Enabling small newsrooms to produce data journalism

DataN is a program that lowers the barrier for smaller newsrooms to integrate data journalism into their daily operation.

UPDATE (Apr 17, 2015):  I have officially launched DataN as a service for newsrooms. Check out the official website and subscribe to the newsletter! 

This is a 3-month project that I did together with Washington DC-based Foreign Policy for my MA journalism program at New York University. It was presented at NYU Studio 20’s Open Studio Night on Dec 11, 2014.

Here’s a video of the presentation.

An informal ‘testimonial’ from Foreign Policy Homepage Editor Emma Carew Grovum, who worked together with me to develop the program.

If you want to know more about how I designed and ran the program, and the lessons I learned along the way, here’s a long article.

THE PROBLEM:

How can we lower the barrier for small newsrooms with limited resources to integrate date journalism into their daily reporting?

THE SOLUTION:

DataBig Data, Small Newsroom

THE BACKGROUND: 

Before I came to New York University to do my Masters, I spent 8 years working as a journalist at Malaysiakini, a small but independent news website in Malaysia that competes with all the media giants controlled and supported by the government. When I first joined in 2005, the editorial team has only about 30 members, and we published 25 to 30 stories daily in 3 languages (Malay, English, Chinese) whereas most of our government-backed competitors were operating with over 100 editorial staff. Despite limited manpower and financial resource, we became the most visited news website in 2008 and grew into a team of about 50 members. The lesson: With the right combination of vision, people and technology, small can be very powerful.

I came to New York with the goal to equip myself with knowledge and skills that can help independent media organizations in countries where the media is not free to grow and empower their citizens. I want to solve this question: How do resource-challenged independent media organizations produce quality and impactful journalism in a difficult environment?

Although media in the US is relatively free, I observed a similar gap between big and small news outlets especially in producing data journalism, a powerful journalism specialty that many newsrooms are scrambling to master.

Currently the way to produce data journalism is very resource intensive. Big newsrooms like New York Times has over 1,200 editorial staff, and the graphic department that produces data components alone has about 40 members, but for small newsrooms like Foreign Policy, the whole newsroom has only 40 people, equal to only one department in the Times. There’s a huge gap in the industry. To narrow this gap, I developed DataN.

ppt gap screencap for blog2

THE PROJECT: 

DataN is a program that lowers the barrier for smaller newsrooms to integrate data journalism into their daily operation. It helps them to produce more credible, engaging and comprehensible journalism. I partnered with Foreign Policy, one of the world’s most credible publication on international politics and global affairs, to develop a data journalism program for newsrooms that don’t have the resources to build a specialized team. Together with Homepage Editor Emma Carew Grovum, we designed training modules, selected and customized tools, and conducted trainings on the basics of data visualization for Foreign Policy journalists.

THE PROCESS:

I wanted to take a bottom-up, agile and user-centric approach. The design, content and delivery of the program should be based on the demands and feedback of the users – the journalists. I believed this approach would minimize disruption to the newsroom and resistance from the journalists. I started by asking the journalists about their views on data journalism, the importance of data in their works, skill level, support they need and challenges they face. Most journalists agreed that data components help to better tell their stories, but they have two major challenges: insufficient time and lack of skill to visualize data.

survey-result-1

With these feedback in mind, we designed and ran the program. The video demo below showed some of the things that we’ve built.

THE LESSONS:

1. Get ready for surprises

Almost nothing went as planned. Time is a universal problem for journalists, especially in a small newsroom where every journalist has to multitask and none can take over each other’s task. To make the matter worse, at the beginning of this program, the newsroom experienced an unforeseen infrastructure issue that required most journalists’ commitment to fix it. After postponing the training sessions for three weeks, I realized that the issue would not be solved soon enough for me to complete the training program. It was impossible to gather everyone in the newsroom at the same time for training. I knew we had to be creative.

2. Flexible, customized training

We transformed our one-size-fit-all trainings which supposed to consist of three one-hour weekly sessions into a one-hour session customized for different journalists. We broke our training materials into small pieces that can be mixed and matched into different modules specifically for different groups of journalists. There were modules for editors who work with contributors, staff writers, reporters, and advanced module for producers who will produce most of the data components. One-hour concise training sessions were conducted in small groups, sometimes one-to-one through both online and in person. Using this flexible approach, we managed to train 14 journalists, more than half of our target journalists.

The training materials include:

  • Charts and Graphs 101 – An Introduction
  • Data 101 – Working with spreadsheets
  • Data 101 – Analyzing and interviewing data
  • Which chart to use?
  • Documentation for different tools

Another advantage of giving training to a small group of journalists from the same section or beat is that it encourages conversation among the journalists. This is because the training can be tailored to give specific examples relevant to the group and the journalists can ask group-specific questions.

The training materials follows the same principle – save the user time. They are concise, written in layman’s terms, and sometimes illustrated using charts. To make the training more relevant, we selected several published Foreign Policy stories and made charts that complement the stories. We used them as examples of how charts can help to tell better stories.

