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What is a data journalist and why do you need one?

What is a data journalist and why do you need one?

Authored by Dr. Jan van Niekerk


One of the biggest pain points in many organisations – although they might not even be aware of it – is the disconnect that exists between the data analytics department and the other business units. Despite the concept of a data journalist not being well recognised in the industry, the fundamental challenge facing businesses is to unearth people who can bridge the gap between the technical team (being able to deliver and talk the technical jargon) and engaging with the stakeholders (verbalising how to solve a problem).

To put a data analytics team in perspective, the typical data analytics department is underpinned by a head of data analytics/head of data science who has a mixture of business and technical skills. Their job is to go and sell technical solutions (be it internally or externally) and come back with a project which is handed over to the technical team. This team then deliver a technical solution and give it back to the client/business unit to apply.

As the name suggests, however, the purpose of a data journalist is to listen to a client, similar to the way a business analyst would, and then transcribe this into specifications for the technical (data) team. They fulfil that gap role that often exists between the technical delivery team and the internal business team, having the ability to transition between technical speak and business speak, and connecting the dots between the two to help drive scalability, adoption and trust.

Previously this role might have been called a Data Insight Analyst, whose purpose was to extract value out of data and to action that value back into the business. While a data journalist is similar, they become the client’s trusted advisor, bridging the gap between what the business challenges are, and how the solutions actually help solve these problems.

While it may be a futuristic concept, if you could put someone in a data journalist role within any business, life would be much easier. As this position doesn’t exist in most organisations, its remit tends to fall into the laps of the CMO, head of marketing or head of IT, all of whom look at data from a different perspective and generally don’t have that strategic input to get the most out of their data, tech and digital transformation initiative.

To be a success, a data journalist should have specific traits; along with communication skills being an important element, they should be solutionist, have good business acumen, and a sound level of comprehension of how technical solutions are built, how they operate, and how they can be leveraged to solve business problems. While it may not be too difficult to find people who look qualified from their CV, it is often the soft skill elements that make them a prime candidate for this role.

While organisations have realised the importance of digital, data and technology, one of the most vital elements is appointing a person who is passionate about leveraging digital, data and technology to help drive internal solutions to help realise that big, broader strategic vision. The age-old adage that people are either technical or possess business skills means that it is not as simple as hiring the most technical data scientist or the person with the most experience in digital transformation for a data journalist position; it is about finding someone who can actually solve problems by leveraging both a business brain and a technical brain at the same time.