How underdog newsrooms can survive among the likes of NYT in the age of data journalism

Image source: The New York Times website

The most visited article in the New York Times Morning Newsletter in 2021 is titled “Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count.” For this piece, ‘article’ is an understatement—it’s a portal to an enormous database of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, deaths, and vaccinations in every American state and territory. The NYT Morning readers consulted this database to make decisions on business trips, investments, and grocery shopping. 

In an interview with N3Magazine, Gina Chua, a former executive editor at Reuters, emphasizes the importance of data in today’s news: “If you want to understand the world, you have to be able to understand data…it’s available, it’s another form of information. And in many cases, you can’t answer questions without looking at it. So if you want to be a journalist at the highest end of things, you have to understand what data can do for you.”

Chua is currently the executive editor at Semafor, a news startup that is to launch this fall.

Data has become an indispensable part of modern journalism. In its significance, data surpasses the “photo” in photojournalism—a single photo is seldom a complete story, but data itself can be a news story, as we have seen in the New York Times. 

Prominent newsrooms were quick to adapt to this new age of digital journalism. Last year, the Washington Post announced that it will expand its newsroom by 41 additional positions to build a newsroom that caters to a public that increasingly demands high-standard, digital, and visual news. For smaller newsrooms, however, hiring a whole new team of tech-savvy journalists is unrealistic. 

Nevertheless, hope is not lost for smaller organizations: training existing journalists is another way of starting a data innovation. There are initiatives in the news industry that can help newsrooms incorporate more data into their coverage. N3Magazine interviewed people involved in two such initiatives: Trinna Leong from Google News Initiative (GNI) and Kuek Ser Kuang Keng from the data journalism company DataN. Organizations like GNI and DataN are especially useful for smaller newsrooms. Here’s why. 

To stay competitive in the digital age, news agencies must build data-literate teams to accommodate the influx of large documents, images, and CSV files. The problem is that for smaller newsrooms, making changes to the institutional structure poses challenges. 

For small newsrooms, even training existing journalists can be burdensome, not to mention hiring new expensive talents. Chua, a veteran overseer of newsroom operations, empathizes.

“[The issue is], can I afford to take two or three people off daily coverage, so that they can work on something that might be potentially more valuable? And when you have a large newsroom, you can do that. When you have a small newsroom, it’s just a lot harder,” Chua said.

This sentiment is reflected by Leong, whose job as a GNI teaching fellow includes training newsrooms on using digital tools to process and visualize data. 

Leong shares her experience training smaller newsrooms: “Their editorial staff is very busy; they don’t have time to spare the manpower to attend training, or they’re very short-staffed. So they can’t expect people to be gone for a few hours in a day just to attend workshops.” 

Although GNI courses are offered to any newsroom at no cost, taking journalists off daily coverage poses an opportunity cost for newsrooms. As an economist might say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

It is a paradox for smaller newsrooms because learning digital tools is time-consuming and expensive, but digital tools eventually save time and money. Leong is confident that this is a worthy investment.

“As a former journalist, I found these tools to be helpful for me when I was in the field, especially when I’m doing breaking news. It really saved me a lot of time because I know all these [digital tools] exist,” Leong said.

Another pioneer of data journalism in the Asia-Pacific region is Keng, founder of DataN. Based in Kuala Lumpur, his company offers training packages to newsrooms that want to build a data-literate team. In addition to teaching technical skills, Keng also guides newsrooms through the logistics and mindset of building a data team. 

In an interview with N3Magazine, Keng provided a different perspective on the small newsroom disadvantage. While bigger newsrooms have an edge over smaller ones in terms of resources, small newsrooms have their advantages. 

In Keng’s experience, small newsroom journalists are often versatile all-rounders, unafraid to learn new skills and adapt quickly. For small newsrooms, efficiency and innovation are a matter of survival. “They’re always thinking about how they can leverage things that require fewer resources to make them more competitive, so they’re always trying to innovate things in their newsrooms,” Keng said. 

Larger newsrooms, on the other hand, are more susceptible to getting bogged down by bureaucratic hurdles.  

Data strengthens news stories, but it also helps newsrooms financially. Keng believes that data journalism can help newsrooms, small or large, turn a profit. 

“I don’t think it’s a purely journalistic transition—which means, I invest in data journalism because I want to do great journalism. It’s not entirely because of that. Another, bigger consideration is that a data story, if done well, really helps with the bottom line,” Keng said.

A good data story brings in more subscribers, user traffic, and advertisements. Fortunately, there is profitability in good journalism. 

Building a data team is a long-term commitment. Depending on the newsroom’s budget, Keng recommends newsrooms commit at least one year to the training. Since it involves a significant investment of time and resources, a newsroom must have a growth mindset. Even if they’re equipped with technical skills, a nascent data team must try and err before managing to publish the “superstar story that changes everything,” Keng said. 

Here’s a small newsroom success story: although Kontinentalist is not a newsroom in the most traditional sense—they don’t do breaking news or have an armada of OB vans—they engage in data-driven storytelling. Asked about their institutional identity, Pei Ying Loh, the founder, said they are an “editorial studio.” They daringly quit chasing the news cycle and decided to focus on evergreen topics—newsworthy stories that don’t go out of fashion.

For example, in a highly visual and data-driven piece titled “Money Flows: Who’s investing in Laos, and what kind of problems do they face?” Kontinentalist investigates foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows in Laos. They don’t stop there; using data, the team analyzes how much (or little) FDI benefits the country and whether the investments reach the poor. 

Photo: Peiying Loh (right) with her colleague at a data journalism competition at Yale-NUS College, Singapore

Loh and her team of 16 storytellers brainstormed unconventional ways to bring in revenue. In addition to its publication, Kontinentalist has a clientele of research institutes that commission the team to put together data stories using their data visualization skills. Also, the editorial studio holds data storytelling workshops for other companies and organizations. 

Incorporating data into the news is a costly endeavor for newsrooms, regardless of their size. However, because data is a must-have in today’s news, a competent data team is a safe asset for any news network. Although small newsrooms may be short on cash and manpower, they often have the flexibility to adapt quickly. Unlike some large newsrooms, small newsroom innovators usually don’t find themselves trying to convince senior management, who may hold the power of the purse but be oblivious about the importance of data-led stories. 

Small newsrooms with an innovative mindset can bring data into their coverage using intuitive digital tools and affordable training resources. For the underdogs, survival is no more of a concern than it has always been. After all, data journalism changes nothing about the fundamentals of journalism; it’s still about telling good stories with the tools we have, and a newsroom’s size is not a predictor of its editorial standards.