Spreadsheets, Datascraping and Huge Amounts of Hard Work: The Story behind the Infographics

I am obsessed with infographics. I love graphs. I’ve spent hours scrolling indepth analysis of hundreds of statistics and I am that person that fills up people’s inboxes by forwarding them all on.

Due to this previous fascination, I was extremely excited to be attending the panel on Data Journalism at the UK Conference of Science Journalists 2014 and finally find out about the nuts and bolts of data journalism.

I was not disappointed. The session kicked off with Peter Aldhous video calling in from the United States and doing the important job of defining what data-driven journalism actually is.

It became clear that it goes a lot deeper than my previous conceptions of colour-coded maps and pretty graphics and really is the foundation for a huge amount of the investigative journalism being done today. A piece in the New York Times on injuries to racehorses and jockeys was held up as a strong piece of data journalism as almost every statement in the article was backed up by careful investigation and verifiable facts. In short, the piece would not exist without the data.

Once I had learnt what true data journalism was, it was time to find out how it’s done. John Burn-Murdoch, Financial Times, explained the process behind creating his “maps” of the skills of all the World Cup teams, from initial idea, through finding the data, creating huge spreadsheets, selecting the relevant data, grouping the information and presenting it for consumption. This had the dual effect of making the final product seem even more impressive, yet also helping me to realise that data journalism projects are something that anyone with an internet connection, an idea and a lot of patience could attempt.

Further advice for starting out in data journalism was offered by BBC visual journalist, John Walton. The key message was to not get bogged down in the huge amount of software and data-analysis tools that are available today, but rather to choose a specific story that you want to tell and then figuring out which tools you’ll need in order to tell that story.

For an introductory topic, it was also recommended to make sure that it’s something with a fixed end point and that won’t need to be updated regularly, as data-driven journalism projects can be massively time consuming and it’s important to make sure that the story 'doesn’t run away from you'.

The take-away message from the panel was definitely to take the time to find the right balance between story and data.

"However sensational a story is, the headline must be based on absolute rigour and the methodology must stand up to scrutiny while remaining interesting and accessible," said John Burn-Murdoch and this sentiment was echoed in the particularly relevant Hans Rosling quote: "You have to be like the worst tabloid newspaper in the front and the Academy of Science in the back".

Pitching to Editors: Dragons’ Den 2014

It’s a sunny Wednesday morning, but the atmosphere in the grand rooms of the Royal Society bears an icy tension. Three early-career science journalists are here to pitch their ideas to three 'dragons' who edit three very different publications: Helen Pearson (features editor for Nature); Ehsan Masood (Editor of Research Fortnight); and Hannah Devlin (science editor, of The Times). Timandra Harkness, broadcaster, writer and comedian, takes on the presenter role of Evan Davis as she introduces the first candidate to the Den.

Mathew Thomas begins his confident pitch with the fact that by 2020 one in three people worldwide will have imperfect vision. These changes seem too fast to be caused by genetics alone, so could they down to environmental factors such as staying indoors and 'close work' - focusing eyes on nearby objects? Mathew says the scientific community is uncertain whether nature or nurture are to blame and he details how he wants to explore this debate.

The Dragons agree this is a great story, but they are still uncertain whether to commission it. Hannah feels that the lack of a clear conclusion would put off Times readers, whilst Helen explains that a Nature feature would need to focus primarily on cutting-edge research.  Unfortunately, none of the Dragons want to commission Mathew’s piece, and he leaves the Den.

Next to enter the Den is Alex Dedman. Alex gives an extremely passionate pitch on her frustration that crisp packets nowadays seem to be all ‘grab bags’ – they are considerably bigger than in the past, but the manufacturers now claim each bag contains two smaller portions, not just one. She reveals that food manufacturers have committed to a Government policy to reducing portion sizes, but with tricks such as this one, these commitments may seem worthless. Alex wants to explore how this affects obesity in the UK.

Ehsan describes the proposed article as ‘a good opinion piece’, but it’s just not right for his publication. Hannah agrees it has potential, but it might be more suited to a publication that does a lot of ‘news features’ than to The Times. Helen’s view is more clear-cut: research is key for her. Obesity is a topic Nature looks at regularly, but there’s no new research here. Despite Alex’s obvious enthusiasm, none of the editors wish to commission the piece.  

Our final pitcher is Kate Szell. Kate introduces prosopagnosia – a condition in which people struggle to distinguish faces. It’s been ten years since the first research was published in this field, so she feels now is a good time to examine the condition in the wider media. Many people in the caring professions are unaware of the condition, even though it affects large numbers of people with developmental conditions and will have a major impact on their behavior and needs. Kate eloquently explains the repercussions of this and the effect this may have on funding and science policy in the future.

The Dragons pause to consider. This is certainly an intriguing and thought-provoking topic. Hannah has concerns that it may be too obscure for a daily newspaper, whilst Helen returns to the issue of the lack of new research. It won’t get commission by either of these Dragons, but what about Ehsan? Many of his readers have interests in science funding, and this may certainly appeal to them. He advises Kate to develop this angle of the story more before coming back to him – if she can do this he will definitely consider running it. 

After three pitches only one Dragon has considered commissioning a piece. The recurring theme for journalists seems to be to know who you’re pitching to: get a feel for what an editor is looking for and make sure you provide it.

