Data: Almost Elementary

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” p.189 The complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 2

A colleague once asked me what the best tools were for doing data analysis. Initially, I wasn’t sure what she meant and then realised that she wanted some kind of script to run and get an answer. Data arrives, you do what you need to do and then report on what you find by following a formula.

It doesn’t work like that and even when it’s easy, it’s not usually that simple.

There is an article in the Guardian about ‘How to be a data journalist‘ and when answering the question of where to begin they suggest the following:

“So where does a budding data journalist start? An obvious answer would be “with the data” – but there’s a second answer too: “With a question”.

I don’t agree with the above, for me it’s always about the question. When you don’t have a question but you do have data then you use it to find a question. It’s always about the question because otherwise what are you writing about and how will you know when you’re done?

The premise of the Guardian article is that ‘data journalists’ are compartmentalised and do certain things but to me it seems slightly backwards. You don’t walk around looking for numbers >> ‘The Guardian’s Charles Arthur suggests “Find a story that will be best told through numbers”‘ which sounds a bit like a data journalist is someone who walks around with a metaphorical hammer looking for just the right nail.

The implication being that if someone didn’t know how to use ‘data’ they wouldn’t be able to answer questions that involved analysing numbers? That just can’t be right. You have a question and you use any (within reason) means to answer it.

If the source of information is numerical data then there are certain skills you can use and some of them involve statistics, presentation, context or analysis. Other data can include text, documents, speeches, actions, music, stories etc.

When Sherlock talks about obtaining more data, he is not talking about numbers, although that may be part of it. He is talking about information on which to base a conclusion, to find a solution. I agree with providing knowledge of skills which are helpful: finding data, interrogating data, visualising data, mashing data. The latter concept is a new one to me but I will look it up later.

For now I’ll finish up with what I told my colleague when she wanted to know what to do: what is the question? what is the data? what do you want to do with it? how will you know when you’re done?

The Imperfectionists, a review

Rome is the setting for some quirky characters and an English language newspaper around which eleven short stories are based. The book is the Imperfectionists and it is the first one by English born Tom Rachman. The author was raised in Vancouver and spent his professional life as a journalist. He was stationed in Rome when he worked for the Associated Press, and lived in Paris, where he was editor for the International Herald Tribune.

I received the book last week from my sister who works for an English language newspaper in Brussels. The book made its way around the homes of a couple of editors who found it very readable and indeed Rachman can certainly write.

His character descriptions are concise and vivid while the storylines are brief and to the point. Each short story / chapter is based around an employee at the newspaper and introduced with a quotation. “Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls” Paris Correspondent – Lloyd Burko, is how the first story is introduced.

A narrative about the newspaper is sandwiched between tales of its employees and as a structure it fits well. Nostalgia blends in with the romanticism of the culturally resplendent Rome and before we even get to the enthusiasm of the newly established paper we are plunged into the misery of the characters’ lives. It’s not actually misery though, it’s just a slow falling apart of peoples expectations and aspirations. Actually not even a falling apart. People are not happy but they don’t know it or don’t reflect on it.

The balance between the reflections by the characters and their behaviours is perfectly worked so that the stories never slow down. The first couple of stories are interesting and I felt let down when the Obituary Writer and the Business Reporter were let down. After a few people though I became a little tired of being disappointed along with them. Was no one destined to be happy?

All staff appear to be so miserable that by the end of the book the demise of the media is dragged along into their story. Rachman brings up the modern issues confronting newspapers such as dropping sales and loss of ad revenue. This newspaper does not even have a website and its inability to move with the times is just one more symptom.

The newspaper stays as the background however and it’s with the personal lives that Rachman mostly works. His depictions now and then become caricatures such as the arrogant, invasive and foolhardy foreign correspondent that takes advantage of an innocent stringer in Egypt. Nearly every woman has a bitter, interior monologue about how disappointed they are with their personal lives. The only character who is able to express his emotions clearly is an ex-journalist working for the Italian Prime Minister.

