After the phone hacking scandal it might be a bit perverse to suggest 2012 will be a good year for journalism. But this prediction focuses on a new type of journalism that's defying the decline of the printed press: data journalism.
Like many innovations, the early adopters have been plugging away for some time - the Guardian newspaper's pioneering datablog is almost three years old. But as the first data journalism awards get underway, 2012 could mark its coming of age.
The megatrend that clearly underpins the rise of data journalism is the exponential increase in data, information and sources, made accessible by new technologies. There are also some more specific sub-trends. First, there has been an explosion of data visualisations and infographics from the mid 2000's. Web tools like Gapminder and infographic gurus such as David McCandless have fuelled public interest with beautiful and playful visualisations (not that such techniques are new: astronomer Christoph Schiener plotted sunspots in 1627, and Florence Nightingale developedcoxcomb charts to show causes of mortality in the Crimean War). Second, over the past few years we have witnessed large amounts of government information being released into the public domain. Some of these releases are authorised, such as the moves by US and UK governments to open up large public datasets, such as the Treasury's COINS database of public spending. Some have been unauthorised: the wikileaks release of classified State Department cables, or the leaking of the details of MPs expenses to the Telegraph in 2009.
These trends provide data journalism's means, but not its ends. The task of the data journalist is to filter and interpret these huge datasets to make a compelling story. And this is where it gets interesting, because data journalism gives us a new way to make facts compelling. Traditional investigative journalism has tended to drill down - to unearth hidden truths in current events. By contrast, data journalism often works in the other direction by aggregating small details to create a bigger picture. This role has previously been played by expert inquiries and academic studies, once public interest has died down. But data are increasingly available in (almost) real time, and social media can be used to harness collective intelligence, for example to build up a picture of contextual factors implicated in this summer's riots. Such 'emergent truths' may be less exciting than a killer scoop, but they make up for it in relevance to the reader and local detail. Data journalism can empower readers to break stories down to a hyper-local level, allowing readers to zoom in to their constituency or neighbourhood to find out what would happen under AV system, filtering bypersonal circumstances, or search for cases of interest.
With a few notable exceptions, data journalists are mostly outsiders to the mainstream media. As with journalism generally, whether these outsiders will eventually disrupt the big players will depend on alternative business models emerging; C.P. Scott's famous line "comment is free, facts are sacred" is perhaps a metaphor for the difficult challenge of making facts your business.