Data journalism continues to gain popularity

Originally published in Media magazine, Spring 2014.

Twenty years ago, I set off to Ottawa from Brandon, Manitoba, for a weekend workshop on computer-assisted reporting at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
It was taught by some of the folks from what was then a rather young National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting, better known as NICAR .
The event was organized by Rob Washburn, who today teaches digital reporting at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont. He and Bill Doskoch , who works in Toronto, were the beating heart of Canadian CAR in those days, and that session, where we learned how to used Excel 2.0 and FoxPro 2.6 and got a hint of what a database program could do, was the first such national session I know of (in Canada).
As is typical of weekend sessions, it was enough to whet my appetite, but I didn’t really learn how to use the software. That took a full week “bootcamp” at the University of Missouri, run by NICAR, the following year.
In those days, computer-assisted reporting was a pretty small niche in a media industry still dominated by traditional players using traditional methods to gather and tell traditional stories. When I went on to organize subsequent training sessions at Canadian Association of Journalists’ conferences, there were times when there were almost more trainers than trainees. Even when data-driven stories started to win big awards and launched more than a few careers, a great many people in journalism took a pass. CAR, it seemed, was for special wizards who had indecipherable, but important skills.
Today, we seem to have almost the opposite problem. With the explosion of the web and the seeming implosion of traditional media, interest in what we now call data journalism has soared. Suddenly, everyone seems to want to learn how to use data and make interactive maps. The traditional “data as source” approach to CAR has been supplemented by the explosion of data visualization and interactive web development. Applicants for many journalism positions are now expected to have a basic knowledge of Google Fusion Tables, HTML, CSS, JavaScript and who knows what else. Some ability to use a more advanced programming language also appears as a requirement for some jobs.
The definition of data journalism has expanded greatly. More than a little bit of what some call data journalism isn’t so much journalism as it is the use of data visualization tools to make charts, graphs and maps that look good, but don’t necessarily tell a story. It’s a bit like reprinting government documents. It’s good and important, but not really journalism. However, more and more folks want to do real data journalism. And there are growing numbers of opportunities to learn how.
NICAR still runs national and regional boot camps in the United States, and here in Canada my school, the University of King’s College, is in to its seventh year offering a weeklong boot camp-style summer school , each June. It now fills up almost without publicity, and we’ve had students from just about every kind of media outlet, from the Toronto Star, the CBC and the Globe and Mail, to small weekly papers and local broadcast outlets. Some of them are among the most prominent players in the field. We are proud of that.
And there are new choices coming into view. David McKie , who edits this magazine, was one of my students at a CAJ session about 15 years ago, and went on to become an outstanding data journalist in his own right, will be offering a weekend session at Carleton University in June along with Glen McGregor from the Ottawa Citizen. David is also teaching a new data journalism course at Carleton .
Ryerson University, MacEwan University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University also have data journalism courses. UBC is looking to integrate data across its curriculum. And of course, the CAJ remains an important player in data training, continuing to offer day-and-a-half, introductory sessions at its annual meetings . The main point is there is now very little reason for journalists not to get training in data techniques, be that an introduction at the kind of session I took at Carleton, or offered at the CAJ, or the weeklong training offered by NICAR or King’s. The opportunities are there, as never before. Dive in and before long, you can have some pretty saleable skills.