Wikileaks made data journalism seem sexy. Not only was the content of the leaked documents exciting – who wouldn’t want to write about war and diplomacy? – the manner in which it was obtained would have made it seem very 007. Clandestine meetings in cafes. Encrypted USB sticks with keys scribbled on hotel napkins, even car chases (no matter how imaginary).
But after a little time trying to do data journalism you rapidly realise that it is far more likely to revolve around large spreadsheets full of baffling data about prescriptions, drink prices or the weekly pay packet of care home workers.
Even PDF’s about duck house claims are more exciting than the norm. So what does data journalistic really do for the working journalist other than bore him to death?
Well for a start, it gives you a get out of jail free card when you have to find a story, any story. Unlike the bulk of news journalism, data stories are lying around waiting to be found. There’s so much data out there that no one will ever have uncovered every angle. You should always be able to find something to keep the editor off your back, even if you can only produce it after hours of grueling pivot tables.
But perhaps more importantly, data journalism gives journalists another way to justify their continued employment. The advent of the internet has turned everyone into an journalist. Report on any event not hidden away from the public and you can bet that someone else has got there first, and there’s even a good chance they’ve got as a good a story as you. But not many people have got the skills, or the inclination, to sift through a huge pile of information and unearth the juicy nugget of a story that makes it worth publishing.
So it may not be as sexy as Julian Assange’s glistening silver mane, but data journalism may one day save you from unemployment. And there’s not much less sexy than unemployment.