Data Science

How to Become a Data Journalist

How to Become a Data Journalist
Becoming a data journalist is tough because it's a relatively new career path in the media world. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry August 27, 2019

Job security in journalism is at an all-time low, but reporters in data departments are doing okay. Data journalism is one field where you can still make a stable career out of storytelling.

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As analytics technologies have grown more powerful, the ability to organize and interpret data has become more critical to success across industries—including journalism. Plenty of publications (including the New York Times) have entire departments devoted to unpacking data, summarizing it, and turning it into reported stories. Data journalists—investigative reporters whose job it is to distill information—staff these departments.

Breaking into this field isn’t easy. Becoming a data journalist is tough because it’s a relatively new career path in the media world. Some employers are looking for investigative journalists who happen to be good at sifting through and visualizing data. Others are looking for candidates with a solid grasp of statistics and major programming chops.

There’s no typical advancement path for a data journalist. So who’s a good fit for the job? If you want to make a career out of contributing to stories like the San Francisco Chronicle’sThe Airbnb effect,” the data journalism department is probably the place for you.

In this article we’ll cover:

  • The kinds of backgrounds data journalists have
  • The educational commitment to become a data journalist
  • How to break into the field
  • Alt paths into a data journalism career
  • Do data journalists have to be programmers?
  • The pros and cons of becoming a data journalist

What kinds of backgrounds data journalists have?

In a data journalism handbook written for Columbia Journalism School, NYU associate professor, AI researcher, and author of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World Meredith Broussard writes: “To become a good data journalist, it helps to begin by becoming a good journalist.” Regardless of whether you arrive at data journalism from a journalism or tech background, you’ll need proficiency in reporting and writing to succeed as a data journalist.

In general, data journalists tend to be curious people with the patience required to work with big chunks of information; they frequently also have programming chops. Some people transition into data journalism after working in computer science fields like big data or cybersecurity. You don’t necessarily need a highly technical background or experience as a data scientist or data analyst, however. Some publications use custom mining and analytics software platforms to wrangle data, and they will train their journalists to use it. Others use relatively intuitive, user-friendly data analysis platforms like Tableau, Datawrapper, Microsoft Power BI, and Highcharts, none of which requires a high level of expertise. 

Even if you didn’t go to J-school and/or don’t have a technology background, you can still learn data journalism through MOOCs, workshops, and other training and networking opportunities. If you’re still looking for the right bachelor’s degree or master’s degree program, however, choosing one relevant to data journalism won’t hurt. 


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Educational commitment for becoming a data journalist

In general, the best undergraduate major for aspiring data journalists who want to work in traditional news organizations is still journalism. Among the best journalism degree programs:

You don’t have to go to a top college to get a lot out of your degree, however. One thing that sets the above universities apart is that they offer students the opportunity to build a portfolio before graduation. Look for programs that emphasize portfolio-building, real-world experience, and networking, so you have a firm foundation from which to launch a career after graduation.

If your school doesn’t offer classes in data journalism, taking electives in statistics, programming, and data science will give you an edge over the competition. You might even want to consider pursuing a data science minor. 

In the not-so-distant past, a data journalist might have cobbled together an educational path to cover all the bases. Today, however, an increasing number of academic institutions are adding data journalism to their list of journalism master’s degree concentrations. Some have even developed MS programs in data journalism.

Stanford, for example, encourages journalism students to focus on data, find data sources, clean data sets, and analyze data using Excel and SQL. They also build a scraper and learn to build analysis maps to tell stories. 

Students in Northwestern’s master’s degree program can choose a data journalism concentration focused on finding, analyzing, curating, and presenting data like a journalist.

Columbia University has a relatively new three-semester MS in data journalism designed for students looking for advanced journalism and information science skills. Steve Coll, the dean of Columbia’s graduate journalism program, told Poynter: “The idea is, you could take these skills and be a world-beating investigative reporter in this era of big data, or you could equally apply your journalism vision to the newsroom of the future.”

In partnership with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California at Annenberg has a MS in communication data science. This degree prepares students to enter the emerging field of data science for mass communication—which includes, but isn’t limited to, journalism. If you like the idea of career flexibility, this degree might be the best choice. 

