How To Create a Data Journalism Team

Five years ago, reporters who looked into databases or sought help from hackers and web coders were seen as the nerds of the newsroom. The current atmosphere is different: we’re all aware of concrete stories of corruption, including global investigative projects like the Panama Papers, which have underscored the alliances between reporters and technology. That a 2017 Pulitzer Prize went to the investigation that uncovered the dark side of the offshore industry is recognition of the rigor and impact of this new way of working.

In Latin and Central America, there is a large gap between technology and journalism, but despite that, eight legacy media and six digital native sites have formed data journalism teams inspired by the experiences of The New York Times, The Guardian, ProPublica and the Los Angeles Times.

I am a co-founder of one of these sites: Ojo Público, a digital media site comprised of six journalists and two developers specializing in data reporting. Our piece, “Memoria Robada” (Stolen Memory), received the Third Latin American Award for Investigative Journalism in 2016. It was a regional investigation that used big data to provide evidence of the scale of trafficking of cultural goods in Latin America, illustrating designation as organized crime.

The data journalism units mentioned all have distinct characteristics, in team size, profile and work dynamics. But, in a short period of time, most have also made shocking revelations and have been recognized by the prestigious Data Journalism Awards, organized by the Global Editors Network, which identify the most innovative stories supported by data.

These teams are located in Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and Chile. I have had the privilege of meeting various members and learning about their experiences, which gave me insight into some of the fundamental traits that may be useful to other journalists and techies who are looking to follow in their footsteps.

“One of the keys to the success of a data journalism team is the diversity of its members,” said Ricardo Brom, director of data intelligence from Argentinean newspaper La Nación. An electrical engineer by training, Brom left his post as director of technology services of the newspaper in early 2011 to become the brain behind coding at La Nación Data, the data journalism department at this paper, which has become the most respected of its kind in the region.

The team is made up of a journalist coordinator with database management skills; a reporter who is an expert in the laws around access to information; two programmers, a data analyst and a designer in charge of data visualizations. They are dedicated to medium- and long-term special projects, but also collaborate with several reporters from different sections of the newsroom who require assistance.

The La Nación Data team has been given a significant role in the paper’s investigations. However, this does not mean that only large teams can produce impactful stories with databases. The experience of small digital media sites like Ojo Público and Convoca in Peru, both winners at the Data Journalism Awards, shows that it’s possible to create excellent work with a small team. But it also depends on the extent to which journalists integrate a developer — one with sufficient knowledge of programming languages for database management– into their newsrooms.

In the field of web development, there are professionals and the self-taught with diverse knowledge on computer programming. But a data journalism team needs developers with two types of profiles: the back-end, who works on the server and manages the database, and the front-end, who is responsible for the visible part of the platform. If it’s only possible to count on one of them, one must start to find and integrate the back-end.

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