Why you, wannabe journalists, should turn to data journalism

October 6, 2014




During my two journalism Masters, my professors kept telling me I should get used to work for free, the journalism industry being so deeply in crisis. They have been proven wrong, as I found a job less than 3 weeks after looking for one. My job as a data journalist for the Ford Motor Company is both interesting and well paid (compared to journalism standard salaries). Few weeks ago I was invited to my university, Brunel University, to give a talk about my little success story.


The main message of my presentation was, as Simon Rogers (data journalist and creator of the Guardian Data Store) underlined it, data journalism is for everyone. I got passionate about it following a talk given by Jacqui Taylor (data scientist) during the launch of Data Journalism: Mapping the Future, first edition. And a year later I was myself writing a chapter in the second edition of the book!


First you need to know that thanks to software like Excel, you don’t have to be a genius in statistics to be a good data journalist.Then, thanks to (free) data visualisation tools like Many Eyes or Tableau Software, you don’t even have to be a graphic designer to be a good data journalist. The only mandatory skills to be a successful data journalist are to be a good journalist, and have a nose for story digging and storytelling. The rest comes along.



Where you would interview people in classical journalism, in data journalism you dig into numbers. Just the same as with people, they are not going to tell you their deepest secrets straight away. You need to prepare them a bit, or analyse them.

The next step is usually to write your article, underlining some facts you think are relevant. Same with visualisation, where colours, shapes and hierarchy of the information will tell your audience what is important and which of your conclusions they should retain. Finally, a journalist will publish an article, where a data journalist will end up with a data visualisation, or dataviz.




This slide illustrates why globally journalist lives have become difficult. Since the rise of internet, the audience has shifted its attention from newspapers to online news outlets. As a result, advertisers have withdrew their financial support. Who would like to advertise in a medium with no audience? A reduced budget leading inevitably to a reduced staff, no wonder why journalism professors tend to moderate their students’ enthusiasm.





Fortunately, as the famous French chemist Antoine Lavoisier once said: “In nature nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything changes”. Negative mutations operated  in traditional journalism are beneficial to another field: data journalism. The rise of the Big Data creates opportunities for young journalists. What was a thread becomes a source of regeneration.





I am a data journalism working for marketing. My everyday job is to convince people of how my products are beneficial to them. To do so, I dig for qualitative information that will help them making a choice. Just like I did with that slide. As you can see, the classical journalism side doesn’t look very appealing. No growth in job demand whatsoever and median salary is what it is. On the other side data journalism, with 75% job growth in just 5 years and a much higher salary offers real opportunities.





Data journalism for a news outlet follows the same process as for classical journalism: first you have a topic in mind, then you look for interesting data, and finally you draw conclusions from your data analysis.


Working for marketing implies that I know from the beginning what my visualisation should underline. I have my message, then I look for data backing up my point, and finally I produce an infographic accordingly. Just like I did for the previous slide. I want to convince you data journalism is your future, I therefore looked for data that would back up my point.


But what if I had been a news outlet journalist…

 … I would have provided you with the big picture. Yes, data journalism is a land of opportunities, however the sector is still very small. Before you get depressed, let me add that this analysis comes from only one website, and all data related jobs are not advertised on that unique platform. What you see is still a small picture. If news outlet are short of money, consider working for the Dark Side. Brands are keen on exploiting new mediums and subsequently invest into it.





One of my recurrent task is to analyse surveys. They prove to be excellent marketing tools:


- you can manipulate variables (set questions and therefore expect certain answers)

- you can reach a large audience – the one you see has been picked up by various media, from lifestyle magazine to automotive publications

- you can twist the data (be careful, I didn’t say lie), example: if 85% of people said they haven’t done any of the above, therefore 15% did




What comes the more often when talking about data journalism is the instinctive fear of people for statistics. They feel that if there are numbers all over the place, therefore it must be complex. WRONG! Thanks to software such as Excel, life becomes very easy. A bunch of tutorials should teach you how to use what you need the most: average, median, percentages and sometimes correlations. The most important is:

  1. What is the message you would like to convey?

  2. What your audience would be interested in?

Then you look up your data and dig up extremes, who’s the best, who’s the worse? Is there any surprising element? What is the average? Can you compare your data to another set?





This slide resumes it all: you stay a journalist before all. What is expected from you is to find a good story. Don’t forget you work for marketing; your message must be reflected by your data. If you can’t find the crossroad between both, then drop the idea. As you wouldn’t invent a quote, don’t lie with numbers. And of course, always check your sources.




This is my winning cocktail to create infographics. My basis is Excel (but Google Spreadsheets works just as well and is free), and takes about 40% of my time. Illustrator helps me to refine my design and make them all fancy. It’s usually the longest phase of the process as I often need few trials to find a balance between colours and shapes. And because I am not a graphic designer, I use an icon database – The Noun Project – which allows access to a multitude of icons. Each data journalist develops his own cocktail, mine is just indicative, not mandatory.





I gained my knowledge in data journalism mostly by following trainings online, workshops and classes found on Eventbrite and by analysing diverse data focused websites. I would advise a couple of books, which are full of illustrations for the more reading reluctant:


Krum, Randy (2013). Cool Infographics: Effective Communication with Data Visualization and Design

Yau, Nathan (2011). Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics

Rogers, Simon (2013). Facts are Sacred

McCandless, David (2012). Information is Beautiful


I hope this post/ presentation has been useful to you!








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