Data journalism: A simple tip to get started

As a young reporter, I went to a National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in 1998. I’ll admit that I found the pivot tables in Excel of 1998 a bit daunting. A lot has changed since then, and when I do data journalism training now, one of the things that I stress is how the tools have gotten so much easier, especially in the last few years. Even pivot tables, which can be hard to wrap your head around, are really simple in Google spreadsheets and the current versions of Excel. With Google Drive (Docs), almost any journalist can be trained to produce simple graphs and charts in a day.

Aron Pilhofer, the Interactive News editor at the New York Times, has put it this way:

I teach and have taught for years basic computer-assisted reporting and I do it in this one-day class. Nobody believes me, but it’s totally true: In one day – ONE DAY – we can teach you the skills that if mastered would allow you to do 80 percent of all the computer-assisted reporting that has ever been done. This is importing a spreadsheet, doing some basic math, knowing what a sum is, what a mode, a median, what an average is. I mean, being able to take a dataset, to do some basic count. I mean, this is not rocket science, for the most part.

I did data journalism back in the 1990s when it was called computer-assisted reporting (CAR) in the US, and it was only when Simon Rogers launched The Guardian data blog after one of our internal hack days, that I got a chance to return to it. Thanks Simon.

And I was reminded of how easy it is to get your start again today with an interview by WAN-IFRA with Steve Doig, truly one of the CAR pioneers. What does he use for data journalism?

His toolbox has five items: a web browser, ability to access public records, Excel, in rare cases a heavier programme such as Microsoft Access to bring different tables together and a geo mapping tool.

Those are tools that most journalists use every day, apart from Access, and it really is that easy for you to dip your toe into data journalism. To be honest, I haven’t used Microsoft Access in years, and you can do most things just by using Excel, Google spreadsheets or Google’s Fusion Tables.

As a matter of fact, here’s one tip to get you going. If you want to find the sum, average or count of a column of numbers in Google spreadsheets, simply highlight the column of numbers and look in the lower right hand corner. You’ll see a small box. Click on it, and you’ll see a summary of the biggest number (max), smallest number (min), the average and  the number of numbers (count numbers) or of words (count). It’s that easy. You can start right now.

Gdocssummarise

It’s just a simple little feature, but over time, it can be a huge time saver. Of course, sometimes this quick little summary won’t be the end of the process but just the beginning. However, it’s the first step in interrogating data. Sometimes it will give you the answer you’re looking for, and other times, it will uncover a key question for your story, and that’s when data journalism really gets exciting.

To John Paton: I’m still dedicated to journalism and I damn well didn’t quit

I woke up this morning to what could diplomatically be called a bit of digital journalism friendly fire on Twitter. In response to my post about coming to terms with my decision to take a buyout from The Guardian in 2010, John Paton, the CEO of Digital First Media and a vocal advocate for the need for digital transformation at newspapers, said this on Twitter:

Not everyone is out of energy, ideas or dedication “@kevglobal: Coming to peace with journalism http://bit.ly/XxblUQ … thanks @allysonjbird”

Needless to say, I take umbrage at the implication that I’m not dedicated to journalism and out of ideas or energy. Suw leapt to my defence, but I was angry, well shaking with rage to be honest. He went on to say:

@Suw @kevglobal’s post – I think is too self-serving. Large news organizations are struggling to make the changes he discusses.

Suw brought up the post by Mimi Johnson about the problems Steve Buttry, her husband who now works at Digital First Media and is a good friend, had experienced in journalism, to which Paton replied:

@Suw Which is why I admire @stevebuttry – he didn’t quit. He fights forward everyday, teaching our staff, trying to find solutions.

And then:

@Suw @kevglobal I disagree. I tire of the one-man-against-the-machine posts like this not just his. They are strawman arguments.

To which, I said:

@jxpaton @suw You’re projecting your own experience onto my post. Your comments are about you not me.

