What does data journalism look like in 2016? The winners of the data journalism awards — announced today — give us a great sense of where the industry is right now. I was lucky enough to be director of the awards this year, working with the great Paul Steiger to winnow down the record 471 entries to a shortlist of 64. That gets down to the list of 11 winners (and one honourable mention) announced today.
Journalism may be facing challenges right now, but there’s never been a better time to be a data journalist. We had a record number of entries and a shortlist which is the strongest in the award’s history.
So, in that context, what is the state of the data journalism nation right now? Here are five lessons I learned from the awards this year.
1. Being small doesn’t mean you can’t have an impact
The awards and short list are full of small organizations punching above their weight. The winner, The Panama Papers, may seem at first glance like a huge operation. Won by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in coalition with big players such as Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Guardian and Le Monde (plus more than 100 other media partners), it was a huge journalistic operation with massive consequences. But the ICIJ data team, which played a core role in analysing the documents and built tools to take them apart, was not big. Run by Giannina Segnini, it was a small core of data journalists and developers innovating to find new techniques for managing huge treasure troves of documents.
2. Personalities make a difference
The shortlist for Data Journalist of the Year was a pretty impressive list of smart reporters and developers, all of who are finding new ways to tell data stories. The winner, Sisi Wei, is an investigative reporter and news app developer at ProPublica. Crucially, her work goes beyond her day job: she is responsible for Code With Me, which is all about helping journalists become developers too.
So, personalities are important. At the Data Journalism Awards unconference in New York in May (where the shortlist was announced) one theme was this: what happens to data journalism teams when a key personality or leader quits to go elsewhere. It’s a problem almost unique to data teams: if the Metro section editor left, they would be replaced. When a data editor leaves a team, they often fall apart.
It goes beyond just training and development for data journalists (although that is vital) but into editors understanding more about what their data teams actually do.
3. Data visualization is about more than pretty pictures
Buzzfeed’s Peter Aldhous and Charles Seife won the prize for dataviz of the year for their project on light aircraft/helicopter surveillance over America, Spies in the Skies. The judges said it was a “fantastic example of the layers and depth that only visualization can bring to a story”. It works because it’s more than just beautiful visuals — it adds another dimension to the story and makes it stronger. It’s also not a standalone visual, but part of a much bigger piece of work reporting the issue in forensic detail.
The judges’ decision also showed how innovation isn’t enough to guarantee being a winner. The shortlist also saw the first VR data visualization produced by a major news organization: Is the Nasdaq in Another Bubble? By the Wall Street Journal, which uses virtual reality to bring the dataviz to life.
4. Open data is still vital
The best data journalism is still the most open and transparent, and two of this year’s winners tell that story. La Nacion in Argentina is a model of open data journalism and this year won the prize for its approach to opening up public datasets in a country with no FOI laws and a long history of limiting media access to government information.
Excesses Unpunished, by Convoca in Peru, opened up public data to help its users understand the country’s mining industry better. India Spend, one of the best of the new data journalism websites around today, also won a special mention for its #breathe project using sensors to measure air pollution.
Both of these projects have that in common: they trust their users by giving them more ways to understand the story.
5. Data journalism is mainstream
The shortlist for data journalism website of the year reads like a who’s who of data journalism today (and any of the sites would have made a convincing winner). The fact that its one of the most high-profile data journalism websites out there, FiveThirtyEight, shows how it’s won the respect of its peers in the industry.
There are other lessons too: data journalists entered projects from 50 countries, from news rooms of all sizes and types. Data journalism is so much a part of the way we work now it truly has become just that: journalism.
I am the Data Editor at the Google News Lab, which is one of the sponsors of the Data Journalism Awards. Thanks and credit must also go to Marianne Bouchart, who organised the awards so well this year.