The Data Journalist Job Description

A tale of too many hats

Much has been made of the ever-expanding job description for today’s social media-savvy, digitally native, constantly engaged journalist. Add data to the mix—gathering, analyzing, interpreting and visualizing it—and the job spirals away from difficult towards impossible.

Earlier this year the “minimal job requirements of a self-directed reporter” at the Des Moines Register popped up online. The public reaction was none too surprising: “insane”, “sleep is optional”, “terrifying, yet accurate.”

The guidelines provide us a peek into the transition from print to digital thinking that underpins the current ecosystem. On the one hand, entire trades have nearly disappeared — no one manually typesets BuzzFeed. But where old tasks have disappeared, new ones have popped up as replacements—managing social media, tracking readership analytic trends, engaging with target segments across a variety of channels.

The key difference between the old world and the new is that journalists are expected to fill all of those roles at once. Take a look at just a few of the diverse hats that a journalist has to wear to make it according to the Register:

Define your audience. Work with your coach or strategist to define in detail the audience you are trying to reach…Dominate coverage of your beat. Be first with breaking news. Be recognized as an expert on your beat, regularly delivering exclusive news…Embrace a digital mentality.
Regularly use available tools to monitor how your work is performing. Monitor your stories in realtime with Chartbeat…Also check your Omniture dashboard daily to track your stories and videos. How did a story perform on each platform?
Actively use social media to build audience…Break news on Twitter. Seek out followers key to your audience’s interests…Be innovative and take risks in storytelling approaches, digitally and in print…Think about the best approach to tell your story on each platform. Chunks? Lists? Interactive graphic?
Take photos. Every story must have a photo. Shoot iPhone photos for headshots and real estate shots…Engage with your readers: See how the audience is responding to your work in comments and on Facebook, and post your own responses. This is each reporter’s job…Do Picasso outreach. Work with your strategist or coach to identify regular opportunities for small events or community outreach…

The situation looks even more dire when considering data journalism, a fast-growing genre exemplified by sites like FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot (part of the NYT). Vox joined the party as well, hiring a contributing editor of data and releasing a brief manifesto on what exactly data journalism means to Vox. They boil it down to a few bullets which succinctly lay out a great vision for what data journalism can be:

We will work to make all the data behind our stories available to you to download and play with for yourself.
We want you to improve on what we’ve done, to play with the data, visualize it, and help us analyze it — and make our work better.
Our data visualizations will be clear, concise, and deep — to help you understand our editorial better. They will adhere to design rules which ensure their accuracy and transparency.
Visualizations we produce in-house will work well on as many platforms as possible: if you view it on a smartphone, it will function as well as it does on web.

That’s data journalism in a nutshell — simply explained, but hard to achieve. Above and beyond the already ambitious job description laid out by the Register, today’s data journalist needs a litany of additional skills:

  • Data parsing / scraping / wrangling
  • Data management
  • Statistics / analysis / data science
  • Data visualization design
  • Front-end web development

While Vox has the resources and team needed to properly staff a data journalistic venture—with statistical expertise and innovative, cross-platform data visualizations—they are clearly the exception and not the rule.


Vox’s interview with President Obama is a perfect example of both the challenges and potential of data journalism on the web. Setting aside the politics, Vox’s treatment of the interview text is simply superb:

Fully responsive and immersive across a range of devices from phones to tablets to laptops, the piece has both a laser focus on the content of the interview—after all, this was an exclusive with a sitting president—and a rich layout full of charts, pull-quotes and footnotes that inform without intruding. The charts in particular are excellent, smoothly resizing for phone layouts, while clearly linking to primary data sources for fact-checking and fitting snugly within the design ethos of the page.

The credits page reveals Vox’s secret: it took twenty rockstars to build this post and the accompanying short videos. Two writers to craft the questions, five editors, a video editor, two designers to devise the innovative presentation, three developers to make it a reality, three analysts to source the primary data and create beautiful charts, three motion designers to work on the animated video components, and a product manager (the executive editor no less) to hone the vision and mold everything into a coherent product. Phew! How can a solo data journalist, or even a small team at a less well-funded organization hope to keep up?

Unfortunately the answer today is that they can’t. But there are early signs that a new ecosystem of tools is growing up around these needs, enabling journalists and writers to take off a few of their hats and focus on what they do best.

I’ll be writing more soon about what tools are out there today to empower journalists to tell stories with data, as well as what opportunities may exist for companies to fill crucial voids in the data journalism toolset. This niche is only going to grow as we all grow hungrier for data, and the next wave of data-driven stories will be built using better tools than ever.