That hopefully provides some context for what I’m about to say. I know Paton by reputation, but I’ve never met the man. However, as he is a powerful voice for  digital change, I found this exchange depressing as well as infuriating. I didn’t appreciate having 140-character pot shots taken at me by the CEO of a major media company. I didn’t say anything about Digital First Media, nor did I say that it was impossible to achieve change at a big company. I just said that I was feeling more successful and satisfied outside of one at the moment. Paton chose to make this personal and question my commitment to journalism, which is why I feel the need to rebut some of his implications:

• To imply that I quit journalism is both factually inaccurate and insulting. I didn’t quit journalism in 2010, I voluntarily took a buyout from the financially troubled Guardian. Paton is straying dangerously close to implying that the thousands of journalists voluntarily or forcibly (or often a mix of both) taking buyouts are quitters.
• In the two years after I took the buyout I did plenty of freelance journalism, although in this market I joked that I did other things – training and consulting – to support my journalism habit. I would have loved for freelance journalism to have paid the bills, but we’re in a terrible media market and many freelance journalists must supplement their income with other work.
• To imply that I lack dedication to journalism because I’m not still working on staff at a news organisation is insulting. Whilst I was consulting, I worked with many major news organisations around the world, helping them make the digital transition and even launching new and innovative news sites. I’m proud of what I’ve done both on the staff of major news organisations and as a consultant.
• To imply that I lack ideas and energy… well, just ask the major news organisations I worked with when I was a consultant and trainer.
• I now work for an organisation that invests in independent news organisations in countries with a history of media oppression. I help these news organisations navigate the digital transition.  In my spare time (literally during spare vacation days), I do the odd bit of training and consulting with major news organisations and with journalism training organisations.

Lack dedication to journalism, my arse!

I may have just risked sounding “self-serving,” but this is just the latest time in my almost two decade career when I’ve had to list what I do just so that journalists, mostly in print, will accept me as a one their own. I am tired of justifying my journalistic credentials and commitment to journalism to traditionalists, but I didn’t really expect to have to do it with the CEO of a digital first journalism company. We’re both working towards bringing much needed digital transformation to journalism, which is why I found this attack so baffling and counter-productive.

The decision to take the buyout from the Guardian was incredibly painful and difficult. The post that Paton commented on was an attempt by me to work through some of the emotions surrounding that decision. It wasn’t a statement about the state of the industry as it was me working through those emotions as I, as with thousands of other journalists, try to navigate these difficult times. It was a tough decision for me to make at the time, but looking back it was absolutely the right decision. I wrote that post to share my experience, to connect with other journalists who have been either made redundant (laid off) or who chose voluntary redundancy (a buyout) because they saw no real future where they were or needed to make a career change. It’s a tough thing to go through and we shouldn’t shy away from talking about it, and what it means for us as individuals.

I know, only too well, how hard cultural change is in big news organisations. I know the tough fight that Paton is fighting, but I don’t see how taking pot shots at another digital journalist still fighting the fight helps anyone.

Kickstarter-funded Read Matter finding subs do better than singles

Bobbie Johnson by Jeremy Keith from Flickr, Some Rights Reserved
Bobbie Johnson by Jeremy Keith from Flickr, Some Rights Reserved

Building sustainable journalism is a topic near and dear to me as it is core to the work that I do now, and Hacks/Hackers London on Wednesday provided one of those rare times when you get to hear someone a real journalism entrepreneur talk about what has worked and what hasn’t with their start-up. Of course, it’s also great to see a former colleague at The Guardian, Bobbie Johnson, find success.

He and co-founder Jim Giles launched Read Matter with a campaign to raise seed capital on crowdfunding site Kickstarter. They set a goal of raising $50,000, but in less than 48 hours, their goal was firmly in the rear view mirror. In the end, they raised almost three times their goal, brining in $140,201. As Bobbie told The Next Web, crowdfunding can be a great bit of market research. It allows you to find out whether there is real demand for your project.

