The definitive, two-part answer to "is data journalism?"

Written by Adrian Holovaty on May 21, 2009

It's a hot topic among journalists right now: Is data journalism? Is it journalism to publish a raw database? Here, at last, is the definitive, two-part answer:

1. Who cares?

2. I hope my competitors waste their time arguing about this as long as possible.


Posted by Joshua Inkenbrandt on May 21, 2009, at 10:51 a.m.:

Great answer.

Posted by James Wilkerson on May 21, 2009, at 10:51 a.m.:

My mantra, exactly.

Posted by Rick Waghorn on May 21, 2009, at 10:54 a.m.:


You just need a little cherry on top of your EveryBlock and then you're there...

Best, etc


Posted by Ida Aalen / @idaAa on May 21, 2009, at 10:55 a.m.:

Great answer indeed.

Really enjoyed your talk at the Nordic Media Festival!

Posted by Jeremy Bowers on May 21, 2009, at 10:56 a.m.:

But Adrian: Is this definitive, two-part answer journalism? Perhaps we should opine long and weak on the subject.

Posted by Paul Smith on May 21, 2009, at 11:09 a.m.:

Q. Is it entertaining seeing Adrian tap in to his Al Jaffee side?

A. Yes.

This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

Posted by Geneva Overholser on May 21, 2009, at 11:21 a.m.:


Only thing I'd question in your succinct post is the "at last." you gave that answer (the first part, anyway) at least two years ago at a Knight Foundation JAC mtg


Posted by Espen Andersen on May 21, 2009, at 11:33 a.m.:

Hi, it was nice to meet you in Bergen during the Media Festival! :)

I had this very discussion with a colleague of mine yesterday. He regards some of my database presentations merely as "tools for journalism", not journalism in itself.

I'll mail him your definitive, two-part answer.

Posted by Bryan Murley on May 21, 2009, at 11:54 a.m.:

Wait! I thought we were still on the "is blogging journalism?" thing!!??!!!1! :)

Posted by Aron Pilhofer on May 21, 2009, at 12:15 p.m.:

Really? That's your answer? Disappointing... especially from someone who has so much invested in the very notion of data == journalism.

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on May 21, 2009, at 12:47 p.m.:

Aron: Yes, that's the definitive, two-part answer. :-)

I'm sorry to see you're disappointed, but I no longer see the point in debating the definition of journalism. I'm interested in building products that improve people's lives via information. Whether somebody calls that "journalism" is utterly uninteresting.

Posted by Vin Crosbie on May 21, 2009, at 1:02 p.m.:

[Reminder: Before you all leave this site, please remember to pickup and properly dispose of the shredded pieces of the Gordian Knot.]

Posted by Tim Kraan on May 21, 2009, at 1:13 p.m.:

The real answers are:
1. yes
2. yes

Posted by JTownend on May 21, 2009, at 1:32 p.m.:

Chris Kewson's comment on Twitter asking 'where, exactly, is the question of 'is data journalism' a hot topic?' tied in with my experience so far. Certainly, in UK there's been more doing than analysing of whether it's journalism. (MySociety / Guardian OpenPlatform / a guy called Tony Hirst for starters).

I am (hands held up) guilty of wanting to have a conversation about it (though NOT whether it constitutes journalism - I also agree with Adrian that doing is more important than talking and this #jdef debate can get a bit pointless) because talking about what journalists are doing is what pays the bills, and also what gets me enthusiastic. If anyone does want to contribute to the conversation here's the first post of the #DataJourn conversation:

Part Four is brewing: examples of data journalism to date (lots more in the US than over here)

Wow - my comment is about four or more times the length of the original.

Posted by Idan Gazit on May 21, 2009, at 2:44 p.m.:

Hm, "raw"? You / EveryBlock don't just produce raw data, you produce interesting visualizations of raw data. Equivalent to a good piece of investigative journalism extracting meaning from the sea of facts.

I'm no journalism expert, but it seems that good journalism is about helping people condense meaning from a dataset which is too large to interpret unaided, be it a database or a convoluted set of facts.

Posted by Erik Petersen on May 21, 2009, at 4:19 p.m.:

As long as Data requires the occasional bit of Mildly Amusing Commentary to make it sit better in the world, I can still pay the rent. So who gives a flying expletive.

Posted by @strangepants on May 22, 2009, at 1:28 a.m.:

Erik, if that's your take on the issue, then you should perhaps read "Robert Picard's recent opinion piece about the value of journalism":

"Actually, journalists deserve low pay. Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren't creating much value these days."

