Spreadsheet with pen
Credit: By Jorge Franganillo on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Delivering a workshop at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia this week, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Steve Doig spoke about some of the key events in data journalism's history.

One moment of particular importance to him came in 1992 when Miami was struck by Hurricane Andrew, and at the time he was working at the Miami Herald. He told the festival audience that by using data on the hurricane he and his colleagues were able to uncover "damage patterns" and "the scale of the disaster". The Herald's coverage won the Pulitzer for public service the following year. "It was the data and the computer that let us explore that problem," he said.

Doig has since moved from the newsroom to the classroom, teaching at the Walter Cronkite School for Journalism and Mass Communications, where his passion for data analysis continues.

We caught up with him following his Excel workshop at the Perugia journalism festival to find out what he thinks the future holds for journalism training both in and out of the classroom.

Q. As journalists become greater data experts, will universities look more closely at providing degree-level data journalism-specific training?

A. "I don't know, I'm not sure that it's necessary to. I'm a strong believer that data journalism is one tool in the larger world of journalism and turning journalists into such specialists that they're only good at that particular thing may not be a good idea. Today certainly most of the people doing data journalism see themselves as journalists first and the data thing is just another tool that they have.

There are several schools that are actually trying to lure computer science students into journalism so they can create interactive web graphics, amazing stuff like the New York Times is doing. Of course the Times goes around and hires the very best people in the world and brings them in to do it, but more of those kinds of data journalism skills will be specialised.

The larger mass of students who are studying journalism, they need to learn something like Excel, just to do basic things, but they want to have in their mind that they're a journalist, they're not just a data journalist."

Q. How has the growth of data journalism skills impacted on the types of content the industry is producing with data as the driving force?

But almost any field in journalism can be enhanced by having the skills of being able to take data and study it with tools as simple as ExcelSteve Doig
A. "I strongly believe it's for any journalist. I think sports is under-done in data. More sports reporters ought to know how to do this stuff. It's certainly great for business because business again produces lots of data and there are too few business journalists who are good at this kind of thing, who could use computers to look for say anomalous stock buying patterns, things that suggest insider trading, basically the kind of tools that government investigators use, we ought to be using too.

"But almost any field in journalism can be enhanced by having the skills of being able to take data and study it with tools as simple as Excel."

Q. What sort of obstacles are journalists coming up against in getting to work with data? Are resources and time still considered stumbling blocks?

A. "It's a problem in all newsrooms. I'm not in the newsroom now but I hear about it from my students and my son who's an investigative editor. It's a problem. The argument that I and others try to make for data journalism is it actually can be more efficient. You can, with good use of data journalism, use it to do some scouting to see whether some idea that you have might in fact have some reality behind it without having to invest a whole bunch of reporting time of calling people up and digging through documents and so on.

"So it can be a way to see whether you can then go to an editor saying 'look, if I get some real reporting time, look what I might be able to find'. So there is an argument for that.

"In addition, more newsrooms have come to realise that the best way for particularly newspapers to distinguish themselves ... is [by developing an] in-depth examination of problems and nobody else is doing that kind of stuff.

"So more and more newspapers are discovering if they put some effort and put some manpower into investigating local problems and crime patterns and things like that, readers care about that kind of thing because they can't get it any place else. And the best way to do those kinds of stories is by using data."

Q: What about visualisation skills?

A: "There are data journalists like me, who are just analysis, there are editors who arguably are just presentation, there are some where there's an overlap, like a venn diagram, where you have people who are actually really good at visualisation and really good at analysis and they are really special people.

"... You never know where you're going to go when you start out. One of the nice things about newsrooms is you wind up in the place that you will be best even before you know that, you wind up drifting into something and the newsroom finds ways to put your strengths to use and that was certainly the case with me. When I started in journalism I did not start out to become a data journalist, it didn't even exist when I was there, but it was just something that happened.

Q: So even if a journalist didn't learn data skills in journalism school, there's no excuse?

A: "I would say. So get out and learn it."

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