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Data journalism training class at Izmir University of Economics in Türkiye
Data journalism training class at Izmir University of Economics in Türkiye

Article author and GIJN Turkish editor Pınar Dağ (center, blue shirt) holding a data training session at Izmir University of Economics in Türkiye. Image: Courtesy of Pınar Dağ

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Tips for Using Data in a Small Newsroom

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Small newsrooms need to focus on the importance of data use more than ever. But they often face numerous hurdles to this kind of work, including a lack of funding, limited human resources, and outdated thinking about what constitutes traditional journalism.

Generative AI may offer smaller newsrooms the prospect of saving time and multiplying their impact when working with data. This new frontier can seem a bit frightening, but as long as you are ensuring statistical integrity, cleaning data quickly, and writing code without wasting time, large, medium, and even small newsrooms can be empowered to take on complicated reporting projects.

(For more on how to integrate artificial intelligence into your newsgathering, see the Paris Charter on AI and Journalism, to which GIJN is a party.)

Perhaps it’s better to ask a different set of questions: How can small newsrooms benefit from these new opportunities? Can these new tools work effectively with all types of data? Can they be used for all kinds of data in their work?

How can small newsrooms begin this transformation?

This article provides some guidance for getting started by offering suggestions to the following questions.

  • Why should data journalism matter for small newsrooms?
  • What are some advantages of analyzing news data in a small team?
  • How can you create impactful data journalism projects with limited budgets and staff?
  • What kind of data training, workshops, and MOOCs can be useful for small newsrooms?
  • How do you structure a small newsroom to make the team work effectively with data?
  • What data tools can small newsrooms use (for low or no cost)?
  • Where are good open data sources for newsrooms?
  • What can be learned by looking at case studies from small newsrooms that have won recent Sigma Awards?
  • Data-based decisions allow for more effective use of newsroom resources.

Why should data journalism matter for small newsrooms? What are some advantages of analyzing news data in a small team?

Small newsrooms should care about data usage and invest in data-driven news production because it provides significant advantages in terms of accuracy, depth, appeal, and audience loyalty.

While the use of data helps small newsrooms deliver more accurate, reliable, comprehensive, and faster news, this kind of journalism can increase the interest and competitiveness of the target audience.

Real-time data analysis can help quickly detect and correct misinformation. It also provides the opportunity to provide comprehensive news.

Compilation and analysis of data from different sources can offer readers a more in-depth and broader perspective.

Comprehensive data analysis increases the competitiveness of newsrooms. It also attracts readers’ attention and increases their engagement.

Data visualizations, in particular, can help readers understand complex topics more easily and process information more effectively. It can help predict future trends and events.

Data-based decisions allow for more effective use of newsroom resources.

How can you create impactful data journalism projects with limited budgets and staff?

Communication is key. Always be talking and making the team understand what the struggles are. No communication, no good data story!

Know your roles and follow the data pipeline process: data acquisition, data conversion (paper to digital usually), data cleaning, data processing, data analysis, and, finally, reporting.

Sharing and organizing (data, files, notes, etc.) must be established and consistent to be effective.

Set a timeline first, driven by project milestones, not the calendar.

Understand metadata. Comprehending the dataset makes it easier to work with. You can create data dictionaries for unfamiliar terms. You will certainly save time when working with a dataset whose scope you know better. This is the power of metadata!

Take notes and record them regularly. Document everything you do saving time and make your newsroom think about the steps that you’re taking for the project. Also, saving your raw data regularly will save your project.

Try new programming languages. Using Excel and similar tools is now commonplace, but learning programming languages like R or Python should also be on your agenda as well as bringing AI into your newsroom as a supporting tool.

Work with a data story flowchart. It can be improved or added to, but when you have difficulties, you can redo your project with your team with this flow.

An interesting case study: A three-person data team from Ortak produced Turkey: A Gold Mine of Trolls. This ongoing investigative series lifted the lid off a troll network comprised of at least 181 accounts on X and analyzed its timeline, targets, and potential motives. The team also made all datasets available.

Ortak investigation by a small, three-person data team. Turkey: A Gold Mine of Trolls

The three-person team behind the Turkey: A Gold Mine of Trolls investigation made all the datasets they compiled and used available to the public. Image: Screenshot, Ortak

Newsrooms looking to produce data journalism on a lean budget and limited resources should consider this simplified set of tasks.

  • Perform a needs analysis.
  • Identify data sources (including free open data platforms).
  • Create a data team, even if it’s small (for example, two people who know a little bit of everything and two people who know basic data analysis tools).
  • Train your team regularly (OSINT, AI, MOOC, and in-house training carried out on a schedule by invited experts).
  • Determine what the data projects will be (projects with certain limits, clear boundaries, and public interest).
  • Focus on the data collection and analysis phase (using Generative AI will allow you to focus less on the technology part and more on the journalism part).
  • Pay attention to data visualization diversity (data visualizations according to their functions).
  • Improve interaction and communication with the reader (social media, promotion, and surveys).
  • Collect feedback regularly and encourage newsroom use or open tools.
  • Use open source data journalism tools. (Easy-to-use and customizable).
  • Create a list of open data sources (local, national, and global) and deploy freedom of information (FOI) and right to information (RTI) requests.
  • Make use of structured data sources that are easy to analyze. Structured datasets can save lives sometimes. Use GitHub to update and share your datasets for future reporting.

But it will also be important to keep these points in mind: every story can be a data story, every journalist can be a data journalist, and every newsroom can produce data projects.

What kind of data training, workshops, and MOOCs can be useful for small newsrooms? 