My favourite character was Herman, the corrections editor, who got his break as a proofreader and found he had a knack for it, “finally, arcane knowledge and pedantry came in handy”. Rachman’s introduction of his characters is seamless enough to make the stories feel like a novel. His writing is very readable and the beautifully polished publication was released in 10 countries. I was happy to read it but there is still great potential from this writer. This is his first but not yet his best work.

The Imperfectionists

When can you manicure the lawn?

My dad has been a journalist for years. He has written for papers, run his own newspapers, magazine, radio programs and still writes when he has something to say. He is actively political and writes because that’s how he gets his message across. I studied politics, twice, but don’t always have something say. .

On a car journey years ago he was telling me about a young journalist who had written an article about which began: ‘God sat on his throne and smiled at the beauty of the day’ or something similar. ‘Quick’ said his editor, ‘get me a quote from God’.

His point was the same one as Terry McDermott notes in his article ‘A Thousand Cuts’ about the difference between reporting and blogging. McDermott’s word ‘slumbered’, used to describe two political candidates in a meeting, was changed to ‘lumbered’. He was asked if they actually slept through it. The reply was no, that it was meant figuratively, not literally. “We don’t use figurative language here” he was told.

The ‘here’ in the previous paragraph refers to a newspaper and while I have never worked at one, I grew up with many a journalistic word of warning and was raised to ensure that every glance I took, at a piece of writing, was a critical one. I once categorically refused to allow someone to use the phrase ‘manicured lawn’ in a piece they were writing. The word manicure refers specifically to taking care of the hand from the Latin word ‘manus‘ (as in manual, in terms of labour, not an instruction manual), I told them.

Another of my dad’s favourites was the discussion on what is news. Dog bites man is not news but man bites dog… now there you have a story. A common journalistic cliche in any language but one turned on its head in Terry Pratchett‘s book The Truth. The first newspaper in Ankh Morpork is the subject of this tale and the former Western Daily Press journalist manages to turn the cliche into something all the more witty and self-referential. Half way through the book, and probably only a month or so after I was adamant about manicuring the lawn, I saw that he went and used the same phrase. Who was in the wrong?

I started writing this post as I was catching up on last week’s FT Weekend and had just read an article by Chris Giles on George Osborne’s trip to China. The headline is ‘China takes an interest in Osborne’s reading list‘, the emphasised part is ‘Countries with high budget deficits must show the world they can deal with those deficits’. My favourite bit is the Chinese vice premier telling Osborne of his love for Jane Austen, and especially Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. “The Treasury could not confirm last night which were the chancellor’s favourites, nor whether he had read them.” It was a smile of a moment in an otherwise straight report on a visit. FT house style and everything.

McDermott’s article contrasted blogging and reporting and it’s a much agonised distinction on both sides of the writing medium (professional and not). The point may be that, while the medium is the focus of the argument, the conversation will fail to die down. When you have nothing to say then the way you write may be the only thing left to talk about.

As my sister reminds me now and then, Ephemeral Digest is a blog, and I can write what I want. I am privileged to not have to worry about what constitutes news and what makes an article. Now and then I do worry about it but a funny moment in a broadsheet reminds me that there’s always a balance out there.

My dad’s advice wasn’t just a way of discussing writing. He was trying to tell me how to best get my message across. My ambition is to find more ways to do that so I’ll happily stumble along and be creative when necessary. Until grass grows hands, however, I won’t be manicuring any lawns. That’s a promise.

The Imperfectionists, anticipation

Rome is the setting for some quirky characters and an English language newspaper around which eleven short stories are based. The book is the Imperfectionists and it is the first one by English born Tom Rachman. The author was raised in Vancouver and spent his professional life as a journalist. He was stationed in Rome when he worked for the Associated Press, and lived in Paris, where he was editor for the International Herald Tribune.

The description of the book reads as follows:

The English-language newspaper was founded in Rome in the 1950s, a product of passion and a multi-millionaire s fancy. Over fifty years, its eccentricities earned a place in readers hearts around the globe. But now, circulation is down, the paper lacks a website, and the future looks bleak.

