Big data rules, so get on board says expert

Big data runs through the fabric of media organisations, from management to the newsroom floor, and it’s something all successful journalists need to get a handle on, according to World Newsmedia Network founder Martha L Stone.

“Big data is an overarching strategy that any media organisation can use bits and pieces of,” she said in her introduction to her keynote speech 2014 Future Forum, after delivering insights into data journalism in a masterclass on Day 1 of the conference.

While connectivity and data storage was growing cheaper and the consumers increasingly using digital devices, making data more and more relevant from a management perspective, data was also a crucial tool in modern journalism, she said.

“Data journalism isn’t new,” she pointed out: journalists have been using data to unearth and support their stories for decades. But with the name and the hype today comes the technology, creating new tools to plumb databases for trends across all manner of news, from crime to education and pollution.

“What makes it different today is the technology behind it,” Ms Stone says. “What we used to call investigative reporting before using data sources, now we can use a whole host of different data technology to enhance or to be the foundation of our stories.”

Data is meaningless if it doesn’t offer value, she explained in her masterclass. A trend or piece of data will go through a process of filtering and visualisation before it becomes a story that is meaningful and relevant to readers on a personal level.

She cited The Washington Post’s “Homes For The Taking” series which showed trends in the city’s housing foreclosures in interactive maps as well as interviews with personal case studies.

“Pulitzer Prizes are being won because of some great data journalism that’s going on today,” she said, in reference to the Guardian’s NSA revelations from Edward Snowden’s documents, among others.

“Sometimes something falls in our lap – the NSA story is a good example of that – and you act on it. Sometimes we have a story where we need to dig for numbers after the story; it’s a case by case basis.”

Crunching numbers isn’t for everyone, she acknowledged, but it’s important for journalists to have a fundamental knowledge of data “because so many of our stories include [it]”, with trends communicated via charts and graphics sometimes forming the backbone to a story.

“Our newsrooms are full of multitasking journalists these days, whereas a decade ago even, they were a one hit wonder – they focused on print, let’s say, or they focused on TV only,” she said.

“Now you have to have a lot of different skills to be a successful journalist.”

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