  • Data training for journalists — and editors.
  • Expert consultations. Reporters in small newsrooms may find it difficult to do time-consuming data journalism in the daily news. For this reason, they can get support from an external source or work with a trainer. For small newsrooms looking to enhance their data skills, there are several types of data training, workshops, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that can be useful.
  • Online alerts that monitor the web for interesting new content.
  • Working with local data trackers. Consider creating a local citizen data reporter network.

Newsrooms can make use of various free data courses and resources available, such as Datajournalism.com. Image: Screenshot, Datajournalism.com

How do you structure a small newsroom? How do you make the team work effectively with data?

  • Be ready before the data project.
  • Have favorite files with quick sites to use in the data.
  • Keep lists of contacts (update all the time).
  • Practice using databases during your spare time.
  • Give your team practice exercises and deadlines.
  • Keep a special database file to turn to when you report on data projects.
  • Use databases often and keep them updated.
  • Push yourself to find “something different” or look at the data in a new way.
  • Build a team-oriented approach where everyone buys in and  “gets it.”

Recognize that the most important step is often understanding how to turn data into an interesting story.

What data tools can small newsrooms use (for low or no cost)?

Small newsrooms often prefer easy-to-use and accessible tools for data-driven news production. But it is also important to consider editorial independence — where your tools come from (open source versions are preferable)— and the ethical framework of data journalism. Here are some handy data tools for small newsrooms.

  • Voyant Tools: A web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts.
  • Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets: Widely used spreadsheet software found on almost every computer, ideal for data analysis, cleaning, and simple visualizations. These tools can be an excellent starting point for data-driven projects.
  • GPT Excel: AI-supported add-ons and tools provided and developed by existing tools.
  • OpenRefine: An open source tool used for data cleaning and standardization. Ideal for cleaning and organizing complex data sets.
  • Tabula: An open source data journalism tool that helps scrape data from PDF files.
  • R: This is a programming language for statistical computing and data visualization. R has been adopted in the fields of data mining, bioinformatics, and data analysis.
  • Python: Another programming language that lets you work quickly and integrate systems more effectively.
  • Datawrapper: This tool allows you to create interactive graphs, maps, and infographics thanks to its user-friendly interface. It does not require coding skills and can strengthen the visual narrative in your news. Datawrapper River can be especially helpful.
  • Flourish: A platform for creating interactive data visualizations. With its user-friendly interface and rich imagery options, you can strengthen the visual narrative in your data-driven news. Try Flourish for Newsrooms.
  • Tableau Public: A platform that allows users to analyze data and create interactive visualizations. The free version is a cost-effective option for small newsrooms.
  • Trello or Airtable: Project management tools like these can streamline the organization and workflow of your data-driven projects. They can be used to manage datasets and assign and track tasks.

These tools can help small newsrooms work effectively on data-driven projects. Which tool is best may vary depending on needs, capabilities, and budget.

Where are good open data sources for newsrooms?

  • Government agencies: Many official government sites provide open data platforms on a variety of topics. For example, platforms such as data.gov in the US and data.gov.uk in the UK offer a wide range of statistical information on health, education, transportation, weather, economy, and many other topics.
  • International organizations: Entities such as the United Nations, World Bank, and European Union also provide open data platforms on various topics. These platforms include international datasets on global development, human rights, environment, economy, and other broad topics.
  • Cities and municipalities: Many local governments provide open data platforms that may contain information about traffic, water use, urban transformation projects, green spaces, and similar topics. One example: the website for Istanbul’s municipal government, the IMM open data portal (see screenshot video below).
  • Educational institutions: Universities and research institutions provide open datasets in a variety of academic fields. This data can be used in social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences, and many other fields.
  • Media organizations: Some media organizations openly make news archives, political campaign data, election results, and other news-oriented data sets available. Consider Bianet and ProPublica.
  • NGOs: Non-governmental organizations can openly share datasets related to various social issues. This data may relate to human rights violations, environmental pollution, migration, labor rights, inequalities and other issues. Here are some examples on femicide and aging and health.
  • Research institutes: Research bodies and foundations conduct in-depth study on certain topics and can share the results of their work. These datasets can cover economics, health, the environment, criminal justice, education, and many other fields.

The above resources can prove instrumental in data reporting, but the recency, reliability, and accuracy of data sources must always be considered as well as a correct interpretation of the data.

The open data portal of Istanbul’s municipal government (below) offers a wide range of official datasets.

What can be learned by looking at case studies from small newsrooms that have won recent Sigma Awards?

The Sigma Awards are an international awards program celebrating excellence in data journalism. They recognize best practices and innovations in various categories such as data analysis, data visualization, and storytelling.

These awards also acknowledge the important role of data-driven news production and encourage work in this field. For inspiration, dig into the Sigma Awards’ projects round-up database, which includes information on 2,200 projects submitted over the past four years, including details like their budgets, staffing, methods, duration, subjects, and content, etc.

Sigma Awards full projects list on GitHub

The Sigma Awards posts all of its 2,200 submissions since 2020 on its GitHub page. Image: Screenshot, GitHub

Data journalism is an increasingly integral part of our everyday news diet. And small newsrooms can’t afford to leave it out of their coverage. To stay relevant, small newsrooms must use data to produce journalism that deepens the public’s knowledge of today’s issues, makes complex topics more understandable, and enriches storytelling. With a few of these aforementioned tools and tips, the road to better data journalism may be much easier and less costly than once thought.

This article was adapted from Pinar Dag’s Using Data in Small Newsrooms presentation.


Pınar Dağ is the editor of GIJN Turkish and a lecturer at Kadir Has University. She is the co-founder of the Data Literacy Association, Data Journalism Platform Turkey, and DağMedya. She works on data literacy, open data, data visualization, and data journalism, and is on the jury of the Sigma Data Journalism Awards.

 

 

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