Remember the olden days when journalism meant reporting facts and keeping one's analysis laser-focused on those facts? I sure do. In fact, I once earned a master's degree in journalism. At that time, I thought that my future career might hinge on providing in-depth analysis of fresh data being reported from the field.
Old dreams die hard. If you're still following the around-the-clock cable news channels during this recent, ongoing, interminable mystery of the missing Malaysian jet, you have seen how far journalism has fallen from that ideal. Day in and day out, the public has had to endure endless speculation by talking heads who've had only a sliver of hard data at their disposal. New facts have dribbled out at a snail's pace, but that doesn't stop on-air staff and invited guests from debating the most cockamamie theories imaginable about what might have happened to the airliner. As always, one has had (sadly but laughingly) to turn to good ol' Jon Stewart for actual perspective on this story.
There are signs of hope amid this insanity, though. About a year ago, I blogged on the emergence of data journalism, which, as the name implies, values cold, hard facts over unhinged speculation. If this sounds to you like old-fashioned journalism updated for the modern age, you're exactly right. A data journalist is any reporter or news analyst who uses big data, data science, statistical modeling and advanced visualization organically in their work. Data journalists may themselves be a type of data scientist, or simply be a subject matter expert who leverages and presents the work performed by data scientists in the telling of non-fictional stories. In other words, this new breed uses big data’s 4 Vs in the service of old school journalism’s 5 Ws and an H.
What added value do readers get from data journalists that sets this new breed apart from an investigative journalist who may use data in their story but doesn't necessarily do deep statistical analysis? Typically, data journalists publish their work (stories, visuals, models and data) primarily or exclusively through online channels. Data journalists might allow the more analytically inclined readers to download the underlying models and data for further exploration; they might provide user-friendly infographics and simulations that illuminate the end-to-end scenario described in their stories and models; or they might simply produce static outputs (reports, charts, graphs, trends) that readers can look at but not alter. If they produce hardcopy versions of their online stories that hide some of the underlying analytical complexity, the data journalist can present a compelling narrative for traditional journalism channels.
The popularity of data journalism seems to be growing and it would be great to report that there are ample jobs for aspiring data journalists. However, even a year after I published that blog, it would be a lie to say it's so. At best, we can refer to data journalism as a passion that has yet to coalesce into a discrete niche within the news industry.
But we do see signs of a new news industry niche a-birthing. Case in point: this recent article reporting on a new commercial venture by Nate Silver, the data scientist most famous for predicting the 2012 US presidential election results in all 50 states. Silver has recently launched a news site dedicated to pieces developed, analyzed and written by a team of authors who combine the storytelling skills of the best journalists with the analytical rigor of the best data scientists.
The site FiveThirtyEight.com features stories on a wide range of topics that, apart from their analytical rigor and statistical depth, would not be out of place on Huffington Post or other new-age online journalism properties. From initial appearances, FiveThirtyEight.com seems to be aimed at a general news readership. For example, in the week I wrote this post, it had articles with headlines such as "Clinton is polling like an incumbent, and that could help her in 2016" and "The hidden value of the NBA steal." All the pieces I saw are consistently readable, straightforward and insightful (this readability implies that, behind the scenes, Silver has a team of editors at work as well).
Clearly, Silver is pioneering a new form of online journalism. If it takes off, I fully expect it to foster many imitators and probably a few acquisition suitors as well.
Will data journalism such as this become mainstream? I think it will. If nothing else, I expect that many traditional journalism outlets will hire a few data journalists and give them a clear data-driven analysis beat to cover. I also suspect that, if experiments such as Silver's take off, other media outlets will be clamoring to link to, syndicate and license the intelligent reportage his contributors produce—for the cool visualizations and infographics, if nothing else.