The head of the data unit at Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror) says the UK data journalism scene should be a case of “the more the merrier” as some official data still goes without being properly interrogated in many newsrooms.
David Ottewell believes the danger with data journalism is that it can be seen as a niche only for “the nerds in the corner” – but adds it is “brilliant” to see more work by the likes of the Bureau Local and BBC shared data unit.
Ottewell says: “There’s a ton of data which is broken down locally which is put out by the Office for National Statistics and the Government which is still not, I think, properly interrogated by other journalists, so there’s scope for looking at that.
“And these are really important things, it could be on class sizes, on hospital performance, on crime levels, things that are really important but still aren’t properly analysed day to day on a local level, mainly because people don’t have the expertise still to do that efficiently.”
Ottewell, who previously worked on the Manchester Evening News as hub news editor, political editor and chief reporter, says he does not see other data teams as competition.
“There’s never going to be a shortage of local data and there’s never going to be too many people finding stories from local data so I think it’s brilliant that we have more and more people looking at local data,” he says.
There are specific things he admires about each team, he says, crediting the Bureau Local’s collaborative approach and the way it is drawing in participants who are not journalists as a “really great thing for local journalism”.
He adds that the BBC’s unit has “looked at some really important topics in great detail”, such as the “traditionally under-reported” subject of bus routes being cut.
Ottewell’s data unit celebrated its fifth anniversary in April, having grown from two journalists to a 12-strong team including four data journalists, a sports data journalist, two graphic designers, two coders and a videographer based across Cardiff, Manchester and Bristol.
When the unit was set up in April 2013, Ottewell and his deputy, Claire Miller, were given the open remit of creating interesting content from data for Trinity Mirror’s various titles (the company officially changed its name to Reach earlier this week).
They have gone from simply finding, analysing and sharing data with internal titles to doing a lot more of the “journalistic heavy-lifting” and issuing more fully-formed stories – although there is always room for local newsrooms to add their own case studies.
They are also creating more interactive tools and, after a period of experimentation, are focusing on mobile-friendly postcode search interactives “where people can quickly get important information specific to them by typing in a postcode”.
Each journalist is given one day every week to work on long-term projects and investigations, and spend the rest of their time on ideas-driven stories fuelled by Freedom of Information requests or otherwise searching out data, or on-diary data released by authorities.
Ottewell says: “We believed and wanted to show that you could get great front page news and build great interactives that people cared about but that were very much part of the journalistic tradition and the journalistic mainstream.”
The team has seen a series of award wins and nominations, most recently being shortlisted in four categories in this year’s Regional Press Awards: Innovation and Initiative Award of the Year, the Overall Digital Award, Designer for Marianna Longo and Specialist Writer/Impact Journalist for Annie Gouk.
Ottewell is pleased to see Gouk’s nomination – “I think that’s the first time a full-time data journalist has been nominated alongside health reporters, crime reporters” – but adds they “don’t want to be trading on the mere fact that we’re innovative”.
“I personally don’t feel data journalism per se is an innovation anymore,” he says.
“So although that’s great, and we like it when our individual innovations are recognised, we like to focus on the content we’re doing and the quality of the content.”
What will the data unit look like in another five years? Ottewell is unsure, but says: “As long as we’re still providing really important stories and providing stories which are well read and which are well received and engaged with by our readers, I’ll be happy.”
The team’s latest innovation is automated print pages, for which local titles can choose their geographic areas of interest.
A coding system extracts relevant data on a range of topics, runs it through a graphics generator, and creates half pages of text, images and graphs on issues such as house prices, crime and hospital performance.
But automation will not go much further than telling a limited story like this, Ottewell says.
“I still feel that the core skills of journalism, which are important to us and which are important to any newsroom, are really hard to automate,” he says.
“So in data journalism, for example, going through a lot of data and then finding a really compelling story in it and then writing that story in a way which people will actually want to read, that’s a really hard skill to automate.
“That’s going to take a lot of refinement and a lot of work if we’re ever going to get into a situation where a robot, if you will, can find a great story and write a great story.
“I think, as far as I can see into the future, there’s always going to be a role for a human being, a great reporter, a great journalist, to do that side of things.”
However, he adds there are other elements which can be “sensibly automated”, such as apps and tools which create live data feeds or automatically scrape data or look at data as it is published to “flag up” to a journalist that it might be news.
One of Ottewell’s concerns about data journalism is that “people talk about it in the abstract a lot” and that “some data journalists still trade on this idea that it’s new and it’s going to save journalism”, he says.
The Reach unit has taken a more straightforward approach.
“We were very clear from the start that we were going to be judged by our output and that we needed to get the most read stories on websites and we needed to get front pages and we needed to prove its worth journalistically in terms of output,” Ottewell says.
“I feel, not so much in the UK but worldwide, there’s still too much talk about what data journalism can do and not enough demonstration of what data journalism is doing day-to-day, week-to-week on a regular basis, just like all reporters are expected to do.”
Asked what he is most proud of in the data unit’s body of work, Ottewell names two projects: the annual Real Schools Guide, which does millions of page views each year as parents can easily compare their local schools, and the World War One commemoration which named the war dead from every town in the country after a “mammoth act of scraping and data cleaning”.
But, he adds: “What makes me proudest is the daily news conference, hearing brilliant data stories. Yes they are data stories, but first and foremost they are just fantastic stories that reporters have found.”