Alastair Dant and Alex Graul both work on the Guardian’s Interactive team, and are responsible for the “interactive storytelling” and data visualization, as well as techniques in engaging online readers. I caught up with them after their Open Weekend session to talk about data proficiency and how wannabes should be approaching it.
With data being more accessible than ever, through the Open Data movement and FOI, Dant and Graul explained that, in order to take full advantage of it, journalists need a degree of comfort in data analysis and a familiarity with what programming techniques are possible for data visualization: “If you have even a vague understanding of [programming] then you have a bit more of a grasp on what’s involved, and that will shape your thinking, which will be constructive to the people actually building [data visuals] for you.”
With data journalism becoming increasingly important within the industry, it can no longer be looked upon as simply a niche confined to a few specialist journalists. Data visualization has become an integral part of the imagery used both online and in print with newspapers constantly striving to better communicate the importance and scale of their stories.
Graul said: “If you can take 10 years worth of World Bank data and find anomalies in it, then you can find a story. That’s a valuable thing”.
However, he was also reassuring: “It’s not a requirement that every new journalist is also a programmer. That might be a mistake to imagine. But it is probably worth people on undergraduate degrees to familiarise themselves with these more technical skills.” Dant added: “The thing to keep in mind is that the value in doing a bit of programming isn’t so much that you’ll be doing programming and production, it’s that you have an understanding of what’s involved.”
The importance of data journalism was also preached by Clay Shirky over the weekend, as he emphasised that readers don’t consume data, but do consume stories. He further opined that it was up to the newsrooms of the present and the future to make sense of the data and find the multitude of stories that are “hiding in plain sight”.
Data journalism is a growth area in news output and that the skills to do it are in relative demand. Indeed, it appears the wealth of new data available is so vast that it transcends the news desk and pervades many other sections of journalism.
In a job market that is already excruciatingly competitive, and only likely to worsen in the short-term, the onus is on journalists and wannabes to develop skills the industry wants.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look