“Data Journalism: not the job of one department” - Emily Cadman & Martin Stabe at Hacks/Hackers London

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 23 January 2013

I’ve been publishing my notes from the talks at the newly revived Hacks/Hackers London meet-up. So far I’ve written up what was said by Bloomberg’s Marianne Bouchart, plus Sam Arnold-Forster and Himanshu Ojha of Thomson Reuters. Representing the Financial Times on the evening were Emily Cadman & Martin Stabe.

“Data Journalism: not the job of one department” - Emily Cadman & Martin Stabe from the FT

Emily Cadman started by making the point that nobody at the FT has the job title “data journalist”. Their projects are made up of small multi-disciplined teams that include people from a variety of desks with a variety of skills. Often, she said, they are the bunch of people who go to the pub together, as that is where some of the best ideas get discussed. A typical ad hoc project team might feature a subject specialist reporter, an interactive journalist, an interactive designer (using HTML5/CSS/JS), and an interactive developer for the trickier back-end bits.

Emily said the team are strategically placed near the main news desk so that they can overhear what is going on and suggest new ways of telling a particular story. This also means they sometimes pop up and kill stories, when they know the numbers aren’t going to support the narrative being discussed.

Martin Stabe channeled Steve Doig saying that data journalism is “Social science done on deadline”. Doing a great bit of data journalism was about “taking a hypothesis, taking the data, then proving or disproving it.”

Sometimes you get an advantage. Martin explained how the FT have struck a deal with the government to get a more detailed breakdown of GCSE results than anybody else and were now able to provide a richer analysis, which gives them a “seemingly endless stream of stories.”

Martin talked about the shift to using technologies like HTML5 and JavaScript in their interactives, moving towards integration with their web apps which are, he said, “famously not iOS.”

He also showed some of the financial calculators that form part of the Lex service. He explained that often the knowledge and insight that allows the FT to give great advice is “trapped in Excel spreadsheets on a reporter’s desktop.” The interactive he showed was very simple, essentially using JavaScript to emulate spreadsheet formulas.

A big recurring theme of Emily and Martin’s presentation was the relationship between journalists and programmers. Emily was adamant on the subject.

“Do we try and make developers into journalists? Do we try and make journalists into developers? I don’t think either approach works”

She put it beautifully.

She said it had taken her a decade to become a good journalist. She could now devote a couple of years to becoming “a mediocre programmer at best”. What you need, she said, was a journalist who could “talk geek”, and a developer who cared about story-telling.

I have to say, in my time at the Guardian, one of the things that made it good to work there was constantly dealing with developers who had chosen to be there precisely because they were interested in journalism and story-telling. I do think news organisations genuinely under-estimate that in their tech teams. Getting journalists interested in tech is the way harder side of the equation.

I’ve written on the subject of whether journalists (and indeed UXers) need to code. My argument is similar to Emily’s, and I wouldn’t expect people to be running up their own web apps. However, I think that if you are involved in digital media and you don’t at least have a curiosity to explore a bit of HTML, CSS and JavaScript, you are probably in the wrong job. If nothing else, learning some of the basics stops you asking embarrassing questions when talking to the techies.

Next…

The final presentation of the night was from Chris Taggart talking about his project — OpenCorporates. I’ll have my notes from that next.

Keep up to date on my new blog