EN week 4: Anna Lombardi "They probably all grasp just one little element of what I actually do."

Good morning, as the first month of Evolving Newsroom comes to a close I wanted to say thank you for reading and to encourage you to forward the email to anyone you think might be interested. If you are a new reader, welcome! You can find the archive here.

This week I’d like to introduce Anna Lombardi, a Data and interactive journalist at The Times and Sunday Times & one of my colleagues.

What does your title mean in practice?

When I first approached ‘data journalism’, I thought the key word in it was data. I was wrong. Simply and foremost, it is journalism: same code, same rules, same purpose to inform and empower communities and societies. Data is only an additional source we “interview” to gain access to new pieces of information.  

In our daily work, the team and I assist reporters gathering data that is not easily accessible; for example, whenever scraping or coding needs to be involved. We clean and analyse big datasets to spot outliers or patterns that can lead to interesting newslines; we create effective visualizations and digital interactive tools that provide context and help readers navigate complex topics.

It’s such a dynamic and multifaceted field that it won’t fit in any simple definition. Aron Pilhofer, former visual editor at The Guardian, once said “When you say data journalism, it means something different to just about everyone”. I couldn’t agree more. 

From personal experience, my mum still thinks I’m some sort of nerdy statistician, my friends firmly believe I’m a science/investigative journalist, my grandma still doesn’t really know what to think, her best answer yet having been “oh so you make all those colourful graphs in the newspaper. Have you turned into an artist then?” They probably all grasp just one little element of what I actually do.

Where does the role sit/what department does your role report to?

The Data and Digital Storytelling Team I’m part of sits within the broader Times and Sunday Times’ Digital department, which also includes social media, audio and video, engagement, and SEO teams. 

Our team was created last year by combining the data and interactive teams. A dynamic and versatile group, we are focused on bringing stories to life for our digital audience — the key target of our journalism. We create engaging and insightful visual content as well as in depth data-led investigations. 

We bring together a wide set of technical skills — from scraping to statistical modelling, design, coding, development, spatial analysis and data visualisation — and knowledge in different subject areas ranging from politics to sport, from environment to social affairs. This unique mix of competences enables us to develop relationships with almost every reporter and every section of the newsroom.  

When was the role created, what attracted you to it and what is your background?

I joined the newsroom two years ago as part of the interactives team. A physicist by training with a PhD in nanophotonics and a few years research experience at Cambridge, I had just finished a masters in Science Communication at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste (Italy). 

Data journalism was the one course that instantly fascinated me and left me eager to learn more. Looking for job opportunities both in Italy and abroad, I came across two roles both advertised by The Times: one was for a data journalist, the other for an interactive journalist. 

To even consider them seemed a bit of a long shot for someone with no previous experience in a newsroom, but it was too big an opportunity not to at least try! I was almost immediately and naturally attracted to the first role, but I applied to both. 

And I got the second. In hindsight, that was the best outcome I could have ever hoped for. Soon after entering the newsroom I realised that being a scientist with some knowledge of data, statistics and modelling doesn’t make you a data journalist, and it certainly doesn’t turn you into one overnight. 

I had to humbly start from the basics, taking advantage of every chance to learn more about this field, trying to figure out how to apply my previous skills and to develop new competences hands-on. 

As an interactive journalist I’ve improved my visualization and coding techniques while learning about journalism from some of the best professionals in the industry. I’ve had the chance to work on my first data-led investigations too. Then in March last year our group was merged with the data team. My day-to-day work hasn’t changed massively as the team was already producing lots of data-led journalism but I ended up officially becoming a “data journalist”.

What is the most unexpected thing about the role?

I particularly appreciate the diversity of topics we get to work on every day, something that was somewhat unexpected. When I first started I was slightly worried I would have been asked to only focus on stories for the business section, a desk where statistics and trends seemed to be discussed on a daily basis (well, of course that was only true before Covid). 

Instead since the beginning I have had the immense privilege of collaborating with specialist reporters across the newsroom on a range of subjects while being also given the freedom to carry out and develop my own ideas. To learn something new every day, to hear stories from so many different people and to get a better understanding of the world around us, it is something that really opens your mind. To me, this remains a priceless privilege of doing this job.

What is the most challenging thing about the role?

With no previous journalistic experience and not being a native speaker, I would say everything was pretty challenging at the beginning. To enter and find my place in one of the most important newsrooms in the country was intimidating and quite a personal challenge in itself: to learn everything I could about journalism, newsroom dynamics and British culture all at the same time seemed like a very ambitious task. 

