“We Need More Career Paths for News Nerds”

My name is Matt Dempsey and I’m the data editor at the Houston Chronicle. I’d like to thank everyone who voted to hear me complain for 5 minutes about my job.

But seriously, this isn’t about me. It’s about how few of us are in newsroom leadership positions, even though data journalism has never been in more demand.

Either we’re all terrible editor candidates or we’re just not getting access to the same career paths as other journalists. And honestly, I think you’re awesome. So it’s probably the access thing.

In planning for this talk, I reached out to datajournalists from around the country. You know, like reporters do. The responses were similaracross the board.

One said, “It’s rare to see data journalists become section editors.”

Another - Brian Hamman of the New York Times - said last year that “there’s not a clear career path for where to go next.”

It’s difficult for us to get access to traditionalcareer paths because far too often, data work is STILL not considered journalism by many.

I’ve had to argue for bylines at every place I’ve worked. And I had to fight for the title editor in my current newsroom, while essentially having the same arguments over again. But I still don’t oversee a team of reporters.

I know it’s not just me.

One data journalist told me, “I was more respected when I was an intern fresh out of college. When I moved into tech and data full time, it shattered my credibility as a journalist.”

According to the 2017 NewsNerd Survey, 30% of us feel our organizations don’t understand the value of our work.

We’re treated like a service desk and not as equals with our traditional reporting

counterparts. The same thing happens to photojournalists and graphic artists. But that it doesn’t make it ok, for them or for us.

One journalist told me there’s a preconceived notion of what makes a good editor. they said visual and data skills are viewed as nice-to-haves, not core expertise.

But what’s the alternative career path? If you work in a small or mid-sized newsroom, you’re probably the only data person there. Managing other data people isn’t an option.

In larger newsrooms, it’s possible to lead a team of data journalists. But those teams aren’tplentiful, and far too many of us have superiors with no data skills or expertise. Most of you were the first person hired to do this kind of work for your newsroom.

According to the 2017 NewsNerd Survey, 39% say they need editors who are qualified to supervise the work of data journalists.

This isn’t an ask for a title for titles sake.

We can bring a unique perspective and approach to an industry that’s been struggling for years. We know how to solve seemingly intractable problems in news gathering. We can apply those skills across our newsrooms.

Really, who better to understand some of our challenges, like the lack of diversity among news staffs? We know the numbers.

So how do we fix this? How do we change the minds of those in charge? How do we get more people with our skill sets in leadership positions?

First, help your current leaders to understand thatthis is a problem. If you’re a newsroom leader in the audience or watching on video, right here in front of me there’s a room full of amazing talent. This is one of the first places you should look when there’s an editor opening.

You don’t want to lose these talented people. The OpenNews survey says 53 percent of data journalists leave their jobs because they lack career paths. Forty percent leave due to a lack of leadership or direction in the newsroom. Doesn’t sound like a bunch of mercenaries to me. Sounds like passionate people who want to take our journalism to a higher level. Sounds like future editors.

The traits that make us valuable data journalists give us the potential to be amazing leaders. If we’re good at what we do, we have excellent news judgment, know how to multi-task, are great collaborators, and successfully coach others.

And yeah, if we were called on to line edit, we can tell what needs work. If you want more than that, help us get there.

It just cannot be that the only people qualified to direct coverage, develop staff and lead our newsrooms are those who are excellent writers first. Great editors are in short supply. We’ve all seen it.

If you’re a data journalist and you aspire to management, share the research with your bosses. Share the video of this lightning talk. Tell your superiors and your co-workers you want to be considered for leadership roles.

Don’t limit your goal to managing other data people. As I’ve said, that’s too small a job pool.You should be considered for editing roles across your organization or be put into a position that influences the direction of the newsroom.

If the role you want doesn’t exist, make your case for why it’s a value add for the newsroom.

Make the case directly to those in charge, open their eyes to possibilities.

And while we’re storming this editorial Bastille, let’s support each other as we develop managerial skills, just like we supported each other as we learned tech skills.

If you’ve made it to management, pass along what you’ve learned.

If you’ve been blocked from management development available to other staff members, say something! Share the experience. Staying silent means nothing changes.

If you want to learn how to do this, ask for help. If you know how to do this, help others!

It shouldn’t have to be this way. Starting today, starting right here at NICAR, start demanding a seat at the table.

Because you deserve it. Because journalism needs us there, leading the way.

Data editor at the Houston Chronicle