Should data viz be a specialty or a commodity skill in the newsroom?

An interesting question came up at last Wednesday’s Doing Data Journalism (#doingdataj) panel hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism here at Columbia’s J-School: Should there be data specialists in the newsroom, or can everyone be a data journalist? For New York Times interactive editor Aron Pilholfer, who participated in the panel, the question is not so much should everyone do data as will everyone do data. And for Pilholfer, the answer to that question clearly seems to be no:

I kind of naively thought that at one time you could train everybody to be at least a base level of competency with something like Excel, but I’m not of that belief anymore. I think you do need specialists.

I’ve always hated the idea of having technology or innovation ‘specialists’ in a work environment that should ideally be collaborative. So, at first I tended to disagree with Pilholfer’s argument. But what won me over was the reasoning behind his claim. For Pilholfer, it’s not that the technology, human talent or open source tools aren’t there for everyone to scrape, analyze and process data –– in fact, it’s now easier than ever to organize messy data with simple and often free desktop applications like Excel and Google Refine. The problem is that there’s a cultural lack of interest within newsrooms, often from an editorial level, to produce data-driven stories. As Pilholfer says in what appears to be an indictment of upper-level editors for disregarding the value of data,

The problem is that we continue to reward crap journalism that’s based on anecdotal evidence alone . . . But truly if it’s not a priority at the top to reward good data-driven journalism, it’s going to be impossible to get people into data because they just don’t think it’s worth it.

I totally agree, but with one lurking suspicion. As with the top-level editors, many traditional users –– or ‘readers,’ as one might call them –– still at least think they like to read pretty, anecdotal narratives, and tend not to care as much whether the hard data backs them up. In other words, it’s an audience problem just as much as it is a managerial or institutional one. Some legacy news consumers just still aren’t data literate. Because they’re not accustomed to even having such data freely available to them, they don’t even value having it. As the old saying goes, “You can’t miss what you never had.” Yet as traffic and engagement statistics continually confirm, as soon users have open data readily available to them through news apps and data visualizations, they spend more time accessing the data than they do reading the print narrative.