More data journalists – not data scientists

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Recently, I was talking to a director of analytics from a large telecommunications company, and I asked her, “Do you think we have a skills shortage?” She replied, “NO, I think we’re just looking in the wrong place.” I wanted to hear more as this analytics expert may have just solved one of the biggest problems of 21st century: the shortage of analytics skills.

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A good data journalist can solve a complex data problem and tell a compelling story of the value to the business.

She went on to explain that there’s a large pool of data scientists who can develop great models, extract intelligent insights, and solve complex business problems with analytics - but most lack the skill of telling a good story. Her theory and recent practice is to hire media people and out-of-work journalists to get better results with analytics. I remained intrigued, as she explained further:

A journalist is an investigator who gets a thrill from extracting information, but also has the skill to turn the facts into a compelling and digestible story. Likewise, a good data journalist is a person who gets a thrill from solving a complex data problem combined with telling a compelling story of the value to the business. Can these same skills be important to an analytically driven organisation? Seems so.

As reported in the IAPA 2015 Salary and Skills survey, the biggest challenges faced were
1. Executive level understanding of data and analytics, according to 47 perent of responders.
2. Convincing the organisation of the value of analytics, according to 38 percent of responders.

This is where a trained data journalist and story teller could help sell the value of analytics into an organisation. Why is data journalism different from the rest of journalism? It is the new possibilities that open up when you combine the traditional "nose for news” and ability to tell a compelling story, with the explosion of digital information now available at your fingertips. But are organisations prepared to take on more data journalists rather than data scientists?

At a recent CAO Forum, a discussion group of analytics managers and executives talked about telling a good analytics story in organisations. The discussion highlighted four main issues:

  1. Consistency. There is a lack of consistency in the way outcomes are presented.
  2. Lack of relevance. Often the business doesn’t see the relevance of analytics in its decision making. Potentially the lack of relevance is linked to the style in which the outcomes are communicated.
  3. Imbalanced. We see an imbalance in the level of detail presented, it’s either too much or too little.
  4. Competency. A lack of competency in business story telling exists in today’s analytical professionals with most time being spent on analysis rather than communication.

Story telling is a crucial skill. Stories help us convey a message and stimulate an action. We use them to persuade a colleague or earn support for a project. So when it comes to analytical content, learning how to tell a good story so the business value is unlocked and the data can have its day is important. – For journalists and data scientists alike, data visualisation can help the storytelling process.

I’d like to conclude with two questions for the community regarding data journalists or data scientists:

  1. How do you use storytelling capabilities (like journalism) to present new knowledge in a format that your audience can understand for effective decision making?
  2. Should organisations provide a journalism course for all their data scientists?

Learn more about data journalism and the skills gap from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and teacher of database reporting, Steve Doig.

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About Author

Natalie Mendes

Natalie Mendes born and raised in Melbourne, intended on a TV and entertainment career to host music programs. She grew up with a passion for 80’s British pop, Motown dancing and Statistics. Switching from an Arts degree to an Applied Statistics and Computer Science degree specializing in Psychology, her life took a different direction towards football statistics, fire risk modelling, credit risk and more recently earning a title of CEOA – Chief Excitement Officer for Analytics. She heads up the Analytics capabilities for SAS Australia / New Zealand and sits on the industry advisory board for Latrobe University as she has a passion to help new graduates thrive in this discipline. She is an enthusiastic evangelist for the application of analytics and is motivated about using this to interrupt the digital disruption.

2 Comments

  1. Lonnie Miller

    Totally agree with you, Natalie. I've hired journalism majors for competitive intelligence roles in the past and they excel in digging into mounds of data and summarizing information very well. The story-telling DNA is native in those who have to primarily worry about writing out answers to big questions. They worry FIRST about the story to tell (i.e., what questions to answer), and THEN they worry about what facts are available to surface and how to get to the information.

  2. Natalie Mendes
    Natalie Mendes on

    Yes - story telling is a growing concern as organisations try to understand the value of analytics. How do we tell a compelling story about a complex analytics problem - without baffling people with algorithms and pretty pictures? What does is say? Thanks for your insights.

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