My everlasting imposter syndrome escorted me to work every day, at least during the first few months. I felt I had to work twice as hard to just keep up with others. But with time came a bit of experience, positive feedback, published stories and so I started seeing this for what it was: a wonderful opportunity to discover a new environment, acquire skills and take on new challenges every day. 

Reverso Context is still open in my browser all the time, as some British idioms are still out of my reach, but I keep a notebook full of technical words I learn everyday.

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What is the most useful thing you have learnt?

From a technical point of view I think an improved proficiency in R and a better acquaintance with softwares to analyse and map geographical data (e.g. QGIS) have both proved really handy in my daily work. 

But in general I believe the most important thing I have learnt is that data can be powerful but also really hard to resonate with people. I think we’ve seen it best during this pandemic: it doesn’t take long for us to get accustomed, almost anesthetized, to all the numbers thrown at us every day. 

Of course rates and percentages can give you insights into a topic, help cut through the noise, trigger new questions, provide some context, but they must always be complemented by human voices. Our job is to humanise statistics and bring them closer to people: behind every number there is a person, a local community, a personal experience waiting to be told that, as human beings, we are so much better to engage with. 

That is why wherever possible we also try to place our readers at the centre of the story by shaping statistics around them: you may be interested in knowing the number of ICU beds available in all British hospitals, but you’re much more likely to care about the situation in your local one. No matter what platform or tool you use, it is people that bring your journalism to life.

What skills do you need for your job/do you find yourself using most often?

One needs a good mix of technical skills such as data analysis, basic statistics, coding and design. For each of them I adopt one or more different softwares and apps: 

  • For coding and analysis: RStudio, Google sheets, Tabula, OpenRefine

  • For visualisations: Illustrator, Photoshop, Datawrapper and QGIS

A proper dose of creativity and curiosity is also important to be able to come up with original ideas for compelling stories.

Attention to detail, then, is key: despite having maths literacy I’ve discovered how easy it is to make mistakes when dealing with numbers, whether that is huge datasets or simple percentages. To learn it the hard way, when moments before publication you spot an error in your final spreadsheet, is really something you want to avoid. 

Just assume you’re going to slip up somewhere, don’t ever allow yourself to let your guard down, question your data sources, triple check every single step of your analysis - even the simplest one -, ask field experts for feedback on your conclusions, and make sure to always get another pair of eyes to go through your calculations. It can be a lifesaver.

Where do you go to find inspiration, what from outside journalism do you take back and apply to your role?

I closely follow the work of other data journalists, information designers, researchers and developers around the world, mainly on Twitter and Instagram. From them, I find inspiration for topics to explore, designs to experiment with, new tools to use. 

Newsletters represent another great resource, often pointing me to amazing data stories I’ve missed, newly published open datasets, interesting debates on the social role of data journalism and how it is evolving.

Before Covid disrupted our lives I also attended events in London on coding and journalism such as Journocoders, R ladies and Visualising Data London. This allowed me to broaden and enrich my network with people that share my love for this job. It answered lots of my questions while sowing seeds of new ideas. 

Then, of course, there are other major publications I read regularly. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Economist to cite just a few. They produce great visual and interactive contents we can be inspired by. 

I’ve also just recently come across this gallery of physical visualizations by Pierre Dragicevic and Yvonne Jansen, which I find very inspiring: it explores new ways of engaging with a dataset, challenging the dominant paradigms of conventional screen-based data visualization. This type of approach encourages me to ‘think outside the box’ and to look at numbers in a new light.

How do you make hard decisions?

I think some of the hardest decisions still relate to drawing a line between important and secondary details in a story. Probably linked to my academic background, I always feel I need to know everything about a topic before I can even start considering writing about it and I tend to value every single tiny bit of new information as crucial. 

In the news industry, this is rarely the case. Most stories don’t require getting bogged down in technicalities and can thrive from just a few key points. A fruitful collaboration with several specialist reporters is helping me discern the right degree of detail you shall provide to your readers in order to keep them both interested and informed. 

Another important point to stress is that whenever hard decisions have come in the way, I’ve never felt left alone to take them. In the most critical moments, I always had a great team I could turn to for advice and support. 

I was once told: “you’re never alone in this. It’s your name on the final story but you have a whole authoritative newspaper behind you that is there to make sure everything goes well”. This gave me a lot more confidence.

What do you wish you knew when you took the job?

I wish I had a bit more coding skills. To start coding in a new language can take some time and, most of all, a lot of practice. When I first started, slightly overwhelmed by the frantic newsroom pace, I tended to avoid R (despite it being an incredibly powerful resource). 

