Last month I burst out of the ONS bubble and spent a week in a Trinity Mirror newsroom.
As a data journalist, I was really excited to dive into a fast-paced news-driven environment. What could I learn? How could we improve the work we do in Digital Publishing?
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m part of the data journalism team, but I’m slightly different from my colleagues because I’d never formally worked as a journalist before taking this job. Don’t worry, I’m not totally unqualified – I studied economics at university, including several stats modules, so my background is not unusual in the wider ONS.
So what did I learn from the week away?
Writing for a regional audience
First and foremost, I learnt how to write for regional titles.
Trinity Mirror publishes more than 150 regional newspapers, and runs a network of more than 80 news websites, so most of their stories have a regional focus.
I was struck by something one of their data journalists told me on my first day. She said that any dataset which allows you to “rank areas” is a good starting point for a story.
Ranking areas is something of a “grey area” at the ONS. Rankings appear black and white, even when differences between data points aren’t statistically significant – meaning there isn’t really any difference at all.
But writing for regional audiences requires a different thought process to what I’m familiar with. A regional journalist isn’t interested in house prices across the UK – they want to know about prices in their area and how they compare to others nearby.
Understanding what works for regional titles was especially useful for me as Digital Publishing looks to reach third party organisations with our work, including the media.
These partnerships help get our data to a wider audience. Whereas an article on Visual.ONS will attract an average of 3,500 views in the first week, our crime calculator published with the BBC in September reached nearly 2 million users in the first few days.
We’re yet to partner with Trinity Mirror, but, with so much of our data having a regional dimension, there’s no reason why we couldn’t in future.
Working to tight deadlines
Second, I learnt the meaning of the phrase “quick turnaround”.
At ONS Digital, we’re striving to produce faster turnaround work in response to news and current affairs, the objective being to get our statistics into the public consciousness at the right time. It doesn’t always work that way though – this “quick turnaround” work has been known to take up to a month.
During my week in a newsroom, I wrote three different stories, each repurposed for three different regional titles…so nine articles in total.
In a normal week, we’ll produce one or two articles between four of us.
Now, before you ask what on earth we’re doing, I have to stress the circumstances are very different.
Writing on behalf of the ONS – a non-ministerial government department – puts us in a unique position compared with media organisations like the Trinity Mirror. We enjoy close working relationships with our statisticians, but we aren’t able to regularly turn stories round in a day.
Even if we were, there’s a question of where we add most value. We don’t want to replicate work that’s already out there.
But seeing how a newsroom works made me see that we could improve the way we plan ahead to produce more timely, newsworthy content.
Working on your own versus working in a team
That brings me onto the third thing I learnt: working in a newsroom, outside a large organisation like the ONS, means it’s a lot easier to get things done.
A typical day is clearly structured – you get your data, find your story and write it out.
It’s independent, time-pressured work; people barely speak to the person next to them.
At the ONS it’s different. My colleague Sophie Warnes wrote an excellent, revealing blog about what it’s like to work as a data journalist here: writing is a small percentage of what we do. We are organisers, negotiators, diplomats – we work as part of a huge team.
And despite all the freedom of my work placement, that is what I missed: working in a team.
I used to love working independently… I still do, I think. Maybe I’ve been indoctrinated by the Civil Service, I’m not sure. But I know that I missed our team.
For a bit of background, I don’t just work with my fellow data journalists and statisticians. I work closely with data visualisation, design and social media teams.
We’ve all got different workflows, but we have to collaborate to get things done. And we do, quite well as it turns out.
The more I get out of the ONS bubble, the more I think we’re doing okay. During my week in a newsroom, as well as at other journalism events I’ve attended this year, I found myself wanting to talk about our work. I genuinely feel like we’re producing content worthy of comparison with any organisation out there.
If you’re wondering why I’m writing this in a surprised tone, it’s because producing content isn’t always easy. It can be stressful, and we want to do a lot better.
But it turns out we’re doing a pretty good job. Really, I guess I just wanted to say well done to the team!
By Phil Leake, Data Journalist, Digital Publishing