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How to take the next steps in data journalism

By Glynn A. Hill 

Ryann Grochowski Jones, Eric Sagara, and Helena Bengtsson co-hosted a panel called "Life after Excel and Access" at the 2015 CAR Conference to share tips about taking the next steps in data journalism.

Grochowski Jones, a data reporter at ProPublica, talked about the first steps. Below are some of her suggestions:

  • Learn SQL and how to write queries, which ensures you can handle any database manager with ease. You can use query builder in Access and then switch over to SQL view.
  • File a data request every week. This will help you practice data negotiation skills and can lead to story ideas.
  • Practice! Find a dataset and play around with it. "The only way to improve is by doing," Grochowski Jones said, adding that there’s less pressure when you’re not on deadline. She recommends reading "Statistics in a Nutshell" or "Precision Journalism" to aid in learning how to work with statistics.
  • Practice safe query. Save all your queries, keep a data diary, and document EVERYTHING.
  • Tools to use: MySQL, PostgresSQL, Navicat. A good text editor (UltraEdit, SublimeText) allows you to quickly read and clean data, as well as write code. 

Sagara, a senior data reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting, shared his experience learning programs such as Python and Ruby. He said that your field and need determine what programs you should learn.

Bengtsson, an data projects editor at the Guardian, offered suggestions for getting organizations on board with IT projects. She said it might be easier at a smaller organization—where there is less policy, and coworkers may live near you. 

Still, she said, that shouldn’t discourage you from trying to find interested people or pitching data projects to your boss. But keep in mind:

  • It’s important to get the right people training, not necessarily everyone.
  • It’s beneficial to send a lot of people to conferences – not just reporters, but developers and designers.
  • You might have to utilize a lot of your own time to learn the tools you need.
  • Find allies in the organization to collaborate with.
  • Produce projects that impress internally and externally.

Bengtsson said learning all of this is important to handle larger text files and web scrape for big data.


Glynn A. Hill is a 2015 CAR Conference Knight Scholar and budding multimedia journalist from Howard University in Washington, D.C. He's worked with The New York Times Student Journalism Institute as well as interning for organizations like USA TODAY, and most recently, The Washington Informer.

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