Exclusive interview with Patrick Smith, editor of The Media Briefing

Posted on March 31, 2011 by

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Piechart Polly is thrilled to annouce she has wangled an exclusive interview with Patrick Smith.

In case you’re not familiar with this online whizz and self-professed twitter fiend here’s a quick bio.

Age: 28

Occupation: Freelance journalist.

Positions: Editor and chief analyst of The Media Briefing, a real-time intelligence platform.

Previous work: UK correspondent for ContentNext and newspaper correspondent for Press Gazette.

Awards: Best Feature Writer (News) and Best Reporter (News) nominations at the PTC New Journalist Awards 2007 & Yorkshire TV student journalist of the year 2006

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PP: Hi Patrick! Thanks for talking to the data girls. First question – can you give our readers top tips on how to manage data?

Patrick: You have to know your sources, and have a standard list of sources that you always go to. Don’t just look for things that are available in the public domain, it’s your right to make freedom of information requests. Once you’ve got the figures, make sure you understand them – exactly what they are and where they are from. Use lots of tools to process and understand the data – there are lots of spreadsheet tools that can manipulate data and turn it into an understandable narrative. Make sure there’s a story there. It may be that you don’t present any numbers to your audience – you might turn it into a graph or a chart or an infographic or a map. Be innovative in the way you present the data. Don’t just do a standard pie chart, there are so many ways you can present data these days.

PP: What do you think is the best way to present data?

Patrick: I’m a big fan of infographics which the reader can visually manipulate and navigate themselves. For example the Guardian create clickable infographics, where the user becomes the editor. They can kind out what they want to know and they manage their experience themselves.

PP: Which data journalist do you most admire?

Patrick: David McCandless. He’s very creative in the way he displays data and I see that very much as journalism. He goes against the grain, picking issues that he’s interested in and tells a story with them. He converts very large and incomprehensible data and raw numbers into pictures or graphs that people can understand over time, which would need thousands and thousands of words to describe in plain text.

PP: Do you think there’s a danger that as infographics get more dazzling people will look at them as art and fail to understand the stories behind them?

Patrick: That’s where journalism comes in. You need to make sure it’s compelling. A flashy graph is no substitute for a good story or good hard data. Journalists need to inject that editorial and that curation and make sure that it is interesting, not just window dressing.

PP: Why do you think journalism is enjoying a heyday?

Patrick: I’m not sure this is it’s heyday, I think these are just the first flourishes of spring in the data journalism revolution. Tools like google docs and google graphs have made it easier to manipulate your data. Free software like Tableau and Many Eyes have become available in the past few years, and the proliferation of online tools l have made manipulating data much easier. Scrapeawiki for example, is free but very sophisticated way of scraping websites for text, making spreadhseets to work with. I’m sure there are plenty more to come.

PP: Where do you see data journalism going?

Patrick: It will become more mainstream and a standard part of most news journalists’ repertoire. But I don’t believe every journalist will need to be a specialist in the area – it’s still a niche pursuit at the moment, you won’t need it to work on regional papers or magazines. But if you want to be a modern reporter, it’s worth having a few data manipulation skills up your sleeve.

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