Of Numbers, Business Journalism and the Emerging World of Data Journalism

Yesterday was my last day at CyberMedia India Ltd—an organization where I served in various capacities for the last 18 years. This also happened to be—going by my current plans for the future—my last day as a journalist; business journalist, as I never forget to emphasize.

I thought this is an apt time to share what I believe are the most essential requirments for a business journalist. It would not be new to people who have worked closely with me—my juniors for sure, but many of my peers and seniors too. I have often preached two simple mantras to freshers. Many may and do disagree with me on this—and that is fine with me—but I dare anyone to point out even one instance when I have been unfaithful to these mantras!

Those mantras would sound astoundingly simple to you. In fact, I believe they really are. And here they go…

  1. Never underestimate the value of numbers
  2. Never overestimate the value of numbers

That is common sense, na?

Yes, it is.

But unfortunately, I have encountered so many youngsters who believe they can “stay away” from numbers and still be succesful business journalists. They believe I am some sort of a fundamentalist to insist on something so mundane. I take the criticism with alll humility but would still stand by my assertion. And the fact that I chose to highlight this as the most important requirement as I say good bye to the field just shows how much importance I attach to these two mantras.

But before that, I must make a clarification. These are not sufficient conditions for becoming good business journalists. A person who is on top of numbers but is not good at finding stories is good to be a statistician, not a business journalist. A business journalist should be a journalist first. And a good business journalist should be a good journalist first. A good journalist, I am repeating for the sake of completeness, should have an eye for a story. A good business journalist, often, may find a story in a set of numbers itself, though that is just one aspect of it.

So, what do I mean? When I say never underestimate the value of numbers, it simply means you must be comfortable to deal with numbers if you want to be a business journalist. You do not need to be an economics or engineering or mathematics graduate, but you must not fear numbers. You need to learn how to read them and they must not repel you. I think there is no other way. In many ways, Mantra 1 is a necessary condition to be a business journalist. It is the beginning of the journey.

Mantra 2, on the other hand, is what would help you transform yourself to a good business journalist from an average one. At first, it sounds contradicting the first mantra, but in essence, it is not. The first mantra just emphasizes the importance of being comfortable with numbers. The second suggests you should not get obsessed by numbers. Practically, it could mean one of the two things: one, tell yourself that numbers could often give you a good story, or an idea to pursue, but there are other important sources too. Two—and this is more important—just because you have discovered something by doing some number crunching does not mean the reader is interested in all those numbers. The fact is that most readers do not like a copy that is full of numbers; it must tell a story. But very often, you have got to the story by doing some heavy number crunching in the background. Resist from throwing all those numbers in the story. Tell the reader the story, may be suported by a couple of big numbers. But don’t subject him to all that you have worked out. That is what I mean when I say never overestimate the value of numbers.

If mantra 1 is about starting the journey, mantra 2 is about reaching virtuosity; knowing when to exercise restraint. Sometimes, numbers are just for the input; not for the output.

The reason I chose this topic for highlighting is not just my love for numbers. It is about the increasing relevance of this skill on part of a journalist (and not just business journalists) in a world that is going through a data revoloution, driven primarily by a movement towards transparency. Releasing of data by governments, such as the US government’s data.gov and similar initiatives the world over, is becoming mainstream. Apart from governments, international organizations and business organizations too are releasing huge raw datasets to the public domain. These datasets are invaluable sources of treasure as far as spotting trends is comcerned. And that is what good journalists have done traditionally—to be out with a trend. These datasets provide a great opportunity to analyze and come out with interesting stories by the journalists. So much so that, a new term, data journalism, is now becoming vogue.

Wikipedia calls it data driven journalism and defines it thus

Data-driven journalism is a journalistic process based on analyzing and filtering large data sets for the purpose of creating a new story. Data-driven journalism deals with open data that is freely available online and analyzed with open source tools. Data-driven journalism strives to reach new levels of service for the public, helping consumers, managers, politicians to understand patterns and make decisions based on the findings. As such, data driven journalism might help to put journalists into a role relevant for society in a new way.

I, however, find the explanation of Guardian to be far more relevant and simple.

My major disagreement with the Wikipedia definition is this: while I do believe that open data will revoloutionize the way data journalism is handled, I will not like to include it in the definition of data journalism. Journalism should not concern itself with the nature of the source of that data. Even if it is not open data, it should still be called data journalism. Having said that, open data, because of its sheer volume and openness—the fact that is available to all—will make a huge impact on how data journalism evolves.

I will also recommend this piece  by Guardian, that is an extract from its Data Journalism handbook. While you go through that yourself, I will like to reproduce extracts from its first tip and last tip.

The best tip for handling data is to enjoy yourself. Data can appear forbidding. But allow it to intimidate you and you’ll get nowhere. Treat it as something to play with and explore and it will often yield secrets and stories with surprising ease. So handle it simply as you’d handle other evidence, without fear or favour.

…….

…….

The best questions are the old ones: is that really a big number? Where did it come from? Are you sure it counts what you think it counts? These are generally just prompts to think around the data, the stuff at the edges that got squeezed by looking at a single number, the real-life complications, the wide range of other potential comparisons over time, group or geography; in short, context.

As it is, data journalism is not a new concept. All business journalists (and other journalists) would have done it in some way or other—in the earning season, for example.

As far as I am concerned, I have done many big stories, purely basing them on analysis of data. That is why some of the international multilateral organizations as well as bodies like RBI are my regular stops. They often release data that reveal exciting stories if you look for them. In fact, I have even managed to earn a name for such stories from many who term them, armchair stories. Honestly, I did not know the term data journalism while doing those.

For those who call them armchair stories, I have just one more piece of news. I have gone a step ahead. In recent days, I have focused on what one could well term lazy man’s data journalism. Many of my tweets are actually based on those “hunted” data from various sources (minister’s answer to a question in parliament, RBI Governor’s speech or GITR report by WEF) often without any analysis on my part. But what makes me select a few from so much that is around is that I know what is a little surprising, counter intuitive, or plain interesting. That does not come from my comfort with numbers. That comes from my familiarity with the area of ICT/public services. I cannot do the same in say, biotechnology.

I have found those tweets to be the most retweeted. So, there must be something interesting in them.

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