Still, those involved in the publication seem to barely notice. The obituary writer is too busy avoiding work. The editor-in-chief is pondering sleeping with an old flame. The obsessive reader is intent on finishing every old edition, leaving her trapped in the past. And the dog-crazy publisher seems less interested in his struggling newspaper than in his magnificent basset hound, Schopenhauer.

There have already been some reviews: DJ Taylor wrote in the Guardian: “Anyone who has ever spent time in newspaperland will recognise The Imperfectionists’ high degree of authenticity. So – you hope – will quite a few people beyond it.

Jonathan Sale at the Independent is a little punchier with his opinion. ‘Tom Rachman has worked as a foreign correspondent and his characters, although exaggerated, ring only too true. To avoid former colleagues who might recognise themselves, he would be best advised to stick to the novel writing. They might take a dim view of the hackette’s sneering verdict that “Journalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males.”‘

Finally, Charlie Buckley at the Scotsman is a little more positive than the other two: “THIS first novel by Tom Rachman, a London-born journalist who has lived and worked all over the world, is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off”.

The hardback version was published in March 2010 and the paperback is due to be released in September of this year.

If you do end up reading it then please let me know what you thought. I will do the same when I get a chance to read it.

By the people, TH!NK3

‘It’s about the people’ was the phrase that kept making itself heard over the two days of the registration conference for the TH!NK3 blogging competition. The theme is development but it all comes down to how it affects people.

For the two days 22-23 March, the people involved were the 100 participants who had signed up to blog about this round’s theme. We came from countries from all corners of the world such as Mexico, United States, Australia, Bulgaria, Greece, UK, Portugal, South Africa, Iceland and Romania. We were all gathered in Brussels to begin our journey on evaluating how countries around the world had progressed in “facing the biggest issues known to man“. 10 years ago, world leaders embraced the challenge of such goals as ending poverty and hunger, providing universal education, and promoting women’s rights. Now with five years before the Millennium Development Goals are meant to be achieved UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on world leaders to attend a summit in New York on 20-22 September 2010 to boost progress towards them. We were gathered together to write and report about global cooperation and sustainable development in the lead up to the summit.

The competition is organised by the European Journalism Centre and follows TH!NK2 which focused on Climate Change and TH!NK which focused on the European Parliament elections.

We all gathered together for a three-course dinner within a casual environment designed to promote introductions between us and provide a closer glance at the competition itself. The participants did not need to be bloggers to be chosen but to be in with a chance to win a reporting experience, to either New York, Asia or Africa, 20 posts need to be written between March 24 and the end of August. Like it or not we would end up being bloggers and part of the media.

This information was presented during the dinner and afterwards a few groups of people went out to explore the city via its many bars through the side streets in the city centre. The late night excursions were reflected in the red eyes of more than a few of the participants at the all-day conference.

The schedule however provided for much interest and enthusiasm. The focus on development was augmented by the training and encouragement in journalism with tips on how to best promote, structure and utilise our work.

Marina Ponti, Director of Europe for the Millennium Campaign, provided the keynote speech and introduced us to the idea that “[t]he main obstacle is not lack of resources, or lack of technology. It’s the lack of political will”.

A panel of development journalists provided an international dimension of coverage with perspectives and examples from Guy Degen (independent journalist and trainer), Linord Rachel Moudou (Voice of America), Helmut Osang (DW), Thomas Seifert (Die Presse) and moderator Oliver Wates. They kept coming back to the idea that the issues may be overarching and affect nations and organisations but ultimately the effect is always local.

Most of the participants had some passing link to journalism, whether it was as practising, aspiring or student journalists. Some had a little trouble in making the transition from ‘reading’ the media to ‘being’ the media. Why do the press get it wrong? questioned one audience member and why aren’t they interested in important stories? Why Tiger Woods rather than starving children. Oliver Wates, former Reuters development journalist and trainer, stressed objectivity, addressing both sides of a story, and the two dimensions of importance and interest.

Whether people learn about slums in India through Slumdog Millionaire or about the human sacrifices in trade via Blood Diamond, we are now the ones responsible for getting the message out. So it begins.

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