This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
Part of the culture change you need to lead in your newsroom is toward greater use of data in your journalism.
For most editors, this is a difficult transition to lead because, like most of your staff, you have little or no experience in data journalism. So you need to lead the staff in learning this essential journalism skill. Here’s what an editor with weak data skills can do to elevate your staff’s use of data:
State the priority. Tell your newsroom this is important. Explain why it’s important and make clear that this will be a continuing priority for the full staff.
Make this a “we” priority. You can’t tell the staff that “you” have to learn data journalism. Learn along with them and share the lessons as you learn. The top editor’s actions speak loudly to the newsroom.
Ask data questions in meetings. In daily meetings where you plan routine coverage and in long-range meetings where you plan enterprise coverage and coverage of upcoming events and issues, ask about the data opportunities for stories. Ideally, you want this to be a question that is naturally addressed in the flow of the meeting. But to start, you might at the end of the meeting review the stories covered and consider the data possibilities and discuss which ones the staff will pursue.
Assess the staff’s skills. Use Google Forms to set up a simple questionnaire for the staff to fill out, asking staff members to tell which tools and techniques they have used and their level of expertise. I didn’t develop a sample form for this post, but I’ll work with Tom Meagher and the Thunderdome data team to develop such a form for the first editor who asks. The results of your questionnaire will go into a Google spreadsheet, which is good because spreadsheets are one of your most important (and easiest) data tools, so you’ll get a little spreadsheet practice just analyzing the results of the assessment. MaryJo Webster of the Pioneer Press has a skills survey she has used with her colleagues and would be happy to share her questions with editors wanting to assess their staffs’ skills.
Designate a staff data leader. In your assessment, you probably will find someone who took a data journalism class in college or has dabbled a little with spreadsheets and mapping data. Designate this person as your staff’s leader in data journalism. Give this person the time and authority to learn new tools, to develop and lead staff workshops in data tools and techniques and to coach individual staff members. MaryJo has such a position and the Pioneer Press, and she contributed to two projects that won DFMies for 2012 and a third that was a finalist and she was a finalist for the DFMie for special contribution. A strong data leader can elevate the journalism of your whole staff.
Don’t let the leader become a silo. The leader’s job should be to lead the staff in developing data skills and doing more and better data journalism, not to do all the work herself. It’s OK to have a specialist who develops some high-end skills or even to have multiple specialists, particularly in a larger newsroom, perhaps one each with expertise in data reporting, data visualization and a couple specialists in news app development, one working on back end development and one on design and interaction. But you want the whole staff to gain some data competency and work data into their routine reporting and editing.
Specify data expectations. In job interviews, job descriptions, performance evaluations and other communication with staff about their work, make clear that you expect them to develop and use data skills. Set specific goals and not whether staff members have achieved those goals.
Reward data excellence. What you can do to reward journalists will vary according to union contracts, pay freezes, budgets and other considerations. But you should use whatever flexibility you have — including opportunities to fill vacancies — to reward and promote staff members who are excelling in data journalism.
Learn by doing. I did my first data story — an investigation that debunked a lie state officials were telling about an environmental clean-up fund that was out of money — without any training. I’ll tell you the importance of training shortly, but however much training you and your staff receive, you learn data journalism by working on stories. Before and after training, you and your staff should feel your way with some simple tools such as spreadsheets and Google Maps. When you get more advanced training, be sure to use the tools and techniques you were taught right away, to implant the lessons you learned.
Provide training opportunities. You and your staff can get training in data journalism lots of ways:
- Training should be one of the responsibilities of your data leader. He should lead staff workshops and provide individual coaching for colleagues.
- Poynter’s News University offers a range of low-cost online courses in data journalism.
- The Thunderdome data team can help Digital First journalists with particular data projects, helping local journalists on stories based on local data (and teaching those local journalists new skills in the process).
- The Thunderdome data team also operates a Google discussion group for Digital First data journalists. You can ask colleagues when you have questions and learn a lot just by lurking.
- Send staff members to the annual conferences, boot camp or regional training events of the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting. (Digital First will pay most of the costs for three journalists to attend the next NICAR conference. Staff members should watch for information about how to apply for one of those subsidized slots.)
- Encourage staff members learning data journalism to join the NICAR listserv. Even just lurking on there can be immensely helpful.
- Read MaryJo’s Data Mine blog, which provides helpful how-to advice on data journalism and the projects she works on.
- An opportunity for Digital First editors: MaryJo developed a workshop to give Pioneer Press a “bird’s-eye view of what data journalism is, and give them a bit of a roadmap for what questions they should be asking, what things they should be looking for, and what expectations they should (or shouldn’t) have when one of their reporters is working on a data-driven story.” She’s going to work with Tom on developing that into a webinar for Digital First editors. If you’re interested in that, let me know and I’ll make sure we get the word to you when they schedule that.
- Sharon Machlis added this October opportunity in the comments, but I wanted to add it here, since it sounds like a good one: Data Journalism 101, free webinar taught by Michael J. Berens, 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for investigative reporting.
- Also added (thanks to Sarah Bartlett on Twitter): Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas online course Data-Driven Journalism: The Basics.
- Anything else I should add?
Share examples. When other newsrooms use digital skills to find and present important stories, share those links with your staff. Especially if the stories are done by other Digital First newsrooms, email those editors to ask how they did it and whether the journalists responsible can confer with someone on your staff about how to do a similar story in your community.
Piggyback on national efforts. When the Thunderdome data team (or our ProPublica partners) does some analysis of a national database, partner with them to produce stories about the data for your community. Your staff and readers will benefit from the higher skill level of the national journalists, but your staff will probably learn some skills in the process.
You don’t need to be an expert in data journalism to make it a priority for your newsroom. Say that it’s important, show that it’s important and lead your newsroom in learning.
Want to contribute a guest post?
If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools. Nancy March wrote about balancing work and personal life. Dan Rowinski wrote about mobile opportunities. I have a few editor friends who say they are planning guest posts, and I hope to post them soon.
I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is uncertain). The pace of these posts has slowed, but I’ll still try to post something weekly. What other topics should I cover?
- Developing new leaders