I preferred to stick with tools I already knew and felt more confident with even if they prevented me from carrying out some more complex analysis. As I was trying to learn this new programming language in my spare time or in the rare quiet moments of my daily work routine, it took me some time to get a basic proficiency and to start exploiting it daily. Now I’m left wondering how I could ever have worked without it.

What story or project are you most proud of so far? Tell us about how it came to be and why you are proud of it. 

I’m very happy with every single project I’ve worked on so far. Each of them taught me important lessons: whether it was how to use the new functionality of a tool, to get a different perspective on a topic or to identify the most powerful way to visually tell a story, they have all left a mark.

The one I’m probably most proud of, though, is my first big data-led investigation without the leading support of a specialist reporter. Together with my colleague George Greenwood I exposed how companies in England have been repeatedly breaching environmental rules designed to protect people and the wildlife with impunity. 

We analysed official figures of breaches and gathered information about prosecutions and actions taken by the Environment Agency through FOI requests. The data highlighted some of the worst offending companies, which helped us find affected local communities we could talk to. 

The deeper we delved the more examples we found and the more powerful the story became. While working on this I think I’ve truly understood the importance of getting both numbers and people in a story. When we published I felt like it was my baptism into data journalism!

What’s one thing you thought would be would happen in the news industry when you started but hasn’t? Why?

As a scientist, I used to think of journalists as professionals more interested in bold headlines than data accuracy and attention to details. I was wrong, terribly deceived by a biased and distorted vision. 

Science and quality journalism are not alien cultures but in fact underpinned by the same values: rigour, scepticism, the belief that conclusions require evidence and that every finding must be subject to question. 

As journalists, we always try to interrogate numbers with a critical, impartial eye without looking for validation of preconceived theories. 

We also aim to be fully transparent about our analysis and methodology, allowing readers to see behind the scenes and come to their own conclusions. It is an approach that truly resonates with me. 

To my great surprise the scientific method I applied for so many years as a researcher didn’t go to waste after all…


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Keeping up

What is one book/blogpost/podcast/link you’d like to share?

Factfulness (Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, 2018) provides a hopeful description of the times we live in. Far from being a simplistic call for greater optimism, it encourages readers to go beyond our preconceptions and biases and to instead look at the world through facts and statistics. I’ve found it truly fascinating.

Data Feminism (Catherine D’ignazio and Lauren F. Klein, 2020) is another great book I strongly recommend to anyone interested to find out more about data science. It offers a fresh new perspective into key topics such as data ethics, pluralism and systemic inequalities in data collection and knowledge production. Topical and powerful.

What or who do you like to read/listen to/watch/subscribe to/follow to keep up with how the industry is changing?

I subscribe to several newsletters on data, visualization and journalism that help me keep up to date with the latest trends and developments in the community, but also with the latest open source datasets available. Some of the best are Quantum of Sollazzo (by Giuseppe Sollazzo), Wonder tools (by Jeremy Caplan), Dataninja (in Italian, by Donata Columbro), Data is Plural (by Jeremy Singer-Vine), Sensemaker (by Tortoise), the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism weekly newsletter.

FlowingData.com is a great blog I regularly check. It explores different topics and provides interesting examples of data journalism from across various platforms. 

I also listen to podcasts such as “More or Less” by the BBC that always offers refreshing analysis of the numbers dominating the news. 

To follow the conversation of the data community on social media always gives me food for thought, whether it is a different perspective on a topic or new insights into the best practices adopted in the field.

I’ve read books about visualization and statistics, which helped me answer some of my initial questions (..while triggering many more). Titles include “Avoiding data pitfalls” (by Ben Jones), “How charts lie” (by Alberto Cairo), “Data visualization: A Handbook for Data Driven Design” (by Andy Kirk). 

My favourite one, though, remains “Visual Journalism, infographics from the world’s best newsrooms and designers”: it’s so full of beautiful in-depth graphics I get lost for hours browsing through the pages. 

I think design (and art more in general) could play an important role in the future of journalism, as this becomes more and more digital and visual. Having a strong passion for art myself, I’m always on the lookout for spaces where data journalists, graphics and information designers discuss the role of design and art in the newsroom. 

Can designers support journalists to convey their message in a more powerful way, challenging a too static view of the world? How to avoid the risk of art ousting information and brainy complex viz undermining clarity? Can we replace designers’ mantra “show don’t tell'' with “show AND tell”? So far, many more questions than answers, but I can’t wait to be part of the upcoming changes.

What is your Favourite film/TV series about the news?

All the president's men, Spotlight, The Post (with the unforgettable line “journalism is the first rough draft of history”)