Data: Can journalists get as excited by freely-available data as they do finding secrets?

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, said something at the Society of Editors conference which struck a chord.

He asked a question, during the democracy session about whether journalists will get as excited by freely-available data as they do about getting hold of information which isn’t already out in the open.

Every journalist will relate to that sense of delight when a good FOI comes through, or when a contact delivers a bit of information which stands up your story. I used to love receiving anonymous letters from a contact inside Blackburn with Darwen Council who provided just enough information to stand a story up.

But will journalists get excited about wading through the data which is becoming available? Hopefully, the answer will be yes.

Paul Francis, the political editor of the Kent Messenger group, hit the nail on the head when, while showing the latest monthly spending spreadsheet from Kent County Council, when he suggested that ‘data isn’t information.’

To me, the delight should come from finding the story within the data. Just because the information is out there doesn’t mean the story has been told. And while there will be people who want to wade through data as it becomes available, the art of finding the story in the data is what will provide the wider audience for that data.

Chris Rushton, who runs the journalism school at Sunderland University, suggested that the problem with the so-called tsunami of data was whether journalists in newsrooms had the time to go through the data.

His point that newsrooms are stretched is a valid one, but the idea that newsrooms will have failed if reporters don’t get every single story out of the data available feels unrealistic. If journalists find great stories in data, and editors find data stories sell papers – as the Birmingham Mail did with its Race for a School Place series - data journalism will become as much a part of newsroom life as the crime beat, covering councils and writing human interest features.

At that point, Christopher Graham’s worry about how excited journalists get about freely-available data should prove unfounded. Perhaps there still is life in the phrase ‘never old until it’s told.’

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