Branding Data Journalism: giving a soul to data storytelling


We are seeing during this coronavirus outbreak, some media outlets are able to leverage the use of data and technology in time to produce more ambitious stories beyond global death toll and infection rates. This pandemic will change our future using data, as publishers have shown an increased interest in data journalism to tell stories. However, few official publishers have the power or the function to lessen the flow significantly to deploy their data teams. 

While data stories are highly produced in established legacy and big media corporations, it is still difficult for small and medium-sized news outlets to invest in new technologies and try out new things due to limited time and resources. But these organizations have become increasingly important in any media system, being responsible for covering what mainstream media was not doing. 

My research challenges the fearful notion that data journalism is an expensive practice and limited to most-resourced news outlets that are able to finance large-scale investments for data desks. Several studies have covered data journalism in the early-adopter nations; my research, however, takes a slightly different approach and looks at 3 different things: teams and roles, collaboration and tools, and business models.

It’s based on a simple and age-old premise: learning the dynamics of the most award-winning news organizations in the data journalism industry. And what can we learn from them? A roadmap that can be applied to any news outlets, which includes the best practices and tools in the industry, the roles/profiles needed, and last, how data journalism can be used as a component in the business models in order to lead to sustained competitive advantage.

Inspired in the working of Usher(2016), I am using a mixed-method approach that combines participatory observation and in-depth interviews to produce hybrid ethnographic studies.

Although I’m halfway, I have some answers: 

Small community but a range of solutions

I collected data ranging from public to commercial newsrooms in Australia. Although the community is small, I identified a dichotomy between in-house and out-of-the-box tools. By contrast, commercial and public organizations rely on different solutions to deploy data journalism in their newsrooms. While commercial outlets are heavily reliant on out-of-the-box solutions to develop stories as a sort of overcoming the lack of skillsets and shortage of skilled labor, public-service media are developing their own in-house tools, which reflects their desire for continuous digital preservation of data stories despite the challenges. Thus, out-of-the-box solutions, given the constraints, can be an initial way to deploy data journalism skills in a newsroom.

An award-winning newsroom in Global South

Early this year, I had the opportunity to become part of the award-winning La Nacion’s data team. By conducting participant observation and in-depth interviews, I was able to identify strategies that LN Data uses to burst this bubble of incremental innovation and find ways to use artificial intelligence (AI) techniques in journalism production. Envisioning the future of journalism, the team is always seeking new ways to tackle topics that seem to have been forgotten by the media and also bring new formats for the audience. By setting an agenda based on global and local events, for instance, environment and climate change have the potential to increase the data storytelling’s impact. Also, collaborating with non-media actors plays an important role in the development of skills that are not available in the newsrooms. By a collaborative effort with a startup, we were able to produce an AI-data story to map solar farms in Argentina.

The importance of hybrid profiles

Before the pandemic hit, I could spend a couple of days in New York City at ProPublica’s office. This visit allowed me to interact with some folks there and identify predominantly the presence of hybrid profiles in the two data teams in the American newsroom. By recognizing the potential talents that an outlet has, it helps to map the potential talents that can help in the deployment of data journalism practice in the newsroom. Furthermore, ProPublica is investing in a potential revenue stream based on the sale of custom datasets aa a way to get more value out of its investigations.

These are just some of the lessons learned until now. As soon as the coronavirus pandemic is under control, other organizations from different continents should be included in this study to get a broader view of the problem. If there’s one message that I want to send to publishers worldwide is that above all challenges, data journalism is not restricted to most resourced organizations and this project aims to deliver a practical approach on how to do it.

Featured image: Part of the LN Data team that worked together with DymaxionLabs to map solar farms using AI. (Credits: Natalia Louzau/Flor Coelho)