In 2017 we launched an ambitious new print project to bring data journalism to our weekly and daily titles in a way that was innovative and sustainable, in that content could be produced both regularly and on a large scale. This came in two parts:
For our daily regional titles, we wanted to fill a page a day with graphic-led news and exploration of major issues. Our aim was to set rather than follow the agenda through a mix of exclusive analysis, exclusive data, and finding compelling ways into important issues for the broadest readership possible; we passionately believe data journalism is about breaking and telling stories, rather than simply creating something clever or pretty for other data journalists to admire.
The second part of the project, for our weekly titles, was even more ambitious: to create regular half-pages generated automatically by connecting spreadsheets to “intelligent” graphical templates. The half-pages look at fine-grained local data on issues that matters most to local readers, such as crime rates, house prices, hospital performance, with the data gathered by a reporter into a spreadsheet that is used to place the data into the pre-designed template at a touch of a button.
What makes this project innovative?
The daily pages show the ways in which publicly available data can be used in creative and interesting ways to tell stories that may be missed in more traditional reporting. While newspapers will from time to time include infographics with stories, this was a project that was on a much bigger scale. The daily deadline requirements require fast design and storytelling work to quickly find the best ways of using the data.
The weekly pages are even more innovative, using automation to create robot page designers in order to bring bespoke data to local papers. The project works like this: the unit finds data sources on important issues that we know are broken down to fine-grained local levels; we then create graphical templates to present this data; we then ask editors of our weekly titles which localities they wish to cover (which specific postcode districts, council areas, wards, etc). Our automated system then goes back to the data source, extracts the relevant data, and “injects” it into the template to create a bespoke half-page. What this means in practice is that we can (and do) create scores of print-ready half-page graphics every week, packed full of relevant and ever-changing local data, at the touch of a button. In an age where so many journalists talk about automation – but it so often either proves to be an illusion, or fails to deliver anything of real use – we believe this is not only a genuine and important innovation, but one of enduring use to a wide readership.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
It's important to stress that both strands of this print project are just a small part of what the data unit does every day, but they represent another way in which our work can have an impact in bringing data stories to our audiences. Moreover it is, essentially, the work of just four members of the team: designers Marianna Longo and Kelly Leung, reporter Alice Cachia, and coder Carlos Novoa. We all accept these are difficult times for the regional (and national press). So the fact just four people have combined journalistic flair with groundbreaking technical innovation to fill so many pages of so many daily and weekly titles with so much genuinely relevant, genuinely important and genuinely agenda-setting content is, I'd argue, not just remarkable: it is a model for others to follow.
Source and methodology