How We Helped Our Reporters Learn to Love Spreadsheets

How We Helped Our Reporters Learn to Love SpreadsheetsLindsey Rogers CookBlockedUnblockFollowFollowingJun 12And how your reporters can learn to love them, tooIllustration by Simone NoronhaFive years ago, a lot of people in journalism were asking, wide-eyed, “Should journalists learn to code?”The consensus for most journalists was: probably not.

And over time, the “should we code?” questions quieted down.

But, some people did learn.

At The New York Times and elsewhere, coder-journalists have mashed databases to discover wrongdoing, designed immersive experiences that transport readers to new places and created tools that change the way we work.

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.

Last year, The Times’s Digital Transition team decided to look at how we could help grow beat reporters’ data knowledge to help cover these issues.

Our team’s mission is to “continuously transform the newsroom,” and with a focus on training all desks, we were well positioned to address these issues on a large scale.

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 for stories like this visual examination of New York football, our campaign finance coverage and this in-depth look at where the good jobs are.

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.

Data Training ProgramAfter talking to leaders in our newsroom about how we could support journalists who wanted to obtain more data skills, we ran two pilot training programs, then expanded into an intensive boot camp open to reporters on all desks.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve trained more than 60 reporters and editors, who have gone on to produce dozens of data stories for The Times.

[Learn how 5 reporters in our newsroom used data skills from the training to create groundbreaking work.

]The training is rigorous.

Based in Google Sheets, it starts with beginner skills like sorting, searching and filtering; progresses to pivot tables; and ends with advanced data cleaning skills such as if and then statements and vlookup.

Along the way, we discuss data-friendly story structures, data ethics and how to bulletproof data stories.

We also invite speakers from around The Times, including the CAR team, Graphics and the Interactive News team, to talk about how they report with data.

Over a period of three weeks, the class meets for two hours every morning.

This includes time for reporters to work on data-driven stories and apply the skills they’ve learned in the course to their own beats.

We also train the reporters’ editors.

In separate lunch sessions, they come together to discuss tips for editing data stories, common pitfalls to avoid and advice for working with reporters.

Each time we run the training, we have two or three times as many sign-ups as we have slots.

As a result, we instituted a selection process where reporters are nominated by the leaders of their desks.

From that group, we build the cohort with the aim to have a diverse mix of desks, beats, gender, race, reporting timelines, ages and tenures at The Times.

Once selected, reporters commit to attend all sessions and come prepared with data-driven story ideas for their beats.

To help reporters with their first data stories, we support them with on-demand data help for the two months after the training.

Every month, we gather all the groups together for a lunch and learn.

Releasing Our MaterialsWhile we recognize most publications aren’t able to offer their reporters a three-week data training, we know that increasing data skills is hardly a Times-specific need.

Even in smaller newsrooms, making time to teach someone data skills has benefits in the long run.

But it can be difficult and time-consuming to build out proper materials, especially if developing training programs isn’t your sole job.

So, we’ve decided to share our materials in the hopes that students, professors or journalists at other publications might find them useful.

Over the last four rounds of data training, Digital Transition has amassed dozens of spreadsheets, worksheets, cheat sheets, slide decks, lesson plans and more, created by me, my fellow Digital Transition editor Elaine Chen and various speakers around The Times.

View them here.

Here’s an overview of what’s included in these files:Training Information: A list of skills included in the training, both technical and things like data ethics, as well as the schedule from our last round of training.

The schedule shows how we switch off between “core skills” sessions that show new skills with a fake dataset, “practice” which applies those skills and “story sessions” which help reporters apply the skills they’ve learned to stories they are working on now.

Data Sets: Some of our data sets and worksheet activities from practice sessions.

We’ve organized them into three difficulty levels.

Note that we’ve altered these datasets in order to relate closely to what we cover each week, so please don’t use them in your reporting.

Cheat Sheets: Taken from each core skill session, covering most of the technical skills we practice with reporters.

They are meant as reference materials for reporters as they practice and apply skills.

Since the training is in Google Sheets, the technical prompts are for that program.

Tip Sheets: Some of the more random and non-technical skills we cover, such as how to bulletproof your work, how to brainstorm with data and how to think creatively while writing with data.

If you have any questions about these materials, feel free to contact me at Lindsey.



Lindsey Cook is an editor for digital storytelling and training at The Times.

Previously, she worked as the data editor for news at U.


News & World Report.

She has taught journalism at American University and is a graduate of the University of Georgia.


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