One of the things that I think really helped their Kickstarter campaign was a great video that clearly explained what Read Matter was in a highly engaging way. It was a great bit of marketing, and if you believe in your journalism, I believe that you have to be ready to sell it. It’s not enough to have the conviction that journalism should win in the marketplace of ideas, you do need to work to make sure that it cuts through the overwhelming torrent of things competing for people’s time and attention.

However, taking a step back before the campaign, Bobbie and Jim did business plans. Bobbie quickly flashed the Excel spreadsheets they used to try to figure out if there was an actual business with how they planned to produce one long-form science and technology piece a month. For a lot of journalists trying to do start-ups, I’d strongly suggest speaking with someone with business experience. It’s not something that we were taught in J-school, but in this new world for the brave, this is something you’ll either need to develop or get via a partner in your project.

Bobbie and Jim are learning as they go along, and one of the things that really stood out for me was lessons that surprised them. They had expected most of their sales to be single sales, but they are actually getting more of their revenue from subscriptions. I read Bobbie’s experience that single sales were too high friction. It’s much easier to set up a subscription through iTunes, Amazon or your own payment system than it is to remember to buy something every month when it comes out. I think that has a profound implication for how news groups are packaging up their long-form, high-gloss, high-cost pieces. Does this mean that instead of trying to sell Kindle Singles, that it might be better for news groups to sell subs for long-form journalism? Should they have several packages that target niches? Read Matter covers only science and technology. Would they be as successful if they tried to sell “investigative journalism” rather than a single topic? My gut says that investigative journalism as a class of content might have more value to journalists than it does intrinsically to audiences. What I mean is that audiences are usually interested in topics, not classes of content. That is why I’m sceptical about the sustainability of trying to strip out deep investigative journalism from a broader package of content.

I’m doing a lot of thinking about how to support long-form, often investigative journalism. As  another speaker at Hacks/Hackers London on Wednesday – David Leigh of The Guardian – pointed out, the cross-subsidy in journalism businesses, mostly fat advertising returns, are going or gone. To me, the real question is not how to support investigative journalism on its own but how to find new sources of cross-subsidy to support it.

That aside, kudos to Bobbie and Jim. I know that their future success will take a lot of work and more learning, but it is encouraging to see people succeeding with new models to support the real heavy lifting of long-form original content.

Coming to peace with journalism Part 1

This is a blog post that has been a long time coming. I simply hadn’t known where to start, and I’m the kind of blogger who doesn’t like to leave threads dangling. I need to get over that, and a journalist in the US inspired me with her courage in discussing why she left news. Allyson Bird, a woman in her late 20s in the US, said when asked why she wasn’t married and why she left news, she answered with one word: Money.

I can relate to that. I remember as an early 20-something reporter in western Kansas in 1994 that I made $2,000 less than a first year teacher, which is commonly used as the benchmark for low pay in the US. I remember going to a local TV station in a much larger city in Michigan after that job, and I was shocked to find that a junior producer made $3,000 less than I had in western Kansas.

Allyson then said that journalism didn’t seem like a “sustainable career path”, and she meant not only financially but also personally. She went on to explain:

This is the real reason why I left news: I finally came to accept that the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied.

I did and continue to find journalism quite satisfying, but I know what she means about emotional exhaustion. For me, it wasn’t the hassling by editors late at night or during personal events. I’m probably a little too much of a workaholic for that to have bothered me. I still need to find a better balance between work and play.

To me, the emotionally draining thing was knowing exactly what I should be doing as a digital journalist and being almost completely powerless to do what needed to be done while I was working in a traditional newsroom. I have had a lot more success being an external agitator rather than a Barbarian Inside the Gates, which is what I called myself and was the title of a short lived internal blog when I was The Guardian.

Why did I take a buyout from The Guardian? I often get asked that question. A little over a year after Suw and I were married, I threw myself back into my job, giving myself one more chance to make a difference. I worked from the moment I got up until the moment I went to sleep. Then one day, Suw said to me, “I don’t get to see my husband anymore.” I refused to be a statistic of yet another journalist with a failed marriage.

