The New York Times has a course to teach its reporters data skills, and now they’ve open-sourced it


This post is by Joshua Benton from Nieman Lab


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“Should journalists learn to code?” is an old question that has always had only unsatisfying answers. (That was true even back before it became a useful heuristic for identifying Twitter jackasses.) Some should! Some shouldn’t! Helpful, right? One way the question gets derailed involves what, exactly, the question-asker means by “code.” It’s unlikely a city hall reporter will ever have occasion to build an iPhone app in Swift, or construct a machine learning model on deadline. But there is definitely a more basic and straightforward set of technical skills — around data analysis — that can be of use to nearly anyone in a newsroom. It ain’t coding, but it’s also not a skillset every reporter has. The New York Times wants more of its journalists to have those basic data skills, and now it’s releasing the curriculum they’ve built in-house out into the world, where it be of use to reporters, newsrooms, and lots of other people too. Here’s Lindsey Rogers Cook, an editor for digital storytelling and training at the Times, and the sort of person who is willing to have “spreadsheets make my heart sing” appear under her byline:
Even with some of the best data and graphics journalists in the business, we identified a challenge: data knowledge wasn’t spread widely among desks in our newsroom and wasn’t filtering into news desks’ daily reporting. Yet fluency with numbers and data has become more important than ever. While journalists once were fond of joking that they got into the field because of an aversion to math, numbers now comprise the foundation for beats as wide-ranging as education, the stock market, the Census, and criminal justice. More data is released than ever before — there are nearly 250,000 datasets on data.gov alone — and increasingly, government, politicians, and companies try to twist those numbers to back their own agendas… We wanted to help our reporters better understand the numbers they get from sources and government, and give them the tools to analyze those numbers. We wanted to increase collaboration between traditional and non-traditional journalists…And with more competition than ever, we wanted to empower our reporters to find stories lurking in the hundreds of thousands of databases maintained by governments, academics, and think tanks. We wanted to give our reporters the tools and support necessary to incorporate data into their everyday beat reporting, not just in big and ambitious projects.

That desire turned into pilot training programs, then an intensive boot camp; more than 60 Times journalists have gone through the training, which focuses on spreadsheet skills, so far. In its current form, that’s two hours of class every morning for three work weeks, with plenty of followup support from there. (For an idea of what those reporters do with their skills, check out this piece that asks five of them to lay out specifics: looking for patterns in 311 call data, cataloging location data for a story about friendly fire in Vietnam, and just keeping track of the 3,472,382 people currently running for the Democratic nomination for president.) You can access the Times’ training materials here. Some of what you’ll find:
  • An outline of the data skills the course aims to teach. It’s all run on Google Docs and Google Sheets; class starts with the uber-basics (mean! median! sum!), crosses the bridge of pivot tables, and then heads into data cleaning and more advanced formulas.
  • The full day-by-day outline of the Times’ three-week course, which of course you’re free to use or reshape to your newsroom’s needs.
  • It’s not just about cells, columns, and rows — the course also includes more journalism-based information around ethical questions, how to use data effectively inside a story’s narrative, and how best to work with colleagues in the graphic department.
  • Cheat sheets! If you don’t have time to dig too deeply, they’ll give a quick hit of information: one, two, three, four, five.
  • Data sets that you use to work through the beginner, intermediate, and advanced stages of the training, including such journalism classics as census data, campaign finance data, and BLS data. But don’t be a dummy and try to write real news stories off these spreadsheets; the Times cautions in bold: “NOTE: We have altered many of these datasets for instructional purposes, so please download the data from the original source if you want to use it in your reporting.”
  • How Not To Be Wrong,” which seems like a useful thing.

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