Our data team is all about the numbers—and we want to share that love and enthusiasm for spreadsheets with everyone. Our Off the Charts newsletter—the first data newsletter by a major newspaper—was launched in mid-February 2021 and since then our team has been sharing their behind-the-scenes processes and workflow with tens of thousands of data fans across the globe. Whether you’re fluent in R or Python, or a D3 novice or just want to learn how to elevate your data visualisations—the newsletter reaches a broad audience of data experts and those who want to become one.
Every week, we receive many messages from readers who delight in The Economist’s data journalism and love learning from our team. Our aim was to give everyone the opportunity to get a unique insight into the inner workings of an international data team at a major newspaper. We want to make ourselves approachable and invite our readers to send questions, suggestions and comments to our team (firstname.lastname@example.org) and share our behind the scenes in the newsletter every week. We’ve explained the processes behind our coronavirus coverage, for example, our normalcy index and excess-death tracker. We have weighed up the pros and cons of Python compared to R and explained why we rarely use polar charts, how we visualise outliers, how we deal with unreliable stats such as China’s GDP and how we gather and check the data for our infamous Big Mac index. We’ve also explained how we adapt our work for colour blindness, how log scales work and how to declutter a chart to make it easier to read. The comments and feedback we get from colleagues across the industry and other readers—often students or academics who seek to improve their data vis for their scientific papers—show that we are reaching people in and outside of our bubble and are successfully sharing our love for data and inspiring the work of others.
We use many tools that we highlight and explain in our newsletter (Python, R, D3, Illustrator,…). To publish the newsletter we only use Salesforce and Google Docs, as well as our in-house charting tool and Illustrator.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Often the hardest part is going first. This is the first data newsletter by a major news outlet and getting the organisational buy-in may have been the hardest part. But it has since inspired other outlets (for example the Washington Post) to start up similar ventures. The newsletter is a true collaboration between the data team and the newsletter team and it takes good communication and internal processes to deliver a piece to such a high standard every week. Most importantly, the writers have to be ready to make themselves vulnerable and share their behind the scenes—which as we all know isn’t always as perfect as we would like it to be as code written for quick turnaround article can sometimes be messy. But it’s important to us to share it for a more open and accessible data journalism scene.
What can others learn from this project?
Since the main goal of the newsletter is to share our behind-the-scenes processes, other journalists can learn a lot about our data visualisation techniques, data gathering methods and statistical methods. We share what tools we use, how we get ideas—how we do all of our work. Other journalists can get a unique insight into our data team as we take our readers on a journey through our workflow every week. We have explained how to read and work with log scales, how to adapt charts for colourblind readers and how to make better bar charts. We also shared how we work with covid data, how we source climate data and how we sonify data. Data journalism is all about openness and sharing with the community—and that’s what we try to deliver with Off the Charts. We want to lift the curtain on how we work and share our processes and everything we learn on the way with our colleagues at other organisations.