Wanted: journalists who know how to code

Newsrooms using data visualisation to tell stories need staff with hybrid skills

Shazna Nessa, who pioneered interactive storytelling at AP, will speak about visual innovation in a data-rich world at the Media Future conference in Dublin on May 14th.

Shazna Nessa, who pioneered interactive storytelling at AP, will speak about visual innovation in a data-rich world at the Media Future conference in Dublin on May 14th.

 

From the New York Times ’ award-winning multimedia feature Snow Fall to the Guardian ’s infographic synopsis of the Thatcher legacy, newsrooms are increasingly using showpiece interactive graphics in their storytelling.

But the data visualisations being produced are sometimes “a little bit impenetrable” to audiences, says Shazna Nessa, who until recently was deputy managing editor of editorial products and innovations at Associated Press in New York, where she led the agency’s interactive news department.

Nessa, who is addressing the Media Future conference in Dún Laoghaire in Dublin on May 14th, says it is “an exciting time” for data journalism, but believes media companies engaged in the area need “to take a step back” and gain understanding of how users read visualisations.

First of all, however, they need to ensure their newsrooms employ people with the right mix of skills. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism began offering a dual-degree in journalism and computer science in 2010, Nessa notes, but hybridisation of skills is only just beginning, she believes.


Interactive department
“I’m not saying that everyone wants to code,” she says. Nevertheless, marrying the sharp news focus and beat knowledge of the traditional reporter with developer know-how can yield eye-catching results.

In recent years, AP has added programmers to its graphics team to form an interdisciplinary interactive department that has both the journalistic and software skills necessary to react quickly to breaking news.

Its data visualisations in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 included a map of radiation levels that served “a really vital tool for public safety”, Nessa says.

AP also mapped contributor and staff photography as part of its interactive coverage of that catastrophe, wrapping in data such as timelines and damage reports as well as tweet updates from reporters located in affected areas.

“The concept was very simple, but the impact was really big,” says Nessa.

More lately, the challenge for the news agency was to design visualisations of US election data that could be delivered in a responsive form via all the multiple devices used by news consumers.

Nessa will shortly take up a one-year fellowship at Stanford University in California in order to develop tools for heightening visual literacy in media outlets.


‘Baby steps’
“Software development is kind of the opposite of breaking news,” she says. So while developers need to constantly test everything they do and take “baby steps” in order to make a product work, the environment in a newsroom when a major story emerges has more of a full-speed-ahead feel.

“There is that tension between the software development cycles and breaking news.”