Is there room for ‘tabloid data journalism’?

Lecturer and open data guy Tony Hirst wrote a brief blog about an ad he’d seen for a data journalism position in the US:

He asks what tabloid data journalism might actually look like, and my answer is that we’ve already seen some really good examples of it, but I’m probably totally biased because I was one of the few people producing it.

I was part of Trinity Mirror’s data journalism project, Ampp3d from 2013–2015. I think we did some amazing work, some of which I still look back on and think ‘I can’t believe we pulled that off’. The project has been written off as ‘failed’, as evidence that tabloid data journalism doesn’t work, but I disagree. Insofar as what I think success looks like, we succeeded, and I am still so proud of what we did. The fact that people still ask me about it two years later is a testament to how great and endearing it was.

And I really do think there is still a space for what one might call ‘tabloid data journalism’.

People like fun stuff

Amazing revelation for you: People like things that are fun. Yes, I know that ‘Cancer mum of three penned heartfelt letter before tragic death on Christmas Day’ is a really good story that pulls in the hits, but you can also pull other emotional strings that aren’t depressing as hell.

I remember writing a Bobby Norris story about his ahem, new piece of beachwear. We ended up creating charts for it. Spurious, fun, but it was linked into a big story that was doing well that day and IIRC it got a bit of pick-up from there. Niche, maybe, but it was done with humour and I think people appreciated that.

‘Tabloid’ simply means being accessible

It’s no secret that British tabloids tend to be more popular than broadsheets, so why wouldn’t you expose that audience to content which talks to them about more complex topics in a different way? I don’t see why we don’t look at data journalism as a valuable tool in a newsroom which speaks to the masses. And further, I’d say that maybe if ‘tabloid data journalism’ feels like a dirty phrase, then ‘pop data journalism’ makes more sense.

One of the best things I ever did was speak to Nick Sommerlad about collaborating on stories and bringing them to life in different ways, and we ended up doing a really great piece on how buying these 11 branded products means you’re secretly funding the Tories. It wasn’t a hard-nosed ‘this is data journalism’ piece of work, and there were no charts but data underpinned the piece and it worked extremely well with the Mirror’s audience. Likewise, an interactive about housing benefit millionaires Nick and I created did really well too — a topic loads of the Mirror’s readers care about, done in an interesting and engaging way.

Data journalism gives you a unique perspective

The royal baby stuff around early 2015 was going absolutely bananas, people just could not get enough of it. Some topics just lend themselves to being looked at from a different perspective even though they aren’t instinctively data-y, and they turn out really well. I looked into how much it costs to give birth at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington and did a piece about how Prince George was basically a bargain baby.

Actually, the great thing about this is that a story that is ostensibly about a famous person giving birth is now a story about how great the NHS is, how expensive US healthcare is, AND feeds into the royals’ popularity.

Data journalism expands the audience

One of the really cool things about Ampp3d was that we legitimately built an entirely new audience for the Mirror that would have had absolutely no interest in going there for any other reason. We actually built a whole community around what we were producing, a community that cared enough to find me on Twitter and tell me my work was shit, a community that understood our sense of humour and what we were trying to do. You mean…consumers…that are constantly engaging…with your work? YES!! This is exactly what news organisations have been trying to do for years!

Mixing up the fun with the serious is the way to go

At Ampp3d I really tried pushing for us to do more data-led investigations like the Tory funding and housing benefit pieces. It was hard, ultimately, to balance the need for a stream of data journalism, with my lofty ideals of pursuing bits of investigative work in the name of doing Good And Valuable Journalism. When Luke Lewis was editor of BuzzFeed he told me (or at least I saw it somewhere) that “the cat gifs pay for the serious things” and I think this also holds true for any attempt at tabloid data journalism.

Ultimately, data journalism is bloody expensive and time-consuming to produce. It involves speaking to statisticians for hours and reading 100-page-long research papers and understanding and studying how various elements interact in an economy or in society. In the UK, no one has the time or money to pay for it to be done the way it should be, and that’s partly why I don’t tend to pitch much freelance work anywhere. ‘Pop’ data journalism is usually faster and easier to produce and in some cases, the payoff is as much as if you’d spent three weeks working on, say, a map of all the cats in Britain.

I don’t buy that there is no value in it. I think introducing people to things they wouldn’t otherwise see (charts, infographics, maps, explainers on how GDP is measured and what it means and why) is a Good Thing and I think data journalism can provide a bridge for them in certain circumstances. I also think introducing people to your broader work, if they aren’t natural readers of yours, is a Good Thing. And if journalism is about educating and informing people then visual and data journalism has got to be a key pillar of that.

If you like this kind of thing, you might want to look at my weekly data-related blog Fair Warning, or sign up for the newsletter here. If you like my work, why not buy me a coffee?

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