The real reason I took the buyout though was that powerlessness and its corrosive effects. I was giving into the dark side; I was growing bitter. I knew that the lost marriages were only a side effect, not only because of too much work, but bitterness that I had seen in too many journalists. I was getting into middle life, and not only was I not going to lose my Suw, I wasn’t going to lose my soul. I didn’t want to become that bitter old man I had seen a fair number of times sitting in the newsroom alone not because there was a story to cover but because he had nothing better to do.

Fortunately, I’ve never feared course corrections. I miss being in a newsroom, but Suw reminds me that in the two years in between when I left The Guardian and when I joined the Media Development Investment Fund, I trained and worked with more than 800 journalists around the world.

But I still miss being in a newsroom. Suw has asked me what I miss. That is another blog post. I need to answer that question, but I needed to be honest and open about why I left the newsroom first.

Thanks Allyson for inspiring me with your courage. This is a good conversation to have.

The bully barons of the British press fight to remain unaccountable

Of course, true to form, only hours after I published my previous post, three British press groups threatened to boycott any new self-regulatory body which might be underpinned by statue, the Guardian reported. Classy. As Alex Andreou at the New Statesman wrote, this really is a toddlers’ tantrum.

Much of the press seems to be belly-down on the supermarket floor, punching the linoleum, kicking out and screaming WAAH WAAH BUT I DON’T WANT TO BE REGULATED.

The three groups, News International (aka Hackers ‘R Us), Daily Mail owner Associated Newspapers and the Telegraph Media Group all portrayed themselves as the defenders of freedom of the press and democratic liberty. It should be pointed out, that when Operation Motorman looked into the use of private investigators by the the press and other industries, including the financial and insurance industries, topping the league table by a country mile was the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail says that every one of its 1218 requests from private investigators was legal. I would prefer if a proper investigation determined that rather than take it on the self-interested word of Mail man Paul Dacre.

The Guardian quoted a source close on these efforts who said:

We wouldn’t join the regulator. It would challenge the government to go for full state licensing. This is definitely under active consideration: to stand up against the politicians and for the media and say ‘we’ll go it alone and what are you going to do about it?’ They will just end up fighting for years and newspapers might rediscover a common purpose around press freedom and become a beacon of liberty. This is definitely a fallback position.

Lord Black, a Conservative peer and executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, said any regulator underpinned by statute would be constantly challenged by law. Translation: We’ll unleash our dogs of law.

This isn’t about the freedom of the press. This is about press corporations that want freedom from accountability. This is not about liberty, unless it is the liberty to continue to live outside the laws, ethics and standards of a democratic society.

Journalists, editors and publishers are citizens.We are not above nor outside the law. These three press groups are not defending press freedom, a freedom that exists to support and be balanced by other rights in a democratic society. They are rather fighting for their own self interest . They are not fighting to hold power to account but rather are fighting to hold onto their own power. Shameful.

British journalists need to take responsibility for press reform

With respect to proposals over to reform the British press in the wake of ever widening allegations of phone hacking, computer hacking and utterly unethical behaviour, we’re seeing Greener’s Law in operation:

Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.

The British press have been spilling a lot of ink and pushing a lot of pixels in an attempt to avoid any change to the status quo. If the press was covering any other industry fighting so vociferously against a new regulatory regime, journalists and columnists would accuse them of special pleading and double standards. In a brilliant piece piercing some of the puffery of the press, Alex Andreou, writing for the New Statesman, put it this way:

The lack of self-reflection is truly staggering. The Leveson process is not something which was done to us. Nobody woke up one morning and thought “I know what I’ll do today – curtail the freedom of the press.” This is something entirely caused by the industry being, on the whole, out of control; engaging in occasionally illegal and often unethical practices. Take responsibility.

The response from journalists? Lord Justice Leveson put it best:

Not only are the press powerful lobbyists in their own interests, but they wield a powerful megaphone with considerable influence.

