Thursday, 20 September

A Story with Numbers: Data Journalism Enters the Newsroom



Pierre Romera, from France, is a web developer and journalist. He’s one the cofounders of Journalism ++, a data journalism website established four years ago. He then worked as a programmer at owni.fr, the first media outlet in France to employ data journalism. He now teaches data journalism and travels the world to conduct training classes on the subject. Pierre was in Armenia last week.

How did you learn web developing and journalism; working with data?

First of all I started to learn programming, web development, by myself when I was a child. I started some studies but I didn’t finish them. I have to do internships. I went to OWNI to do this internship as a developer, but they needed to work with a developer to make journalism. I was very enthusiastic and keen to work with journalists, so I started to work with journalists at this time. And then, because the project we made together was famous in France and our collaboration work, we started to do it regularly. It became my specialty. During many years working with journalists, I must make some editorial choices, some investigations. So I began journalism by working with journalists. 

Are there many others like you in France?

There are many journalists that try to do some web development to use coding to do journalism, but I don’t think there is any other developer that tries to do journalism in France.

Was it interesting for you to mix web developing and journalism?

When you are developer, there are many domains where you can work. But most of them are for big companies, banks, military or small companies like startups. A few of them offer developers work related to something you care about. I am talking about humanities, development, society issues, etc. You can work for an NGO to deal with these issues, but you can also work with media and journalism if you want to work more on the important things; things you care about. That is why I started to work with journalists. I want to build projects that make sense for me, and make sense for my philosophy?

Has it changed anything in your life?

I don’t know if it’s changed anything in my life or not, but it completely changed the way I work today. I changed the way I need to follow the news and be aware of what is happening in the world. I am not sure it has changed my thinking, because I was always keen to discover things for myself, which is why I learned myself. It allows me to work on many different topics and use everything everyday to improve my culture.

What is the real challenge for journalists today?  

Data is one of the big challenges for journalism because there is much more data now than before. If journalists can’t process that data properly, they can’t do their job fully. There are also many other challenges. One is getting content from the users. This is pretty new. Now you can have content from everywhere in the world because it is easy to speak with someone and everyone can download content with their mobile or laptops. That could be a change for journalism. Another big challenge is to create the media and journalism from everywhere. I am talking about mobile journalism. So, it is really important for journalists and the media to be able to bring their content to the user wherever they may be. To be able to publish on mobile devises is really important. I think the other great challenges are the same as a century ago - democracy, investigation, etc.

Do you think visualization is more important than content when crafting a story?

I think we shouldn’t separate these two things. If you have a good content without visualization, it is always OK. If you have a good visualization without content, it is OK too, but the two together is the best combination. You must focus on what is important and not on what is interesting. But in some cases we have to agree that making something that gets attention could help you to work on other topics, and to get paid for them. It is not always that simple to say that you don’t care about this or that; something like Kim Kardashian. But to have more visits [to the story] also brings in some money for your media outlet, which in turn can help you to investigate other topics and other great stories. It could be a good way to find funding for other stories.

Do you think data journalism can fetch profits for media outlets?

I think it is just like journalism. There is no big difference. I think I am teaching a particularly way to do journalism. But it’s still journalism, and it doesn’t have a business model to be profitable. You just do your job; you use data if you need it. You can convert some data journalism to a profitable project because the nature of data journalism is to put value into a database. This is something that can be very valuable today. But it should never be your goal.  Never do data journalism to make money because you are not here to make money. You are here to do journalism.

In order to do journalism and sustain you need money.

In some case you can say that data journalism is a great way to gather attention that could be valuable.

How would you describe data journalism? What is it?

Basically, it is using data - processing, analyzing and visualizing data - to create stories and to find insights.

What are the journalists’ expectations from data journalism in the future; say in 10 years?

I think data journalism will be more and more integrated in the news rooms. What we call data literacy is the ability to build stories using data. It is something very common now and there are many news people who can now do it. In ten years we won’t be talking about data journalism- it will just be journalism.

Is data journalism an expensive proposition?

Not at all.  With the course I did here this week, with one or two days of training you can start doing data journalism very seriously and to train yourself if you need. You just have to have some knowledge to know what you can learn if you need to. It starts to be very expensive if you want to build a very huge team with developers. But it is not something that you have to create to do data journalism. Just knowing how to manage data, to create a story with this data, is not very expensive. The only equipment you need to do data journalism is the internet. Most of the everyday tools everyday are free and available online. For example, if you need to format, clean data, you just need to use Google drive, which is free. If you want to visualize data, you can use datawrapper.de, onfogr.am or Highcharts, etc.

Do human sources become secondary in data journalism stories given that data is the first priority?

I think you need both. When you are working with data, you have to treat them like any other sources. And like other sources you have to find contradictions or people to say it is true. When you receive data you have to call someone to try and find out whether it is true or falsified. I don’t think it is secondary. It’s just is less useable because you can create a graphic. 

When someone says data journalism, I understand a lot of figures, a lot of dates, which can be sophisticated in some respect. How can you make a human story with data?

A great thing about data journalism is that because you have much data and you generate data. It is easy to create attachment to your story. It is easy to ask someone where they live and show the location on a map, and give data about that place. It is easy to ask people for information and because of that it is really quick and powerful tool to include people into your story. I am talking about interactivity with the end users. But there is of course another way to humanize your data: to write a story about it. And every story you write about data is not about the data but rather about the real world that your data describes.

You have taught data journalism in various countries. What is the situation and development status in the world in terms of data journalism?

There are a few countries where data journalism is really entrenched; for example, the United Kingdom or United States. In most other countries there is no big initiative about data journalism and it is still just a few people in newsrooms that try it. Except for The Guardian and The New York Times, there are no large huge data teams in the world; even in Europe. In France, for example, there is no media with a big a team of data journalists.

In Armenia I didn’t see many works except at your outlet. But I was surprised to see that there is a lot of data online for Armenia. Just by Googling a few things I found many data sets. So, it is a very good start to do data journalism. 


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