3. Easy-to-use, customizable tools

Not only journalists are busy, most of them don’t like coding. Even if they are interested to learn, they can’t find the time. Teaching journalists how to code require significant time and extraordinary commitment. This program aims to improve the data literacy of the newsroom and equip the journalists with basic data visualization skill. Coding is not one of them. Hence any data visualization tools that require too much time to learn/use or coding skill is out of the of the question. We also wanted tools that can be customized to fit the house style and will be used repeatedly in future stories. Not all tools that we need fit all criteria. We picked two open source tools and one paid tool, and designed one ourselves. For each tool, we prepared documentation that includes guideline on when to use the tool and step-by-step instruction. I have listed the tools that we used in the last section.

4. Integration into existing platform

We believe it is important to integrate the program into Foreign Policy’s existing in-house training platform. We didn’t want the journalists to see the program as something additional or something that is very different from previous in-house trainings. Hence we used the same language, tone, format, and level of detail in our training materials as those in previous trainings. All the training materials were also uploaded into an existing internal training website that serves as a one-stop resource center. Instead of opening up different PDF files or websites, the journalists can visit the website to access the documentations or use the tools.

5. External consultant

Getting an external consultant like me to run the program has several advantages. It encourages higher commitment from journalists as they know the consultant, as opposed to their colleagues, will not be in the office everyday. They have a sense of urgency. For newsroom that tends to procrastinate on new initiatives, bringing in an outsider can be a good way to get things started.

It helps small newsroom with limited financial resources to save money as it is a one-time investment. You don’t have to hire a permanent full-time staff just to teach you how to do data journalism.

However, the external consultant needs the support of senior management and a committed partner from from the newsroom. The partner should be someone who understands the newsroom operation and culture, and passionate about data journalism and innovation. Emma was a great partner in my program with Foreign Policy. She helped to get the journalists on board and integrate the program into existing training platform.

6. Get developers on board

We underestimated the role of developers in this program. Their involvement is crucial in selecting and installing tools because they know the best about the CMS and the backend infrastructure. During my program, the installation of customized tools was delayed as the developers had to deal with other unforeseen issues in the newsroom.

THE TOOLS:

1. Datawrapper   datawrapper logo

This is the major tool that the journalists will use to produce charts. It is easy and quick to use, and the embedded charts are interactive and responsive. It can be installed in our own server and we can create a Foreign Policy theme with customized colors, fonts and logo. This helps the journalists to save time as they don’t have to manually customize the appearance.

2. Visual Investigative Scenarios (VIS)   vis logo

This network visualization tool is still in its Beta version. Although not customizable, it has seven themes to choose from and one of them fits Foreign Policy house style pretty well. There are other more sophisticated and powerful network visualizer out there but they require coding.

3. Venngage   venngage logo

This is a paid infographic tool that requires monthly subscription. This is our alternative tool when Datawrapper cannot produce the data components we want e.g., two charts with different unit in the same graphic, or the use of customized icons or images in the chart. We only use it to create flat chart, not elaborated infographic.

4. In-house Sankey Diagram    d3 logo

I developed this customizable chart as an advanced tool for journalists who know basic coding skill (open and edit code using a text editor). The journalists only need to format their data in spreadsheet and paste it into the code to generate a new chart.

Apart from these, Foreign Policy has earlier included other data visualization tools into their toolbox including Chartbuider, TimelineJS, StoryMapJS, Tabula and other in-house tools.

THE RESULTS:

We conducted another round of survey after the training. Out of 13 trained journalists responded to the survey, almost half said the training met their expectations. Four said they still have unanswered questions after the training, and the other three felt that it was too basic. The three journalists had worked with data visualization before the training. Another encouraging result was that 90% of them wanted to have more advanced training.

result-expectation 2

result-advanced training

After the training, some of the journalists put the new skills to work almost immediately. Here are some examples [1, 2, 3, 4]. Personally I like this story very much as it used 6 charts to analyze the impacts of the 75-day Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest. This is something Foreign Policy had been hoping to produce. (The charts are not interactive as there were some glitches with the server that hosts Foreign Policy’s Datawrapper tool.)

MOVING FORWARD:

This program is just a beginning to equip the journalists with basic data literacy and visualization skill, and introduce them to the value of data journalism. From the feedback, we can see that such a one-time training is never enough. The journalists need long-term support to further develop their skills.

There are several ways to proceed from here. The newsroom can continue to bring in external consultant to provide specialized training for journalists who are more enthusiastic about data journalism, or those who have already mastered the basics, such as the three journalists who said the training was too basic. These journalists can form a small team in newsroom that leads data journalism and transferred their skills to other colleagues through collaboration and in-house training. The newsroom can also connect the journalists with external resources and network such as NICAR, and encourage them to attend conferences or boot camps. The post-training support is something I want to develop after graduation.

DataN is not just for Foreign Policy. When I designed the program, my goal was to build a model that can be applied to other small newsrooms, not only in the US but other parts of the world. I believe every newsroom should have its own DataN.

If you want to build a DataN for your newsroom or know more about the program, contact me. I would be more than happy to help. [kuangkeng@gmail.com]