organizations specialized in investigative journalism and data journalism like Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN)International Center for Journalists and School of Data organize programs or provide grants to spur innovation in newsrooms in different parts of the world. School of Data has an annual fellowship that recruits and trains data specialists before deploying them to provide long-term data journalism support to journalists in their respective regions.

With the help from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, I have also developed an affordable and customized training package for newsrooms to produce data journalism. The package called DataN is tailored for newsrooms with limited resources to integrate data components into their storytelling.

Hopefully with these tips, you will find that the barrier to produce great data journalism is not really that high. So let’s get started now!

If you want to share your tips and thoughts on doing data journalism on a shoestring or discuss possible collaboration on data journalism training, please contact me at kuangkeng@data-n.com.

This post originally appeared on Data N and is republished here with permission and lightly edited.

Main image CC-licensed via Flickr via Nic McPhee.