The press in the UK doesn’t want any interference by the government in what they do, which I support up to a point, but the press has talking a lot of nonsense about the proposals for reform and self-regulation for months.

With all of the spin in the press, it’s important to review what Leveson actually proposed. To quote a BBC explainer, Leveson recommended:

• Newspapers should continue to be self-regulated – and the government should have no power over what they publish
• There had to be a new press standards body created by the industry, with a new code of conduct
• That body should be backed by legislation, which would create a means to ensure the regulation was independent and effective
• The arrangement would provide the public with confidence that their complaints would be seriously dealt with – and ensure the press are protected from interference

Not to gloss over some of the finer points of the just announced proposals, but the main difference now appears to be whether the new self-regulatory body will be backed by regulation or a Royal Charter. I would like to know what happened to Leveson’s recommendation that in addition to the new self-regulation body, a new law “should also place an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press”. That would be a great addition to the proposals.

What has been troubling to me is that instead of reaffirming their commitment to professionalism, fair play and living within the law, too much of British journalistic commentary about the proposed reforms has been over the top, invoking the name of Stalin, Mussolini and other dark dictators. Anti-hacking campaigners are accused of bullying politicians simply by meeting them. Really? As if press barons never met with politicians? Indeed, as the FT recently said, all of the closed door meetings between powerful editors and politicians gave the impression that the press had something to hide.

A democracy cannot have an institution, governmental or otherwise, that operates with no accountability. Commercial press barons would say that their audiences hold to them account with the power of the pound, but commercial success is not equivalent to or a substitute for accountability.

The scope of this press corruption scandal continues to grow with hundreds of more revelations about not only Rupert Murdoch’s papers but also now at Trinity Mirror. At some point, voices within the press need to stop playing hardball defence and start getting to grips with how to respond affirmatively. I’m a journalist who has worked for the BBC and then the Guardian for most of my career, and I have been waiting for British journalists to stand up and categorically condemn the behaviour and commit to renewed professionalism. Certainly, some have, but mostly, I just saw reflexive grandstanding about the essential democratic role of the press. True, freedom of the press is essential to democracy, and the role that we play in supporting free societies it is one of the reasons why I’m proud to be a journalist.

However, we cannot turn a blind eye to how corrupt and corrupting certain parts of the British press became. Operation Motorman showed how widespread the problem was. However, the best way to put distance between the vast majority of journalists and these criminals within our midst is to stand up for our professional standards and ethics. The press cannot hold power to account if its own power is unaccountable. We cannot protect democracy while allowing a criminal class to grow within our midst. Our efforts at self-regulation cannot be taken seriously if the serial abuse is so obvious to everyone outside of our professional tribe, yet denied by so many people within it.

It was cheering this week to see Charles Blackhurst of The Independent, Lionel Barber of the Financial Times and Alan Rushbridger of The Guardian join together and call for a sensible compromise on press reform and regulation. According to Roy Greenslade in The Guardian:

All three editorials suggest that statutory underpinning will not inhibit press freedom. It doesn’t amount to statutory control of the press, says the Guardian. It need not impinge on press freedom, says the FT.

This is long overdue, but it should not just be left to editors to take this stand. If we really want to defend the freedom of the press that we enjoy in the UK, we have to stand up against the almost comically criminal hacks and stand up for professionalism, ethics and standards. The wretched excesses of parts of the press have been tolerated for too long, but now, a total lack of ethics and criminality by a not insignificant number of hacks is threatening freedom of all journalists. It’s not a joke anymore. It is threatening the precious freedoms we enjoy.

The death of Google Reader: Taking the re- out of search

For hardcore RSS users and journalists, a collective cry of anguish went up as Google decided to kill Reader. As New Zealand developer Aldo Cortesi put it, it wasn’t just the death of a single application but a serious blow to the RSS eco-system, an eco-system that he said was already “deeply ill“. The knock-on effects of the death of Google Reader are not trivial:

Cortesi was very direct on the last point:

The truth is this: Google destroyed the RSS feed reader ecosystem with a subsidized product, stifling its competitors and killing innovation. It then neglected Google Reader itself for years, after it had effectively become the only player.

