Simon Rogers of The Guardian (UK) on Data Journalism

By Ellie Fields October 20, 2011

Another @vtucherov and @radiofreelunch collaboration to review Simon Rogers' session, How the UK's Guardian is Pioneering Data Journalism.

"When I started working in journalism, I was the only person with a computer.... We've come a long way since then." Simon Rogers of The Guardian reflects on his early days as a reporter.


One of the significant ways things have changed- the publication of data used to be very political. With the expansion of the Internet, though, there is a proliferation of information, even if there are some elements that those in authority would prefer would be kept sequestered.

Much of the challenge in being a data journalist isn't in finding data, it's finding *good* data- often a matter of sifting for the wheat among the straw- and telling stories which are compelling both in writing and visually. Data is getting bigger and bigger, and at an ever decreasing granularity. This can make it easier to paint a broad-brush picture- examining elements at a national level and being able to delve into the minutae; or to look at a very narrow scope at a less detailed level. Both of these are important exercises in journalism- whether military funding with a level of detail from the overall defense budget all the way down to the cost of body armor for troops with different operational specialties or a block-by-block examination of poverty among urban neighborhoods.

Rogers notes "There is incredible demand for fine-grained data about where people live." The Guardian has taken as part of its mission not only collecting and presenting that data, but also making it downloadable for its readers, so that they can participate in the analysis on their own and add their insights and findings to the ones the paper has published.

There has been a paradigm shift there as well. "Don't tell, but show. Today's readers also want to be able to explore the stories and the data."

In creating compelling data journalism, The Guardian has learned that although big data can provide challenges to analyze, it's best not to crowd-source that analysis- and for two reasons: first, that the quality can be highly variable; but more importantly that once the public has been brought in, the data and conclusions therein aren't quite as motivating any longer- the people who had the most significant interest had already seen it.

Instead, being engaging, not going too far in an effort to be edgy, but being reliable, topical, informative- and most importantly, having good design attracts audience and rewards them with compelling stories. As technology and visualization has made strides forward, in some ways it has become more complex and difficult, but at the same time, it's now easier than ever before to story-tell visually- which has in turn resulted in data journalism transitioning from being long-form-- stories which took a long time to collect, collate, compile and produce-- to becoming the new and cutting edge of short-form journalism, featuring quick and concise reporting.

Even the nature of 'what journalism is' is undergoing transition. With The Guardian, as a result of the transition, the change is stunning: it is finding itself as no longer 'just a newspaper', but a provider of unique data to people around the world- even though based in the UK, as much as 30 percent of the traffic to The Guardian website comes from the US.

As much as things have changed, though, at the bottom line, it has remained unchanged. "It's still all about the stories."

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