That's why Adrian's comment above sums the whole issue up rather nicely

"I'm interested in building products that improve people's lives via information. Whether somebody calls that "journalism" is utterly uninteresting."

Now that is a mission statement that has a better chance of creating and delivering value than "the occasional bit of Mildly Amusing Commentary"

Posted by eric newton on May 22, 2009, at 6:13 a.m.:

Is data journalism? Are words journalism? Depends what they say and whether or not anyone cares.

Few if any of the world's news pioneers worry about putting their inventions into academic categories. They are too busy inventing.

We look forward to the public release of Adrian's code!

Posted by Aron Pilhofer on May 22, 2009, at 7:57 a.m.:

Maybe I'm old school, or just clinging on too tightly to the things that got me into newspapering in the first place. But to my mind, definitions do matter.

Still. This...

"I'm interested in building products that improve people's lives via information. Whether somebody calls that "journalism" is utterly uninteresting."

... is a pretty good definition of journalism in my book, so, there you go. We're probably only disagree on the fringes, and maybe sometime we'll get the chance to find out. (I'll even buy the Lou Malnati’s.)

Posted by Gerd Kamp on May 22, 2009, at 10:55 a.m.:

1. "Interest in building products that improve people's lives via information" is exactly what brought me first into computer science and then to work at the various news organizations. What i did was never called journalism by the editors and i didn't care.

So yes, the definition is much more important than the label and it also allows "non-journalists" to feel not excluded :-)

2. IMHO raw data in itself is interesting only to a few geeks. The acts of aggregating, curating, visualizing, analyzing, ... (or building systems that allow average people to do this themselve) is what we are really talking about.

Hence data == journalism is a nice headline, but not the full story.

Posted by Mike D. on May 24, 2009, at 12:11 p.m.:

"I'm interested in building products that improve people's lives via information."

Agreed. Improving people's lives via information should have been at the core of every journalist's motivation since people first started becoming journalists. Furthermore, the term "journalism" has unfortunately been twisted into some unfortunate shapes over the last several years; shapes that enterprising young people might not necessarily want to be associated with:

1. The war/debate with bloggers about who is more important/professional/relevant/trustworthy/etc.

2. The stigma that the profession is tied to increasingly obsolete media like newspapers.

3. The recently reported "embarrassment" among Harvard students that they are considering journalism.

4. The failure to embrace user generated content, data, disaggregation, and everything else tearing up traditional media models.

Granted, many many great journalists are successfully navigating the swirling currents and producing spectacular work, but to your point, let's concentrate on the spectacular work part and not the "what do we call it" part.

Posted by Dan Knauss on June 1, 2009, at 5:53 p.m.:

Here's specific example of why data IS journalism, and you can't really get the data without doing journalism:

That's a comment I just posted on StreetsBlog; check the discussion context and the link to the other Streetsblog article.

Here's some "journalism" relevant to this particular Milwaukee County data issue:

It was provided by a "journalist" turned "blogger" among other things.

I suggest we just start talking about "the public interest" instead of "journalism," is in "is publishing.making public this data in the public interest." That corrects the faulty assumptions about "journalism" made by anyone who thinks "data" might even potentially be irrelevant.

Posted by Hugh on June 2, 2009, at 3:21 p.m.:

Hi Adrian,

"I no longer see the point in debating the definition of journalism."

I can certainly understand that. I don't want to debate definitions either. Of course "improving people's lives via information" is the appropriate focus. The real value to real people is the real bottom line of journalism/data/information, whatever you call it. Will you engage in a discussion of the value proposition?

I live in an Everyblock 'hood, and I subscribe to a custom 8-block RSS feed, and frankly I don't check it that often. Meanwhile, we have a career local newspaper reporter g*d love her who has rolled along under about a half dozen banners over the last decade, the whole time every week cranking out a blotter: she drags herself into three nearby police district HQs, flips thru the call logs, hangs out and chats up the sergeants and officers "got any good ones for me this week?," makes some judgements, and types up a handful of significant, illustrative, or merely amusing incidents. I never miss that.

In terms of conversations with my neighbors, "How about that item in the blotter....?" is a fairly common starter. A few of my neighbors track Everyblock, but in my experience the conversations it starts have been of a form "This popped up on Everyblock. Does anyone know what it means?"

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