MagNet conference summary: Data Journalism – Find Stories Behind the Noise

Magazines Canada recently hosted its annual MagNet conference in Toronto on June 4-7. The conference program covered a variety of topics for magazines and the publishing industry at large including editorial, digital, circulation and marketing. Newspapers Canada's communications officer Jessica Napier attended the conference and has provided a summary on a digital session titled Data Journalism – Find Stories Behind the Noise with speaker Trevor Melanson, online editor for Canadian Business magazine.

Data journalism is about telling stories – not just putting out facts and figures.

Every time you see numbers in a news story, ask yourself if there is another story to be told there,” says Travor Melanson, an online editor for Canadian Business and a data journalism enthusiast. “The data doesn’t have to be too complex, but it does have to be interesting.”

Melsanson recently hosted a session on data journalism during Magazines Canada’s annual MagNet conference. Melanson, whose work has been featured in The Globe and Mail, CBC.ca, and Macleans.ca, spoke about how data, editorial and design can work together to bring content to life and offered conference attendees some practical tips and tools to help them get started at their own publications.

For Melanson, data journalism is about telling stories on an interactive platform that is unconfined by space, time and functionality. In comparison to print, packaging stories digitally means you have a limitless amount of space on every axis across the screen. Melanson recommended that journalists exploit these opportunities when considering how they want their data to be displayed. Readers can scroll continuously up and down and sideways and can also zoom in and out. This freedom to move around the screen means you are not limited in that same ways you are on the pages of a newspaper.

To demonstrate how to take advantage of this limitless space, Melanson showed an example of an Infographic he created for Canadian Business with a continuous scroll element. In this piece--McGuinty’s Immigrant Tax Credit is chump change--the exploitation of vertical space not only creates an interesting reader experience, it also makes a powerful editorial point.

This powerful graphic was simple to produce and was done in illustrator using a stock image. In addition to design software, Melanson highlighted some of the free online tools he uses to create Infographics and other data journalism pieces.

  • Visual.ly – Good site to browse for inspiration. Also allows users to create customized data visuals.
  • Google charts: Open source tool that is very simple to use. Journalists can easily create a wide variety of customized charts and graphs to embed on any website.
  • Google Maps: Similar to Google charts, this open source tool can be used to create customized maps to include with stories online.

While many interactive data pieces appear to be quite complex—both editorially and from a design standpoint -- Melanson assured session attendees that this sort of journalism is not that hard to do. You do not necessarily need a design background, nor do you need to be a mathematical wizard. Many of the tools are free and there are plenty of online tutorials to get you started. Just remember that when using any sort of open data sites, you should always make sure to check the sources and look at who is putting out the data tool.

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