How to Use Spreadsheets in Digital Reporting

Spreadsheets are helping reporters explain themselves to readers and tell better stories.

Would you like your reporters to produce the types of stories that generate shares and clicks? That’s exactly what digital reporters are producing right now using the latest techniques in data management and spreadsheets.

Throughout the media world, there is a growing recognition of the overall importance of math and data. Not just in the beats most often associated with data journalism, like politics and local government, but also in education, finance, and criminal justice.

Being able to generate spreadsheets that the public can view—and understand—is an important part of being a data journalist. This is particularly true for those journalists who work at digital-first publications.

Reporters aren’t known for their math skills, but having a basic understanding of how data collection and spreadsheets work—and how to publish spreadsheets on the web—is becoming a way of life for reporters.

Google Sheets vs. Excel

Although Excel is the most well-known software for creating spreadsheets, it’s not what most editors recommend. Instead, we’re seeing more reporters using Google Sheets.

Google Sheets is useful for doing everything from navigating and searching through data, to cleaning up data. Not only can Google Sheets store up to 2 million cells, but it is also accessible from any device with WiFi. It’s particularly useful for teams of journalists, since its collaboration and sharing features are hard to match.

When is it better to use Excel? If privacy and security are an extreme concern, then Excel is the preferred option over Google Sheets. Excel is also a better solution for analyzing extremely large amounts of data.

Spreadsheets in Digital Reporting – Best Practices

Basic skills that all journalists should understand when they use spreadsheets for digital reporting include:

  • How to sort data
  • How to search through data
  • How to filter data
  • How to create pivot tables

On the more advanced end of the spectrum, journalists can use spreadsheets to conduct advanced data cleaning, including creating if/then statements.

When reporters publish spreadsheets on the web, those spreadsheets are usually accompanied by graphics and other branding elements handled by the publisher’s marketing and design teams.

Not all story structures lend themselves to spreadsheets. In some cases, a data journalist might create a spreadsheet to use for research, without actually publishing the spreadsheet on the web for readers to see. Laying out information in a spreadsheet can help a reporter better understand all the pieces of the puzzle and make connections between sources and data.

Spreadsheets can help reporters organize their lives, as long as they’re using them in the right ways. For big stories, reporters should consider making spreadsheets that contain all the information they have about sources, and potential sources. In addition to basic elements like names and contact information, we recommend including details about previous contacts with the source and what was discussed on previous calls. Beat reporters can also use spreadsheets to gather and sort through upcoming stories and projects, and to store URLs for all of their clips.

Other uses for spreadsheets in the newsroom include:

  • Managing sources
  • Keeping contact information
  • Creating timelines for projects
  • Handling reporting finances and receipts

Using Spreadsheets in Smaller Newsrooms

The vast majority of publishers we work with at Web Publisher PRO don’t have the resources to dedicate to educating their entire staff on data journalism. That’s OK. Most publishers find that having just one or two reporters with basic data skills is enough for their newsrooms.

Depending on the publication’s size and niche, it may make sense to have senior reporters teach their data skills to other members of the team.

The New York Times has recently published all the materials used in their own data training program online, so publishers can take advantage of the lessons that are already out there. Publishers can access the New York Times’ data training materials here. These materials include training information, sample data sets, cheat sheets, and tip sheets.

Are your reporters using spreadsheets on a regular basis? Let us know what’s working, and what’s not, in your data journalism initiatives.