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How to execute big data stories in small newsrooms

By Huilan Zhan

How do you plan, pitch, and execute a data project when you’re the only data reporter in your newsroom? How do you collaborate with other members in your newsroom who may not understand what you do with data? Google Data Journalism Scholar Eva Constantaras, St. Louis Public Radio data visual specialist Brent Jones, and Louisville Public Media data reporter Alexandra Kanik shared their strategies at the 2017 CAR Conference.

From planning and pitching to executing, Jones provided a list of questions that you can ask while reporting a data project in a small organization.

Plan:

  • What data is available? Find credible data sources and available statistics.
  • What does your story really need? Find the best way to work with data. It’s not just about whether or not to make graphics.
  • What can you do? Figure out whether you have the ability to do that.

Pitch:

  • How long will it take? Admit if this particular project is new to you.
  • What’s your backup plan? Don’t just say to your boss that you can't finish.
  • Who can help? Ask other reporters and data experts for help. NICAR is a nice community where you find people generously sharing their knowledge.

Execute:

  • What are you re-thinking? Use checklists, style sheets and save your code.
  • What tools do you use? Try news things and know how to efficiently use them.
  • What’s next? Learn from what you’ve just done.

Eva Constantaras is an expert in helping to set up data teams in developing countries where data journalism seems unrealistic. Her suggestions:

  • Don't reinvent the wheel. Some universal issues such as health care can be adapted to your context.
  • Work with data you've got. There are good stories in it. Don't wait for your dream data.
  • Start with the question, not the data. Think about questions of public interest.
  • It’s about the story, not the visualizations. The closer data journalism comes to explanatory journalism, the more likely the story is to break through the filter bubble.
  • Don’t do it alone. Find some civic hackers. Befriend a data scientist. Enlist some university students. Ask questions if you are not sure.

Kanik discussed how to organize data projects by prioritizing tasks with Github.

In a small news organization, data journalists not only work in their own universe, but they also need to communicate with and learn from reporters, editors, and other team members.

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