Monday, August 01, 2011

Tips for strengthening communication between reporters, developers

When reporters, data geeks and coders combine forces, we can tell stories using alternative forms and dive deeper into information than we would be able to on our own.

This is hardly a new practice, but it's happening in more and more newsrooms. To best work together, it's important to understand what it takes for both reporters and developers to do their jobs. And communication is key.

Here are some tips from a data journalist on how you can help us do our job, and how we can help you in return.

Combine forces to ask the tough questions

Data journalists are reporters and can contribute to the research process across beats. Stories about politics and money are often paired with data-driven projects, but that doesn't mean that reporters and developers can't collaborate on stories about other topics.

Looking for a statistic to throw at your source? Wondering exactly how often something occurred? Is it taking you too long to extract what you need from something on the Internet? Speak to data journalists with technical skills, and they may be able to help find what you need.

When conducting interviews, start by asking your sources if they have any documents, reports or spreadsheets that might be helpful. You won't get everything this way, but you never know until you try. And if your source does give you a monster document, data journalists can often analyze it using their computer skills.

While journalism could use more numerically-based facts behind its stories, numbers are nothing on their own without context. You can use numbers to put a source's feet to the fire and get more thorough explanations. And the context you gain from talking to sources can help you understand the numbers.

Discuss projects early in the storytelling process

It's essential for reporters, developers and analysts to communicate with one another early and often. This gives developers the time they need to create frameworks for custom interactives, and it enables analysts to use the data to gain insight that can be useful to reporters as they prepare for interviews and writing.

On the presentation side, understand that it's not a solo job for anyone in the newsroom. The communication should be ongoing. The more often we check in, the easier it is to ensure that we're all on the same page and that the piece is proceeding as we all imagined it would.

Maintain realistic expectations

Understand that interactives require a certain amount of time and are far from magic. They require effort, as any good story does.

If you ask whether something is possible, chances are good the answer is yes. The challenge is how to execute it. How much time do we have? What's the most important function of an interactive (called a "feature" in the coding world) that we should spend our time on?

A developer can do an interactive map in a day or a year, but they're going to be vastly different. Assess what's acceptable and doable to eliminate nasty surprises.

To best foster collaboration in the newsroom, it's helpful to develop at least a passing knowledge of data journalism so you can ask for what you want. Asking for a "cool Census thing" is vague. To quote the fundamentals of the programming language Python, "Explicit is better than implicit."

Of course, not every newsroom has a data team. But the more data journalists your newsroom hires, the more capacity the newsroom will have. When we work together as reporters and developers, we can focus our combined efforts on creating the best products possible.


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