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The Evolving Newsroom: Q&A with Paul Bradshaw

The Evolving Newsroom is a series of Q&As with important names in the data journalism field, discussing how the newsroom is evolving to better incorporate data and data-driven journalism. This time I've interviewed Paul Bradshaw, Editor at the Online Journalism Blog and lecturer at City University London.

Ændrew Rininsland: You said at one point that universities aren’t producing very many journalists going into Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR). Why do you think that is?

Paul Bradshaw: I think it’s partly because of what motivates people to do journalism in the first place, and students’ perceptions of journalism. Traditionally, journalism is about writing, it’s about telling stories, and people are attracted to journalism because they like the idea of writing stories — they are communicators. It’s an Arts subject, and Arts students tend to be good communicators, are able to structure a narrative in a story and find what’s interesting in newsworthy material. That used to be enough in journalism, but the conflict you’re getting now is that anyone can tell the news, can communicate these stories. Some of the stuff that journalists get away with as part of their job, the kind of content processing or “churnalism” that makes up a lot of journalism — the competition is so high that it’s really not justified anymore. I don’t think you can sit in an office and call yourself a journalist when there are hundreds of thousands of people doing exactly what you are, and in some cases, doing it better because they’re more passionate and are better writers. I think people come into to journalism courses with an image of themselves and of journalism that is out of date, so they don’t see the value of CAR and may see themselves as not the types of people who could do that; they might not seem themselves as numerate or good with computers.

Q: Has there been a gradual revolution in the perception of CAR by established journalists over the past 10-20 years? How have attitudes changed towards it?

A: I think journalists have seen the potential of CAR much more quickly than they have other types of journalism that involves technology, and I think that’s because they can see the editorial value in that and because there have been huge stories that have been about CAR. For instance, the MP expenses story — a story of a generation, really — was about having to deal with this huge amount of data and finding stories in it, connections in it. The Wikileaks story — again, a story of a generation — really, those have been two of the biggest stories of the last 20-30 years, and when other journalists look at those, they can say “How did they do those stories?” Well, the first thing the Guardian did was build a database. The first thing the Telegraph did was having people fill spreadsheets. In that sense, journalists have gotten to grips with CAR relatively quickly, particularly in the last couple of years. But there’s still a lag between that cultural understanding and the actual ability to do it. That, I think, is where you come up against the barrier of journalists seeing that as somebody else’s job — that’s the geek’s job, or we’ll get our developers to do that. That is changing; there is a lot of investment. For example, the BBC is training up thousands of journalists in basic CAR skills, and I’m getting approaches from magazine publishers and Australian news organisations and things like that. So it is changing, but it takes a long time to train a lot of journalists. What we’ll also increase that change is the increasing amount of data the government is publishing and the increasing amount of stories being done by people outside of news organisations who can interrogate that data.

Q: What are the most significant ways in which workflow has changed within the newsroom due to CAR?

A: I still think the workflow is relatively unchanged. There are efforts to change that — for example, at the Financial Times, I know that they are trying very hard to make the organisation more efficient and effective and collaborative in the way they deal with data. They have to deal with spreadsheets every day, but those spreadsheets stay on those reporters’ desktops. They’ve done a lot of work with XML, allowing reporters to access data but also driving interactives and graphics on the site so those are constantly updated. I think that’s something that’s increasingly going to be the case. The Guardian obviously is way ahead in terms of systematically dealing with data and publishing it and discussing it and making it a social artefact. But I think for most other organisations, it’s still something that other people do and it will take another significant reorganisation — we’ve had a lot of reorganisation of news teams where people are now working on a 24-hour rolling basis, things like that — probably the next big shift will be to reorganise people again so that data is embedded in the way that everyone works, and if that data is shared, it feeds into live publishing, it feeds into apps, there is a lot of commercial potential, which I think a lot of companies are exploring.

Q: What avenues do you see as being the most likely to bring CAR to the average newsroom?

A: I think the first thing is big stories, which have already happened and will continue to happen. News organisations being embarrassed by being beaten to stories by other organisations. So I think the Guardian’s continued work, Channel 4’s Fact Check — those sorts of projects. If other journalists feel that they should be keeping up with this, then that will probably push things. Also, money. The more commercial opportunities come out of data, then that ultimately will be the bottom line.

Q: While CAR and open data are somewhat different movements, how do you see the latter impacting the former?

A: The big difference is that CAR tends to take place on the desktop, or at least traditionally has. Journalists have worked on that in isolation; as I say, you have situations where other journalists within the same organisation don’t even know that data exists. You have situations where a team in one department will be gathering all sorts of data and there’s duplication of effort. Open data allows people to connect data sets more easily, get insights into those connections, add extra context, avoid basic errors around data and also to make stories a more collaborative effort — not just in the sense of it being easier to do for a news organisation, but people being engaged. Again, the Guardian shows the incredible engagement people can have with their stories.

Q: Do you think people who do CAR are viewed differently within the newsroom? Do you think there’s a separation between the CAR people and other journalists, or do you think it’s becoming more of a collaborative skill that people throughout the newsroom learn?

A: I think it depends on the newsroom. There are very established journalists who use spreadsheets regularly and I don’t think they’re thought of any differently because of that. As long as what they produce is what other journalists produce — and in some circumstance, quite often better. Where there is a distinction is when somebody comes in with that as their job title; they’re a specialist in data rather than a journalist in a particular field who happens to use spreadsheets and forms and reports. I think there’s a lot of traditional journalists who use these skills, but they don’t really talk about it, and then there are journalists where that defines them. There’s value in both, but there are people who start with basic journalism and gain those skills and people who begin with those skills and gain more journalism skills as time goes on. I think it’s probably more to do with job title and organisational structure than to do with the skills themselves. In terms of collaboration, I think that more of a general change in society, which is that technology has allowed us to be collaborative and reduced the importance and role of a formal organisation. Journalists are just part of that change in having to learn to collaborate with people outside of their organisations, just like in any other industry.