Four weeks ago I started working as a casual graphic artist at the Australian Financial Review. This was so exciting (and still is) for me on many levels. I get to look at, play with, clean up and explore data every day. I then get to visualise it, and work with a data journalist, and an interactive designer. Plus, the newsroom is a very friendly environment. The AFR is a well respected publication. A lot of very fine journalists work under the masthead. I am learning my way around, and Ed Tadros, the data journalist I've been working with, is very patient and encouraging!
Here are some things I've observed about the newsroom in the very short time I've been there;
1. stories take time.
News rooms work on different lead times and cycles. There are time sensitive stories and deadlines. Yet for some stories there is a longer lead time to collect data, check it, analyze it, check it again. Check it again. Analyse it some more. Check it again. Oh what the hell, let's check it again. Ed (the data journalist) has been working on the AFR Salary survey (which came out in print today and online yesterday) for MANY WEEKS. I've been looking at the data for about three weeks. And the more time you spend with a data set the more things you notice about it. It makes me think about the idea of slow data (yes, I just linked to Stephen Few). More on slow data here too. If you work with data for a short time you find the big (obvious) stories - with more time you discover the hidden delights!
2. a data set can generate multiple angles.
In research we strived to have a consistent story, based on three key points, that ladder back to that main argument. We all knew though that there were multiple narratives sitting behind the data set. To make sure we got our points across we rarely diverted into the other interesting story streams flowing through the data.
If you look at the AFR page today though (which you may not be able to do as there is a paywall) there are multiple stories generated from the AFR Salary Survey. One about women and the lack of gender diversity. One about retirement benefits. Another about Macquarie Bank. One about the large extra benefits CEOs receive. And more!
It made me think how much detail and richness is lost in stripping out and simplifying everything. In research we tried so hard to simplify a narrative. "Our clients are busy people", "No one will pay attention if it goes too deep, you will lose them". But a lot of information got lost too. And if people are making decisions based on that info surely they need the info?
I once had an argument with someone about the phrase "the devil is in the detail." For a start, they believed there was no such expression "god is in the detail" - it was a dumb argument, but we had it anyway. Mainly because I knew that there was a bloody phrase "god is in the detail" and I am a stubborn cow. Then we argued about "detail". She said the detail will trip you up, confuse you and therefore others. I argued that you just needed to explain and clarify the detail, not strip it. Make it lucid*. Care should be taken with details. There is beauty and clarity in detail (if explained well); ...that god is in fact in the detail**.
So, the exciting thing is after four weeks I got my first byline. It's down there. Squint your eyes! Hooray!
*Which is interesting word choice when you think about the etymology of lucid / lucidus / luce/ light / lucifer / devil but here I am getting bogged down in the detail dear reader.
**let's not get into an argument about god - just putting it out there but I am an atheist. This is not a post on religious instruction