Tag Archives: commissioning

Data journalism’s commissioning problem

Square peg in a round hole

Data journalism is still a square peg in a round hole when it comes to commissioning. Image by Yoel Ben-Avraham

Peter Yeung has a good point: why is it so difficult to get editors to pay for data journalism?

In a series of tweets we tried to find some answers.

Firstly, commissioning isn’t set up for data journalism. Editors instead try to fit it into established structures for commissioning text-based news and features, with the result that:

a) The pricing doesn’t reflect the work involved; and

b) Any interactivity and visuals become incidental to the process instead of integral.

And yet the value of data journalism has been repeatedly proven, and organisations are spending money on it: just not on commissioning. As Yeung added:

“I find it strange publications invest in data editors and journalists, but not data budgets”

The FT’s Martin Stabe suspected it wasn’t just a data journalism problem:

“This probably extends to lots of digital-only content, not just data journalism.”

A related problem is the lack of standardisation in data journalism: there is no equivalent to the payment by wordcount which print journalists have so long worked by.

Instead, organisations ‘insource‘ data journalism work to internal teams, either data teams or ad hoc teams formed from existing personnel (think the MPs’ expenses or Wikileaks investigations…

…Or they ‘outsource‘ data journalism work to external agencies etc.

This is a problem also highlighted by Alfred Hermida in his research into Canadian data journalism, ‘Finding the Data Unicorn‘: only one job title showed up four times “and that was the general reporter/journalist category.”

That’s our take. What about yours? Why isn’t data journalism properly commissioned? And how do freelance data journalists get work?

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How can the government save journalism?

I had an interesting meeting recently with an MP who wanted to get a handle on the state of the media right now and how good journalism could be supported. Rather than just hear my voice I thought it would be worth starting something wider that involves more voices, and point him to this.

To kick things off, here are some of the things I thought the government could do to create an environment that supports good journalism:

  • Release of public data (I’ve made this case before – it’s about helping create efficiencies for anyone reporting on public bodies). He seemed to feel that this argument has already been won.
  • Tax relief on donations to support investigative journalism: a number of philanthropists, foundations, public bodies and charities are starting to fund investigative journalism to fill the ‘market failure’ of commercial news production. In addition, an increasing amount of investigative journalism is being done by campaigning organisations rather than news organisations, and there is also the opportunity for new types of businesses – social enterprises and community interest companies – to fund journalism.
  • Encouraging innovation and enterprise: as regional publishers reduce their reporting staff and shut down their less profitable publications, gaps are appearing in local news coverage. Local people are launching news sites and blogs to fill those gaps – but not quickly enough, or with the resources, to match what was left behind. Funds to support these startups are much-needed and might also encourage journalists who have been made redundant to put their experience into an independent operation. There is no evidence to suggest that subsidising existing publishers will subsidise journalism; indeed, I would suggest it will stifle local innovation and economic growth.
  • Reskilling of redundant journalists: related to the last point, I would like to see funds made available to help put redundant journalists (more Chris Browns and Rick Waghorns) in a position to launch news startups. They have a wealth of experience, ability, knowledge and contacts that shouldn’t be left to waste – give them online and enterprise skills.
  • An effective local news consortia: The Digital Britain-mooted local news consortia is a vague idea in need of some meat, but clearly it could go some way to meeting the above 2 by supporting local independent media and providing training. Allowing the usual suspects to dominate any new operation will see business as usual, and innovative independent operators – including those who work on a non-commercial basis – will quickly become disillusioned. The idea of putting some or all of the commissioning process in the hands of the public, for instance, could be very interesting.
  • Address libel laws: one of the biggest obstacles to investigative reporting is the potential legal costs. Most newspapers now make a hard commercial decision on stories: if the story is worth enough money to make it worth fighting, it gets published; otherwise, it doesn’t. Public interest or importance is not the major factor other than in how it affects likely sales. Likewise, startup operations are likely to shy away from edgier reporting if they feel they can’t afford to fight for it in the courts. Stopping councils from suing for libel was an important step; keeping libel laws out of science should be the next one – and it shouldn’t stop there.

So those are the ideas that occurred to me. What would you suggest this MP, and government, do to help journalism?