Global’s data journalism team “a first” in Canada

By Tamara Baluja

If there is one online initiative at Global News that David Skok is convinced will pay dividends in the long run, it’s the network’s data desk.  

By Tamara Baluja

If there is one online initiative at Global News that David Skok is convinced will pay dividends in the long run, it’s the network’s data desk.  

The broadcaster launched the data journalism team in 2010, says Skok, director of digital at Global News.  And the team has already got kudos for a data-driven investigation on the Gardiner Expressway structural problems in Toronto.  It recently picked up a nod from the Canadian Association of Journalists in the data journalism category and won the Radio-Television Digital News Association digital media award for the Central Region.

Skok believes the data investigative team is “a first” in Canada. That’s not to say that other newsrooms don’t have investigative teams that employ data analysts or do regular data-led investigations, but he hasn’t heard of any other newsroom that had a dedicated team of data journalists working full-time on such investigations.

“It’s not very common in any newsroom, either print or broadcast,” he said.

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At a time when newsrooms are laying off staff and mounting paywalls, Global has recently revamped its website and just finished a hiring spree for its online team. The data team is one of early investments Global News made digitally. While other investigative teams are more broad ranging in their mate, Global's data desk devotes its time entirely to filing FOI requests, analyzing the results of those data requests and writing specifically data-led stories. They also collaborate with the television side of Global News on merit. 

“You don’t look at it as immediate returns,” Skok said. “But when you think about how to distinguish yourself from all the news organizations out there doing the same stories all day, you have to have something journalistically different or fresh or more indepth.”

Global’s data desk is a small team of three: Patrick Cain, who made the much-lauded poppy map with OpenFile showing where WWII soldiers lived in Toronto; Leslie Young who worked on the award-winning Gardiner Expressway project; and Anna Mehler-Paperny, the newest member of the team who had previously worked at The Globe and Mail.

“The industry is in a state of panic and cutting down on these good journalism stories, which is really too bad, because it’s never been more important with the amount of data out there,” Mehler-Paperny said.

“We’re making the data ancillary in our stories,” she added.

While the team shares all the responsibilities of filing freedom of information requests, Young and Cain do more of the data crunching and Mehler-Paperny handles more of the writing.

“Both sides are equally important … the presentation of the data piece and the right phrasing in the printed word that puts everything into context,” Skok said.

 Young says she likes working on long-term projects. “It’s really nice to be given the time to immerse yourself in a topic and explore all the aspects of the story,” she said.

Often times, Young doesn’t know the nut graf or the exact pitch of the story when she launches into a data hunt. “It could go either way … sometimes we’re looking for the data to further explain something that’s breaking in the news, and sometimes it’s just an interesting data set and you see where it takes you.”

Not that it’s always serious investigations that the Global team is looking at. In February, the team put together a Valentine’s Day interactive on where to find all the singles in Canada.