👋 hi, I’m basile

New book chapter out in the Data Journalism Handbook

Cover of the Data Journalism Handbook as published by the Amsterdam University Press

The updated version of The Data Journalism Handbook was published this week – a huge relief for Liliana Bounegru and Jonathan Gray, its editors, who have been working on this for years.

I contributed a chapter: “Coding with data in the newsroom”, which you’ll find in the second section, “Working with data”, nicely tucked between Barbara Maseda’s “Text as data: finding stories in text collections” 😎 and Sam Leon’s “Accounting for methods: spreadsheets, scripts and programming notebooks.”

That chapter is meant as a primer to anyone considering dipping their toes into programming in a newsroom context. I’ve worked at the BBC (an international broadcaster), The Times (a mainstream newspaper) and Reuters (an international wire agency) and it bears repeating:

newsrooms aren’t tech companies.

They’re weird, dysfunctional, traditional places.

I wanted to point out three aspects of working with programming techniques and with interrogating data:

  1. Time to learn
  2. Working with deadlines
  3. Reviewing code

You need time to learn, and plenty of it

There’s not a great deal of that, and we’re probably not all equal before how much slack we’re given on the job for dabbling and self-learning.

“Coding in data journalism is (…) an ongoing learning process which takes time and energy, on top of an initial investment of time to learn,” I wrote.

Juggling learning and making deadline is hard

Not delivering on time is a cardinal sin in our profession, and we must also account for last-minute tweaks, data questions, etc.

“One challenge for beginners is slowdown caused by learning a new way to work. When setting off to do something new, particularly in the beginning of your learning, make sure you leave yourself enough time to be able to complete your task with a tool you know (e.g., spreadsheet).”

That’s what I did, and I still include this “scrap that let’s do it simpler” time in my budgets.

But I also think there is valuable inspiration to draw on from software engineering work. We may not need a Jira instance, but smaller tools helping us keep track of our progress as well as budgeting an MVP and successive, iterative improvements are good ideas for technical profiles in newsrooms too.

Code reviews and data audits are cruise control for safe

“Data journalists (…) often work on their own, either because they don’t have colleagues, because there are no peer-review systems in place or because there is no one with the right skills to review their code.”

“Internal quality control mechanisms can therefore become a luxury that only a few data journalism teams can afford (there are no sub-editors for coding!). The cost of not having such control is potential bugs left unattended, sub-optimal performance or, worst of all, errors left unseen.”

I suffered from this, and I still can think of many colleagues who don’t have easy access to some of the stellar colleagues I had and whom I learned so much.

(If you’re looking for this kind of help for your newsroom/team today, you can hire me 😎)

The Handbook is a great cross-section of industry thinking. It’s available for free online 🙌 and you can get a paperback for 49EUR.