8 questions about becoming a data journalist (with answers)

Last night, Scott Klein, who runs the News Apps team at ProPublica, took part in the weekly #wjchat on Twitter. The topic was "So you want to be a data journalist?" Other journalists in the data/interactive journalism community, including Yuri Victor of Vox and Sandhya Kambhampati from Chronicle of Higher Education, chimed in for the conversation aimed at helping people figure out what was the best way to enter the field.

Here are the key takeaways from the chat:

1. What is a data journalist? What skills and knowledge do you need?

Short answer: The ability to think of creative ways to channel data. You can interview a person, and you can interview spreadsheets.

2. What's the difference between data journalism, graphics, CAR, news applications, etc.?

Short answer: One isn't really better than the other. The end result might be different, the goal is the same - how can one use data and technology to tell a better story?

3. How do you go from being a reporter to a data reporter?

Short answer: There is no "single" way. But the most recommended one is to find a project you are passionate about and work at it. Also check out Scott Klein's guide on How to Start Learning to Program and Numbers in the Newsroom by Sarah Cohen.

4. How do you go from being a math nerd/coder to being a journalist?

Short answer: You know the easy bit. Now comes to the hard part. As per Klein, "journalism is a natural fit for mathletes who want to make the world a better place." There are also opportunities such the OpenNews Fellowship that are aimed at bringing people with coding acumen into the newsroom.

5. What should I study in school to learn to be a data journalist? Do I even need school to do this?

Short answer: With the power of the Internet, you can teach yourself anything! However, take statistics classes if you want an extra edge. Klein also admits that most of the people on his team have a journalism degree.

6. Dealing with data can be time-consuming. How do you judge when a project is worth it?

Short answer: That can be hard to judge. Sometimes you will work on a story and it won't pan out. That's OK.

7. I'm the only person in my newsroom who knows data or how to code. What do I do?

Short answer: It can be lonely. Three steps: 1. Teach. 2. Be realistic on what you can do. 3. Find people on the Internet. (Join the NICAR listserv if you are not on it already)

8. What do you use daily to manipulate, edit and handle data?

Short answer: Data analysis -> Excel, R, a Relational database management system like MySQL/Postgres, Python/Ruby/node.js, QGIS. Data cleaning -> Tabula, OpenRefine. Added tip: IRE just launched a set of tutorials for some data tools. Check them out.

Bonus: What skills do you look for when hiring a data journalist?

Short answer: Obviously, you would go through all the pain to get hired as a data journalist. Here is what Scott Klein looks for in a potential employee:

He also admits coding is by far the easiest to teach.

  • Gurman Bhatia

    I report, write and produce interactives for Poynter.org as the institute's 2015 Google Journalism Fellow. Tweet me @gurmanbhatia or email at gbhatia@poynter.org.


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