Last year, the Accrington Observer, a weekly newspaper in the town which has long since tired of hearing the old milk advert references, marked it’s 125th anniversary by republishing it’s very first newspaper:
It makes for a fascinating read – both in terms of what the founders of the paper thought would interest their readers, as well as what life was like in a mill town during its boom years – but one thing stood out for me more than anything else.
Tucked away on the back page was this:
Taking up a good chunk of the back page was a detailed timetable for train services in and around Accrington. (For anyone who knows how poor the train services around Accrington are now, it’s a timetable to behold). What I don’t know is whether they published this data every week. I suppose the train timetable in 1890-something was to local folk what the chemist rotas were in the 1990s – information which was useful, but generally not available in too many other places.
Fast forward to the 21st century and publishing train timetables on a weekly basis would be a waste of space. How many papers would it sell? How many visitors would it attract to the website? For print, the timetable probably has zero value, but a searchable train timetable probably does have some value, although it’s just as accessible in many other places.
But then look at this week’s Accrington Observer front page:
It’s a story which many people will be familiar with, due to the amount of attention it is getting in the national press: The spare bedroom tax, the council tax benefit cuts, and the other cuts to welfare benefits.
But what this story has which no other story has is the local data, collected from a number of local data sources: The local housing association saying how many of its tenants will see their benefits cuts, the Citizens Advice saying how many people it expects to be hurt by benefits changes, and assessments from the local council on council tax benefits changes. As the numbers show, it’s a story which will chime with many in the town.
If the first example, from the 18th century, is an example of data without the journalism, then the 21st century example is definitely my idea of data journalism: Finding the numbers which make the story, and in the process demonstrate its worth and interest to a local community.
But what united the two, 126 years apart, is the fact that the data has a value and is of interest to readers. And in an age where we supposedly have access to more data than ever before – and have the power to request more data than ever before – data has the power to connect newsrooms to their readers unlike almost anything else.
This isn’t an argument in favour of data journalism because it’s the ‘cool’ thing to talk about, or an argument to say all data must be used – that would create something very dull indeed. But dismissing it as a fad, or rejecting it because it challenges what we traditionally think of as news, is a dangerous thing to do.
In a recent interview, the founder of new regional news publisher LocalWorld, David Montgomery, said, in reference to one of his daily titles ‘splashing on an interesting but relatively minor crime story:
“You sense there is a community there and the old news agenda dictated by news editors the length and breadth of newspapers is not relevant anymore.”
Clever use of data enables you to ensure that isn’t the case … just as the Accrington Observer was doing 126 years ago.