The journalism industry is hiring again! That’s the good news. The bad news, according to a recent article published in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), is that many journalism students are graduating without one of the key skills that employers are seeking: data storytelling. And journalism schools are partly to blame.
“Many journalism programs don’t teach even the basics of data journalism,” according to the CJR article. “For recent journalism school graduates, that [job] requirement may mean a harder time finding a job.”
On April 18, the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s (SOJC) Agora Journalism Center continued doing its part to answer that call by hosting a half-day data storytelling workshop at the George S. Turnbull Portland Center. The event featured presentations by 13 data storytelling experts and drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 students and data practitioners.
“The report was a wake-up call and a motivation for us to push forward in this area,” said Regina Lawrence, executive director of the Agora Journalism Center, in her opening remarks for the workshop. “At the SOJC, we know that information is crucial to a democratic society, but we also know that information delivered in terms of stories will have much greater impact. Humans are hard-wired for story. Humans are born story listeners.”
The workshop marked the SOJC’s latest effort to prepare students for jobs in data storytelling. A year ago, the school hosted a three-day Storytelling with Data Build-a-Thon that partnered students with professional journalists, developers, designers and subject-matter experts to produce a civic-focused data story. The SOJC has also bolstered its faculty with leading data journalism researchers, including Damian Radcliffe, co-editor of the book “Data Journalism: Inside the Global Future,” and Seth Lewis, an award-winning scholar on the ethics and implications of big data in journalism.
Meanwhile, in the classroom, the SOJC is working to more deeply integrate data skills into its undergraduate curriculum. Students receive their first taste of data analysis and visualization in the school’s Gateway to Media sequence, and many go on to pursue more advanced training in Scott Maier’s Data Journalism course.
This focus on data also extends to the advertising sequence, where Assistant Professor Heather Shoenberger offered the school’s first course in advanced data analytics last term. The SOJC Insights and Analytics Lab, launched in January and directed by Shoenberger, is yet another sign of the school’s cross-sequence commitment to preparing students to succeed in a data-rich world.
“Teaching data journalism works best when it’s built in throughout the curriculum,” Radcliffe said. “Data should be a part of everything we do.”
Last Monday, the data storytelling workshop began with a presentation by Steve Doig, Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University, who won a Pulitzer Prize at the Miami Herald for his work on the paper’s “What Went Wrong” investigation following Hurricane Andrew. In his talk, Doig underscored the importance of data storytelling skills in a job market where number crunchers and data visualizers are increasingly in demand.
“You need a superpower,” Doig said. “You need to be able to something better than other people can do to make you valuable.”
But learning data storytelling isn’t just about getting hired. It’s also about doing better journalism, Doig said. In a digital-age world awash with data and information, it’s no longer enough for journalists to rely on human anecdotes to power their stories.
“The plural of anecdote is not evidence,” Doig said. “With data journalism, you can go beyond the anecdotes to find true evidence — and you can use data to find the best anecdotes.”
In the afternoon’s second keynote presentation, The New York Times’ Associate Managing Editor and Graphics Director Steve Duenes spoke about the design principles behind his team’s award-winning data visualizations. Duenes used one of the discipline’s earliest inventions — the stick-figure human — to make a point about the fundamental purpose of visual graphics.
“We’ve put this little human to work in The New York Times information graphics for years,” he said. “It’s a staple of visualization because we want to connect new and unfamiliar things with people.”
Duenes also discussed some of the very practical ways that his team approaches designing graphics. For example, rather than designing their infographics for desktop displays and then scaling them down for mobile, The New York Times usually starts small and scales up.
“We always make the digital version first [before the print version],” Duenes said, “and we mostly make the mobile version first. In some ways, it makes for a cleaner desktop presentation.”
The data storytelling workshop also featured presentations by a slate of local data storytellers, including both journalists and nonjournalists — that included Erin Aigner, information designer for the Portland Bureau of Transportation; Jason Bernert, BA ’11, editorial experience designer for Oregon Public Broadcasting; Audrey Carlsen, news app developer for the Seattle Times; Dino Citraro, partner and design director at Periscopic; Ryan Sullivan, owner and creative director at Paste in Place; and Steve Suo, managing producer for The Oregonian’s Watchdog and Data-Driven Enterprise team.
Radcliffe moderated a panel on the “Principles of Data Storytelling” with Suo, Bernert and Audrey Carlsen, news app developer for the Seattle Times.
Hosted in conjunction with Design Week Portland, the workshop drew 25 student participants, including 15 SOJC undergraduates who traveled from Eugene to attend.
“Just by evidence of the folks who showed up,” said Andrew DeVigal, the SOJC’s Chair in Journalism and Civic Engagement, “there’s a hunger for this information.”
Story by Ben DeJarnette, MA ’15
Photos and videos by Andrew DeVigal