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How data can save journalism as we know it

Everybody has a mouthpiece now and social media is facilitating this. News is everywhere and breaking news on the front page has becomes obsolete, because the news is already out on social media like Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Is this also the end of journalism as we know it?

Tweeps, bloggers and Facebookers are taking over the role of journalists, but is it quality reporting and professional journalism? Print media at least in the West, is in a bad way: newspapers are closing or merging and journalists are being laid off. The public finds the news on the social media, and physical subscriptions are at an all time low. On the other hand, the demand for quality reporting, background, news analysis and investigations is rising. Data journalism is one possible way we can bring some life back into journalism.

Quality Reporting
An interesting example how data journalism can enhance the quality of reporting comes from South Africa’s City Press. It recently published a story investigating the pay rise of municipal officials across the country using treasury data. The fact that council managers would pay themselves more than clerks and cleaners is not a big surprise, but to know who, where and how much is important for checking local government.

Data journalism works best when there is cooperation between print and online media. In case of the City Press example, the online and the hard copy story are the same. That is a pity. An interactive map with data would have enhanced the story online. Data journalism therefore also demands some convergence between hard copy and online platforms.

In 2011, after a shooting in a shopping mall in Alphen aan de Rijn in the Netherlands (where six people died and 17 were injured), people wondered how easy it was to get a license for a semi-automatic weapon, even if a person was mentally unstable. More than a year later, journalists asked for data related to the licensing of weapons in order to investigate the change in policy. Getting a license became more difficult, the number of refused applications rose and the number of controls increased as well, according to nu.nl, a Dutch online news service.

Copying press releases
This not about ‘flat earth news‘ or just copying press releases, but serious investigating and checking, based on a large amount of official data. Sometimes these investigations turn into a major news story, as The Guardian showed in the analysis of the London riots last year. The message was that the riots weren’t just about violence but also had a serious element of social protest.

For most journalists, data journalism looks like a dangerous desert of numbers. Everybody knows how to handle a word processor, but a spreadsheets for calculations is a whole other ball game. Downloading data from databases or scraping them from the web often means venturing into unknown territory, but lots of new tools are becoming available. Ranging from Outwit Hub to Google Refine for scraping and cleaning data, and Fusion Tables to Tableau for mapping and visualizing. Mastering these tools on your own is not easy and training is therefore needed to get into the business.

On the other hand, you don’t have to know everything in detail. Data journalism is team work. The writer cooperates with the coder and designer and they are all in close contact with the researcher. Cooperating in a team with different specializations requires that there is a common understanding or knowledge. The complete team should know about the basics of data journalism. A great source for inspiration is recently published the Data Journalism Handbook.

The interest in data journalism is rising. After several days of training for Print and Digital Media South Africa in September, it became clear that hands-on workshops in the basics of data journalism makes it easier to get started. In the Netherlands, most national and regional newspapers have signed up for three to four-day workshops on the ins and outs of spreadsheets, scrapping and mapping.

Journalism schools are jumping on the bandwagon. Lecturing at a number of universities showed me that young student journalists are keen in exploring these new ways of reporting.

Author | Peter Verweij

Peter Verweij
After 30 years of lecturing and training at the School of Journalism at Utrecht in journalism, politics and new media, Peter Verweij, started in 2005 his own company D3-Media, which focuses on the following areas: Production of journalistic content for multimedia media and blogs; Research in the area... More