Recently it has felt like data journalism might finally be taking a step forward after years spent treading water. I’ve long said that the term ‘data journalism’ was too generic for work that includes practices as diverse as scraping, data visualisation, web interactives, and FOI. But now, in 2014, it feels like different practitioners are starting to find their own identity.
It starts with the unicorn.
In February Chase Davis‘s post In defense of unicorns proudly asserted his “hybrid” identity. (Unicorns, by the way, are semi-mythical creatures who combine journalistic nous with coding skills).
Davis’s post was a reaction against “the caucus of nonbelievers” in the existence of people who could straddle both editorial and tech.
Meanwhile, in the UK, a month earlier Financial Times journalist Martin Stabe had been expressing his frustration at the lack of unicorns:
— Martin Stabe (@martinstabe) January 24, 2014
In March when I spoke at a BBC Data Day I decided to give these ‘people with the basics’ a name. I called them racehorses.
Unicorns may be rare and colourful, but racehorses are quick.
And while we do need more unicorns (more on this in a future post), we also need journalists who use data journalism techniques to speed up their newsgathering and report stories they might otherwise not, because of time limitations.
Journalism, as I wrote in the very first post about the News Diamond, competes at the extremes of speed and depth: the first to the story, or the best and most compelling story.
- For examples of unicorn and racehorse journalism see the presentation below
The story of the last few years has been about breeding racehorses: more and more journalists with the ability to find stories in spreadsheets, to deal with data and understand the editorial value within it.
That provides an environment within which unicorns can operate and collaborate (not to mention the opportunity to urge ‘racehorse’ journalists to “get the horn”… Sorry.)
But this year I’m starting to see more unicorns emerge – both at university level, and within news organisations, while racehorses start to collaborate with organisations like Import.io and Scraperwiki and there are more and more launches that draw on both approaches, like Ampp3d, The Upshot and Vox.
Oh, and the mules? They’re the dogged journalists who keep on pushing to get data such as Freedom of Information responses, like Martin Rosenbaum and Heather Brooke. They may not be fast or fancy (Heather may disagree), but they all speak the same language and get a vital job done.