How to succeed in freelance science journalism

Freelancing is something that most journalists will consider at some point. For those who take the plunge it can be a challenging and sometimes stressful occupation, but it pays its dividends in the form of being your own boss and deciding exactly what work to do and when. In the session entitled ‘Successful Freelancing', Priya Shetty, Angela Saini and Richard Vize revealed their advice on making a success of going freelance.

Priya started the discussion by providing five pieces of advice she wishes she had known when she started freelancing, which were reiterated by the other panelists throughout the session. Firstly, don’t get hung up on chasing high-profile contacts at conferences just because of their status: develop relationships with people you find interesting and can engage with.

Secondly, remember that as a freelance you are running a business: think of yourself in ‘business terms’ and do your best to develop your brand. Never be afraid to talk about money – be polite but firm when chasing unpaid invoices, and feel free to negotiate fees if you think your client is demanding too much for too low a price. Trust your gut instinct: if a job sounds too ambitious, unrealistic or is unhelpfully vague, stay well clear.

This lead on to Priya’s final, and arguably most important tip: learn to say no. You do not have to do every job that is offered to you, and being able to turn down work if necessary will give you the freedom to explore what you really want to do.

Richard commented that networking has been crucial for his freelance career. Freelancing can be a very solitary profession, so developing social as well as business contacts will help to keep you sane. Take every opportunity to meet new people and connect through social media; it’s essential to get out there and to make sure your insights and knowledge are up to date.

The panel also strongly recommended knowing several people in each department or organization you work for, because individuals change jobs and leave companies fairly regularly.

Cash flow was a big concern for many members of the audience. Angela sets herself a target income each month that she knows will cover her expenses. However, it is also important to build up reserves for a rainy day.

Similarly, remember to pay into a pension pot and pay National Insurance – Angela found that this enabled her to claim maternity benefits when she had her child. The panel also recommended having a couple of organisations you know will probably offer you work each month.

The issue of working for free prompted a lively and impassioned discussion between the panel and audience members.

Whilst the panelists agreed that unpaid science writing is good for raising your profile and making contacts, it was also pointed out that this undercuts those who earn their living by writing such pieces.

Priya suggested new writers instead start writing pieces in small, niche publications to build up their bank of clippings: the NUJ and www.glassdoor.com are good sources to consult when considering how much to charge for this. Writing for these smaller publications also acts as a steppingstone to writing for newspapers and more mainstream magazines. 

For a freelance journalist it is particularly important to consider their next step on the career ladder. For example, Angela has written a book, which has since lead on to speaking engagements. You must always think to the future – what are your goals? What do you want to be doing in twenty years time? As with any career, having a plan for your next few steps will make reaching your final goal much easier.

Despite challenges, many journalists forge extremely successful careers freelancing. It may take vast amounts of courage to step away from the security of a stable monthly salary, but as Robin Vince explained during the talk, freelancing is "one of the best things I’ve done with my career".

Science writers as entrepreneurs - how to find your voice

Having a strong online persona is about much more than just setting up a website with your best clips in the hope of landing another commission. When done properly, you can set yourself up as the go-to person in your niche or even earn money directly from your site.

The four panellists at UKCSJ's Entrepreneur session had some fantastic advice for writers wanting to develop their personal brand online, including choosing your niche, building a loyal following and finding your voice.

Subject matters

Finding your niche is vital for turning your science writing into a profitable business. If you're just spouting the same content as everyone else, nothing will distinguish you from the other more established writers out there. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, had some simple advice for science journalists looking to go it alone: "Find a niche and report the hell out of it!"

Don't be afraid of being pigeon-holed. National Geographic's creative director Jody Segrue said that in order to be successful you have to get obsessed with a subject that is uniquely yours. That means covering the topics you're passionate about, not the sexy fields that the rest of the science writing community is fighting over.

Get involved

We all know social media is a great tool for promoting your work but it doesn't stop there. Ivan encouraged the group to find people talking about your subject online, whether in forums or on social media, and let them know what you're interested in. You'll be inundated with new material on the subject before long, as well as building a following for your work.

Adam Smith, reporter for Research Fortnight, has put this advice into practice. He found a small group of people on Twitter passionately discussing science policy, the topic of his blog Purse String Theory. By building a relationship with this active community, his popularity quickly grew and in just seven months his blog was shortlisted for a BBC student journalist award, which led to him being offered a job as a reporter for Research Fortnight.

Develop your brand

Entrepreneurs think of themselves as a business, which means you'll need to develop your personal brand. Design a landing page for your website that sets the tone for your work, letting people know what to expect. National Geographic is a massive publication with a 125-year legacy, but Jody’s previous role there involved trying to define exactly what their online persona should be. The challenge, she said, is trying to figure out what you want to be versus what you're telling people you are. Don't try to please everyone; be consistent and you'll have a more loyal following in the end.

Finding your voice

It's important to develop your own voice in writing, a brand that is uniquely yours. There will always be someone working in a similar niche to you, but the trick is to find a different angle. Jim Giles found himself frustrated with science journalism because it lacked the narrative popular in other subject areas. He and a friend launched a very successful Kickstarter appeal to raise funding to launch Matter, an independent online publication specialising in long-form investigative journalism. The gap was there, the demand was there, and Jim's alternative format allowed him to build a popular subscription publication.

Think beyond the platform

Adam’s last piece of advice was to think beyond your platform. Would other types of media work for your format? Could you take your writing elsewhere, for example a blogging network or a magazine? Try out new and exciting projects and keep your brand growing in several directions at once.

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