There are alternatives. I’ve used Feedly on and off for a while, and I still use NetNewsWire. I’m excited to hear that Feedly is working to allow people to easily migrate from Google Reader to its other sync services.

However, as the dust has settled since the announcement, I still haven’t found a drop-in replacement for Reader. As a journalist, Google Reader is essential to the work I do. As imperfect as Google Translate is, the ability to translate content easily from feeds in languages I didn’t speak was a god-send. It helped me keep up with developments in the Arabic, Chinese and Turkish markets that I simply wouldn’t have been able to without it. Sure, I can put things manually through Translate, but it’s all about efficiency.

Google Reader combined with Google Alerts (how long will that hang around I wonder) was another stunning way for me to discover new sources of information, especially as Google ripped out the sharing that once was a powerful social way to discover new information.

I’ll readily admit that I’m an edge case. RSS readers have never been a mainstream activity, but as a journalist, RSS was one way that I kept on top of the firehouse of information that I need to sift through as a modern information professional. In my work as not only a journalist but also as a digital media strategist, people ask me how I stay on top of all of the constant changes in the business. Although social and semantic news app Zite is the first thing I look at every morning, RSS and Google Reader have continued to play an essential role, and RSS, Google Reader or no Google Reader, will continue to be essential.

Google has had and then killed a number of extremely useful research tools for journalists, and Reader is just the latest. Search Timeline, which showed the frequency of a search term, was flawed but still extremely useful for research as a journalist. For journalists working with social media, the death of Realtime, Google’s social media search, was a terrible loss. No other tool has come even close to the functionality that Realtime offered. Topsy comes the closest, but it still lacks the incredible features that Realtime offered. Now, some of the death of Realtime was part of another company killing an eco-system, Twitter, but Google could have continued after the deal with Twitter fell apart. Google probably didn’t for the same reason it is killing Reader. The search giant wants to push Google+.

The death of Search Timeline, Realtime and now Reader all seem to be a pattern, loss of tools that were very important for journalistic research at the search company. I’m not saying my needs as a journalist are more important than the vast majority of other users of Google (although Suw notes that, as a consultant, she also relied on these tools and often recommended them to clients). My professional needs are quite particular. However, these tools were incredibly useful for research, and I don’t see any drop-in replacements.

My question to fellow journalists: How do we support the special web services that are valuable to us? How do we help create more resilient digital services that serve our special needs? I have some ideas, but that’s for another blog post.

Reuters’ Connected China: How to win the argument for big data projects at news organisations

Connected China project from Thomson-Reuters

Data has long been a part of journalism, but I think we’re moving into a new and exciting phase in which data is helping to drive innovations in storytelling. Aron Pilhofer and the interactive team at the New York Times, Simon Rogers and the data team at the Guardian and Reg Chua, the data and innovation editor at Reuters, are all exploring new ways to bring together data and novel storytelling techniques together in new ways that help reveal context and connections while also engaging audiences with rich narratives. I am very fortunate to call all three friends and, in the case of Simon, a former colleague.

At the recent NICAR conference in the US, Reg unveiled the latest example of this new wave of data-driven projects, Connected China. What is Connected China? Reg explains on his blog:

It’s a little hard to sum up simply; at one level, it’s a microsite that focuses on looking at power in China, explaining how it flows, the key players and institutions, and their relationships, featuring stories and rich multimedia (including fantastic archival footage.) But it’s much more than that: It’s also a series of innovative data visualizations that pull from a rich, underlying database of people, institutions and relationships to illustrate the connections, careers and positions of key officials in China. And more than that: It’s a great example of how the combination of data. visualizations, stories and multimedia can be much more than the sum of their parts.

To me the micro-site is only part of the story. It is one application built from a database.

