Creating a data journalism organisation in Serbia: A personal journey

It can be tough work to try to introduce data journalism into a media scene where the practice hasn’t taken hold yet. This personal essay presents Miodrag Marković's experience in Serbia.

About 15 years ago, I realised for the first time that data can generate powerful news stories. At the time I was a member of the team that investigated the topic of family murders. I had no clue what data journalism was, but some conclusions extracted from the data made a strong impression on me: We uncovered that although family murders took place in various forms, cases in which a sister had killed her brother, or a mother her son, were extremely rare.

About five years ago, I opened the Interactive section of The New York Times website for the first time. I was amazed to discover how much this new form of journalism had developed.

About seven months ago, I quit my job, guided by an idea to establish the first data newsroom in Serbia. But recently, I started wondering if this adventure would be more appropriate for someone who is more clever, experienced – and perhaps younger – than I am.

(Check out Miodrag’s Matchmaking project on the Den: Building Data News Lab Serbia)

‘Copy-paste’ journalism

During my career, I never became a specialised data journalist. I worked mostly as a journalist or editor in daily newspapers: jobs that didn’t leave you much time for research. And data journalism per se never really existed in Serbia, anyway.

Since realising for the first time how data could be used in connection with a story, news on the internet has greatly changed. In the early 2000s, news websites in Serbia were just static versions of the print issues. During the second half of the decade, more journalists started working on news websites, but these were classified as second-class jobs here.

The situation is more or less the same today – ‘stars’ from print issues still call online journalist ‘copy-paste journalists’. I’ve seen both sides during my career, and I’m getting a little tired of trying to explain to my colleagues that whether one works on the internet or print is not important.

Media scene in Serbia

Before telling you more about data journalism in Serbia, here’s a quick run through of the country’s media environment:

  • National broadcasting corporation RTS
  • Two big newspaper corporations, partly owned by the government, with largely pro-government editorial policies.
  • A couple of big private newspaper/online corporations, which are commercially oriented and which don’t significantly criticise the key players in the government.
  • A group of smaller, private print/online publishers that strongly support the government and only criticise the opposition.
  • A couple of publishers, a daily and a weekly, that can be critical of the government, but that are struggling to survive on the market.
  • Finally, a couple of independent online newsrooms, that are strongly critical of the government and that financially rely on grants and donations.

To establish a data/interactive newsroom, the two major private corporations have the best resources. Sadly they mostly follow the commercial online trends, which has led them to focus on ‘clickable’ and mostly trivial content.

From a professional point of view, a better option would therefore be to establish a data unit inside an independent newsroom with higher professional standards. But these media groups struggle with the basic problem of survival and mostly avoid any new investment in areas where income is unsure.

My last job was in one of the private corporations. In parallel to my regular job, I studied data journalism by myself, from sources I found on the internet. Same thing when I started to learn programming. I managed to develop my skills and thought I could propose the idea of establishing a data and interactive news unit to my managers. But once I concluded that it wasn’t the professional environment for such a project, I gave up on that idea. For that and other professional and personal reasons I decided to quit the job, leave the newsroom, and try to find other ways to promote the need for establishing a data journalism newsroom in Serbia.

The first steps

My plan A was to propose a data unit to the national broadcasting corporation. I thought I should present my idea to the public media service first because it is the national institution with the biggest resources and it has an obligation to citizens and the media profession to maintain modern journalism standards.

At the end of last year, I had informal conversations with an important editor who was supportive of the idea, but his higher-ups didn’t show interest in the project. Still, it gave me the opportunity to promote data journalism on national TV – a historic moment, because it was the first time the term ‘data journalism’ was mentioned in Serbian mainstream media.

Unfortunately, knowledge of data journalism is rare in the mainstream media and many journalists have never heard of data journalism. As far as I know, there is only one small independent newsroom, KRIK, which practices data journalism. To my knowledge, the situation is the same in more generally in the region of former Yugoslavia.

Data entrepreneurship

My plan B was entrepreneurship. Since I quit my job in October 2017, I’ve sent hundreds of emails, made hundreds of phone calls, had countless meetings.

I’ve tried to promote my three main goals:

  • Practising and promoting data and interactive journalism
  • Providing other publishers with data and visual content
  • Acting as a training center for aspiring data journalists.

I’ve tried to get support from four types of contacts: leading Serbian private IT corporations, Serbian journalist associations, the Serbian government, and European data journalism organisations and funds – with little results:

  • IT companies are generally not interested in supporting this kind of project, saying they want to focus on the domain business.
  • Journalist associations initially showed interest in collaborating and helping find international contacts, but concrete support has been lacking.
  • As for the government, its IT office runs a project about open data, which releases its data as a web API in JSON format, or as CSV files. I wanted to present my project to them, and suggest that they help journalists use their data, but sadly have had no response.
  • The best feedback so far has been from European data journalism organisations and professionals in that area. They’ve been responsive, encouraging, and given useful information or suggestions.

The road ahead

I haven’t yet found the funds to start my project, even in a small format with only minimal resources. But the positive side of this experience has been that I’ve spent almost every moment learning something new. Alongside ‘entrepreneurial’ activities, I’ve read books and tutorials about programming, articles about data journalism, data analysis, and visualisation, practised web development, worked on data… Just in the area of programming, I’ve achieved more than I had planned to in the beginning. But I am still a journalist in the first place. I primarily want to research, to think, and create stories. Believe me, there is nothing fancy about debugging.

What can I conclude from this experience? Evidently, ambitious ideas and hard work are not enough. I must admit I have a lack of managerial and entrepreneurial skills and having experience from an international newsroom would also help. If I had teammates things would be better, but there is no one else who practices open source data journalism in Serbia. I also need more international contacts in this field and work more actively on networking.

There are certainly many things where I could do better. But overthinking does not help – the key is to get on with the real work.

 

Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash