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8 Tips on Getting a Newsroom Data Team Started

Part of ProPublica's news apps team. (Edwin Torres for ProPublica)

This story was co-published with Nieman Lab.

Thursday morning, a post by journalist Miguel Paz on a data-journalism email list asked for tips for starting a data-journalism team. I had many thoughts on the subject, and nothing to read on the subway, so I ended up writing this long response on my smartphone:

  1. It’s okay to start small. A player-coach plus one developer can build incredible things — TPM’s election night coverage in 2012 was innovative and nationally competitive and built by two people. The LA Times news apps team was two people for a long time.

  2. Help the organization build on successes. Work hard and create great projects. Go viral. Get covered. Win awards. Smart leaders will see your team as having an impact that grows more sharply than linear when you add people. Let them know that there’s more where that came from if they invest further. My team is about 20 percent of the staff but its projects are about half the traffic. We bring in earned revenue and grants. We bring home prestigious journalism awards. Make sure your sales pitch to your bosses for growing your team includes all those metrics.

  3. Recruit generalists. There are a bunch of skills needed in building news apps, but at the most abstract level they fall into three buckets: Code, Design, and Journalism. Recruit people who have at least two of those skills and be willing to teach them the third. The easiest by far to teach is Code. You want journalists whose creativity expresses itself as interactive graphics and databases.

    It is getting far easier to recruit. Our last fellowship round, we had hundreds of applicants, about a dozen of which would have been great. We had 700 applications to our Summer Data Institute. The applicants are out there!

  4. Treat your news-app developers as authors. Each person should be the creative owner of a project. Do not split the work up into functional expertises. Here’s why:

    In order to make a great interactive news project, its creator needs to have had their hands deep inside the data from the beginning, where they will start understanding the possible stories it tells. They need to build the server code to support their ultimate vision without slow negotiation or the friction of brain-to-brain communication, and they need to design the presentation because they’re the person who understands the material and the visual story possibilities best.

    Think about this; it’s no different than other news desks. If you wanted to, you could split up your story work into cross-functional teams based on the tools they use: The Telephone-Assisted Reporter spends all day talking to all the sources for every story, a Designated Reader focuses on all the reading for the newsroom, and a Microsoft Word Specialist jumps around writing narratives. In fact, for breaking news you probably split the work up roughly this way. To make this be the rule for every project would be preposterous, yet it’s how most news app teams operate. The work is split between back-end developers, front-end developers, designers, etc.

    Instead, expect and demand each person on the team to be responsible for all the work. That is not to say everybody will be equally good at everything, of course. Skill sharing is crucial. The stronger coders will help those who are just learning, seasoned designers will help out the ones who need help, the ones who are great FOIA writers can show the newbies how to do it, etc.

  5. Demand journalism. Treat the team like a news desk and expect them to be journalists in everything they do. Members of the team should come to edit meetings, call sources and get bylines on their work. They should be like co-reporters in projects that are collaborations with a more traditional reporter — never “the data monkey.” When collaborating with another reporter, the data team member should go out on interviews, travel, develop sources, etc. And the traditional journalist should learn the basics of data so they too can work directly with the data.

    Make sure your team is counted as newsroom when your company lists its numbers publicly. Your newsroom chiefs should not see hiring in your department as being in tension with the core work of the place.

  6. Edit them. The team’s leader should be an editor, not IT. That leader’s boss should be an editor, all the way up to the executive editors. Just like any other desk, the editor helps each person on the team pick projects, get resources, stay focused, write good copy, and craft a user experience that makes sense and tells the story that readers understand and that is supported by the facts.

  7. Don’t cross the streams. A news apps team should not do ANY platform work. Keep them focussed on building journalistic projects. They shouldn’t build your site templates, code your social media buttons, or create your marketing emails. Juggling platform work and journalism work is like juggling a bowling ball and a golf ball. They are completely different kinds of software development: Platforms are a container for other people’s work; the development cycle is slow and never done; your customers are largely your fellow colleagues. News apps are themselves the output of journalism; their dev cycle happens on deadline; apps aren’t directly connected to each other, and are built only to serve readers. Context-shifting between these two modes is very hard. And worst of all, because platform work has no fixed end date, it tends to consume other work. The ground is littered with teams who thought they could build a site section and then come right back — and never did.

  8. Pick great bosses. My bosses (Paul Steiger, Steve Engelberg, Dick Tofel and Robin Fields) believed in me when I started putting the ideas together for my department, even when I didn’t believe in myself or know precisely where I was going. You want to feel like somebody with institutional authority is placing a bet on you, not doing you a favor. There will be plenty of compromising on your way to building the team the right way, but if you’re working at cross-purposes with your bosses, you are likely to run out of energy before they do.

Portrait of Scott Klein

Scott Klein

Scott Klein was a deputy managing editor. He led the teams at ProPublica that work at the intersection of journalism and technology.

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