It’s an amazing database: Tens of thousands of entities, 30,000 relationships, and a million and a half words (not to mention the array of news stories, photos and videos also featured in the app.) The team structured tons of information – connections, the importance of job roles, etc – with an editorial sensibility. In other words, they applied news judgment – but rather than use it just in stories, they used it to structure data.

One of the really powerful features of this database is the relationships. This is an incredibly rich store of context. In the visualisations created on the site, suddenly, a web of power invisible to all but the most knowledgeable experts on China becomes visible.

The power of connections and context

For years, I’ve dreamed of creating projects like this that unveil relationships between events, people and companies. Years ago, I was inspired by a project called a project called the Shakespeare Explorer developed for the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. It is a wonderful multimedia project that brings together pictures, places, plays and historical events. The timeline highlights connections between the plays and events in history, putting Shakespeare’s plays in a broader context.

You can see something similar with this PBS Frontline interactive showing the connections between Al Qaeda’s network, and how much the US intelligence services knew about the network at various points in time between 1993 and 2001. There were a few features like this around the time of the 9/11 attacks.

These are powerful features, and Connected China shows how a decade of development has moved these concepts forward. The question becomes why we haven’t seen more of them.

How to justify the effort

Projects like Connected China take a lot of time and resources. When I was at the BBC, my colleague Gill Parker worked with a database startup in addition to her work in journalism. Gill was working on the team with BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner looking into global investigation into the 9/11 attacks. They had huge amounts of material, mainly Microsoft Word documents, but they didn’t have an efficient way to organise them. Gill knew there was a better way, so she reached out to me to see if I could connect her with someone at BBC News Online who could provide database expertise. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the spare resources. Well, we probably did, somewhere, but at the time the BBC wasn’t very good at pooling resources across the organisation.

I’ve thought a lot about strategies for making the case, both then and over the years. These are my recommendations:

Plan for reuse, not artisanal single use apps – If there was one lesson I learned early on in my digital journalism career is that it is almost impossible to justify artisanal web interactives. In the mid and late 1990s, we built a lot of things by hand online. To be honest, the massive effort was almost never justified by the response from audience. Very quickly, we learned that we needed re-usable elements that we could build easily over time.

For data, think of a database as raw material for other projects and apps. For instance (and knowing Reg, I’m sure that he has thought about this) with Connected China, you’ve got a huge database of structured information. Using something like Thomson-Reuters’ Calais, it would be relatively easy to link people in China stories to elements of Connected China.

Building databases takes effort, and knowing the kind of databases that will generate the most applications might help you decide which ones to develop and which ones aren’t worth the effort.

Think of potential revenue streams – The days when journalism could afford to be completely divorced from business realities is over, and if you’ve got to make the case why your data project should get scarce resource over another project, you’ll need to think of possible revenues sources that might make it more attractive to the powers that be. I’ve worked with a number of news organisations on data journalism, including Reed Business Information, CNN and Czech TV. Some of the techniques that I advocate are about bringing down the cost of charts and graphs, but I also speak to teams about how they can develop revenue streams through data projects.

Always ask:

• Does the data have commercial value?
• Are there obvious sponsors for the data?
• Could you build an app with the data that might be a premium product?

Think of internal and external applications – One of the strategic justifications that I tried to use for the BBC 9/11 project was that it would lead to an important internal resource as well as an external resource. Ultimately, for that project, the argument didn’t win the day, but it can help you get important buy-in if you can make the case that the data resource can help your staff as well as being a compelling feature for your audience.

Think small before taking on big data – Connected China is a massive project beyond the scope of most organisations. However, there are still important concepts about context and data that can be used on much smaller projects. Think of how structured data can be used to add context to local stories and how you can build up databases over time rather than thinking that you have to build big right away.

This really is an exciting time to be a journalist, and it’s great to see news organisations invest in projects like this. No matter the size of your organisation, there are important ways to use data to add value, in all senses of the word, to your journalism.