October 24, 2016

When staffers at the marketing agency Fractl decided to look into data journalism, they went way back. Way back. As they note, a kind of data journalism was used in the Han dynasty.

“I was most surprised to learn just how long the concept has been around,” said Andrea Lehr, a strategist at Fractl.

In 1849, for instance, The New York Tribune used a chart to show how many lives were being lost to cholera.

Fractl has seen an increase in data journalism among the publishers it works with, so staffers compiled a report on the storytelling method. The agency also spoke with several data journalists as part of the project, including FiveThirtyEight’s Allison McCann and Nathaniel Lash of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times.

Lehr spoke with Poynter about the report via email.

Tell us about this report. What started it?

Our agency is a big proponent of data, especially in how it tells a a highly original story when paired with the right visuals. In this particular case, we’ve seen data journalism on the rise with the publishers we work with, so we wanted to take a closer look at the larger story in terms of where it started, how publishers have adapted and where current data viz professionals see the industry going in the future.

What are the biggest changes since data journalism debuted? Is it just the tech?

Aside from the technological advances that have helped improve how we present data, I think one of the biggest changes is how much data we have available. Looking back at the earliest New York Tribune graph, that was simply a week of cholera deaths in New York. Now a publisher like The New York Times has an entire blog like The Upshot devoted to data that could scrape hundreds of years of a particular disease.

Were there any surprises?

Discovering just how data hungry we are as a culture — and for how long — was somewhat surprising. The fact that a computer was used in 1952 to accurately predict Eisenhower’s win is incredible; even in the mid ’50s, the country wanted to know who would be the next president before the election was even over!

Any predictions based on what you’ve found about where data journalism is headed?

As someone who only took one coding class in college but loves a great visualization, my hope is that we see more tools that offer less tech-savvy individuals like myself the ability to create our own really unique graphics without much coding.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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