Data journalism: From eccentric to mainstream in five years

The Guardian's Simon Rogers on why data journalism caught on and where it goes from here.

Simon Rogers (@smfrogers), editor of The Guardian’s Datablog and Datastore, and a speaker at the upcoming Strata Conference in California, was one of the first data journalists at The Guardian.

In the following interview, Rogers discusses the changes he’s seen in data journalism over the last five years and how new tools and increased notoriety will shape the data journalism space.

Why has data become the story for some journalists like yourself?

Simon Rogers: It’s a big change for reporters, to go from being suspicious of numbers to noticing that often data journalism is the only way to get stories from them. I think it’s a combination — the huge growth in published data out there combining with things like WikiLeaks, which changed the game for news editors to realize this was a new way to get stories.

Why do you think readers like data-centric stories?

Simon Rogers: I think it’s about trust. The public doesn’t trust reporters any more, but if you can show the workings behind your stories, to be transparent, then it makes your stories stronger. After years of unfettered comment online, there’s a real desire for facts.

You’ve been at data journalism for a while. How has it changed over the last five years?

Simon Rogers: It’s become much more mainstream. The work that I do used to be regarded as a little eccentric by the news desk; now it’s part of the fabric of The Guardian.

Are the tools of data journalism getting better?

Simon Rogers: Yes and no. If you can code, they are becoming brilliant, with things like The Miso Project really changing how we can work. But if you’re a reporter in a hurry, I’m getting a sense of stalling. We had a flurry of great tools a couple of years ago — Google Fusion Tables, Refine and so on — but we’ve also lost previously helpful things like Many Eyes. Datawrapper is a great new way to generate charts, and I’m liking CartoDB, but we still need more that anyone can use.

How can journalism schools prepare student journalists for our increasingly data-centric world?

Simon Rogers: I think it’s less about tools, as these are always changing. It’s more about helping create an attitude that looks for stories in numbers in a journalistic way — asking the same questions as you would in person to a contact.

Given the role of data analysis in this year’s US election, and the near mythic status of Nate Silver, what does this mean for data journalism moving forward?

Simon Rogers: It helps with the general feel that data is something to be embraced rather than avoided in journalism. And not all data work has to be as amazing as Nate’s. Much of what we do is very simple analysis: Has something become bigger or smaller? How does it compare? That sort of thing. But the key point holds: it helps you get stories.

Strata Conference Santa Clara — Strata Conference Santa Clara, being held Feb. 26-28, 2013 in California, gives you the skills, tools, and technologies you need to make data work today.

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