How to break into the field

Earning a degree—or multiple degrees—is a good first step, but newly credentialed journalism professionals of all stripes often find that a formal journalism education isn’t as good as connections or clips. 

Some journalism programs are better than others at helping students build a pre-graduation portfolio—but that doesn’t mean you can’t start publishing articles while you’re still a student. Local media outlets and smaller publications rarely say no to free stories. You could also try your hand at pitching the big pubs. In the process of writing articles, you’ll end up making connections that will likely prove valuable when you’re hunting for a job. 

Don’t get so mired in the journalism side of data journalism that you forget about the importance of information and computer science. When you’re looking for internships, consider applying at market research firms or analytics software companies. 

Moreover, don’t underestimate the networking opportunities you’ll encounter in data journalism seminars, webinars, workshops, meetups, and discussion groups. Breaking into investigative journalism is very much about whom you know. You’re eventually going to need to find that editor-in-chief who is willing to give you, a fledgling reporter, a chance to prove yourself. Cultivate all the connections you can.

Alternative paths into a data journalism career

Maybe you’re a veritable font of ideas, and you want to get to work. Driven citizen-journalists can make it in the world of data journalism if their contributions stand out. There is plenty of data out there, and your first forays into data journalism don’t have to be significant.

Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times suggests aspiring data journalists start small, and “start with something you already know and already do. And always, always, always remember that the goal here is journalism.” 

Then again, maybe you’re a great writer, but you’re not ready to dig into data just yet. Why not try programming first? There are tons of free programming courses online. There are also open datasets and plenty of tutorials that will teach you how to visualize that data and analyze it so you can find the stories hidden within it. 

There are also free and inexpensive data journalism courses online. Even if you do pursue a graduate level-degree in journalism, they can represent further accreditation and education opportunities for a data journalist.

You might want to try one or more of the courses offered by:

  • Data Driven Journalism: With five modules taught by five notable journalists and editors, this course covers finding data, cleaning it, unearthing the stories in large data sets, and using data visualization in storytelling. 
  • MulinBlog Online J-School: This online education destination offers a variety of free courses in digital journalism that include data visualization, analytics, and multimedia storytelling. 
  • Google News Initiative: In this free course, you’ll learn the fundamentals of finding, analyzing, and visualizing data using Google software like Trends, Public Data Explorer, and Fusion Tables.
  • Specialty courses, like USC’s Jour 494: Python for Data Journalism, are excellent for those who want to learn how to use coding to cull through big data for compelling stories. 

Do data journalists have to be programmers?

The quick answer is no. When people think data, they tend to think programming, so there’s a myth that data journalists must have coding chops to succeed. A lot of them do, but plenty don’t. 

Some data journalists still scrape and analyze data the old-fashioned way. Others take the time to learn to use one or more analytics platforms — many of which generate visualizations that you can embed in your stories. Some publications and research organizations have custom software that everyone who joins the company has to use—even if they could create their code to get the same results. 

Pros and cons of becoming a data journalist

If you’re still not sure whether becoming a data journalist is what you want to do, remember that it’s all about the work. Do you believe that hard data makes reported stories better? Are you fascinated by the different ways data can be curated and presented? Do you want to bring scientific objectivity to journalism? 

Even if you answered yes, there are still pros and cons to consider:

Earnings: pro or con?

Data journalism is not a highly paid career path, but with an average salary of $49,000, data journalists aren’t doing too badly, either. 

Pro: job satisfaction

Most journalists don’t get into the field for the money, but because they love sussing out stories and seeing their names in print. Data journalists, in particular, are often motivated by their own ability to report complex stories.

Con: conventional journalists may not “get” you

There will probably always be people who look at data journalism as something wholly different from traditional journalism. That means your role in the data department may not come with a byline. You may not feel like a reporter. On the other hand, traditional journalism is foundering, and that job in the data department may be a lot more secure than those in other departments.

It probably makes more sense in our increasingly data-driven world to look at data journalism as the next evolution of traditional journalism.  Jeff Larson, the data editor at ProPublica, may have put it best when discussing how to succeed in the field of data journalism.

When asked by Media Bistro how do you become a data journalist, he said: “We’re looking for fast learners who can tackle problems creatively to explain complex subjects to folks. Just like the rest of journalism.”

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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