September 1, 2022

Learn Data Journalism: Avoid My 3 Colossal Mistakes


On my journey to become a data journalist, I made a lot of mistakes and wasted a lot of time. 

You might be wondering why I’m sharing my disaster story with the world. It’s certainly not that I’m proud of my missteps. But if I can help someone else avoid the trouble I encountered in trying to master data journalism, then maybe my experience will be worthwhile. 

Let’s examine the three big mistakes I made learning data journalism. Then, we’ll discuss how you can avoid making these same errors, thus expediting your own path to becoming a data journalist. 

What Stops Most Reporters from Making It in Data Journalism

Learning data skills has obvious utility for anyone who works as a journalist. Even rudimentary data analysis can help find new stories and augment traditional reporting. But for many reporters, there’s one big obstacle standing in the way of becoming a data journalist: learning to code.

That’s the precise obstacle that stopped me. 

Before joining Dataquest, I worked in journalism for nearly a decade. For almost ten years, I tried repeatedly to learn programming for data journalism. But I never got very far.

The Problem with Most “How to Become a Data Journalist” Programs

My quest to learn to code led me to a couple of different online resources. To my dismay, they were full of confusing explanations that felt painfully irrelevant. I remember struggling my way through the book, Learn Python the Hard Way, building a text adventure game and thinking to myself, How on earth is this going to help me with data journalism?

The answer, of course, is that it wasn’t going to help me at all. I lost motivation and quit somewhere in the middle of that project.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I left journalism that I discovered there’s a much easier way to learn the technical skills required for data journalism. While I’m still no data expert, I’ve reached the point where I can do data journalism — I can collect unique and original datasets, I can clean the data, and I can analyze it and visualize it for interesting patterns. 

And it took me a lot less time to get to that point than you might think.

Along the way, I learned that I made three big mistakes in my past attempts to learn programming. For me, learning these three lessons was the difference between success and failure. Now, I want to share my insight with you.

data journalism is data science, basically

Lesson 1: Data Journalism is Basically Data Science

The single biggest mistake I made in my efforts to become a data journalist was that I was essentially trying to “learn programming.”

You Don’t Need to Learn Programming (At Least Not in the General Sense)

Programming is a necessary skill for data journalism. But when you try to learn “programming” in the general sense, you end up learning a lot of tangential stuff. That’s how I found myself trying to build a text adventure game. It’s also how a lot of aspiring data journalists find themselves doing things like trying to build mobile apps.

Here’s the problem with these generic “learn programming” courses: They try to teach you everything at once. This approach isn’t efficient, and working on things that are irrelevant can sap your motivation. 

Stay Focused on the Skills You Actually Need! 

Thankfully, the skills required to become an effective data journalist overlap pretty directly with those required of data analysts. That means you can learn the skills required for data journalism without wasting too much time on irrelevant lessons.There are lots of platforms out there that will walk you through the necessary skills in data science. 

Dataquest, for instance, is a great resource for learning the data skills necessary for data journalism. Here are some cool features:

  • You’ll be writing real code within minutes
  • There are no boring videos — you learn by doing
  • Virtually every course contains a project that can help you build your portfolio
  • It’s free to sign up

It’s what I used, and I’m confident it will help you too. I’d recommend the data analyst path, since the skills you’ll learn will help the most with data journalism.

motivation matters in trying to become a data journalist

Lesson 2: Motivation Matters

That brings us to mistake number two: trying to learn something I was interested in (data journalism) by doing things I wasn’t interested in (building irrelevant projects like the text adventure game).

While it’s possible to learn this way, it’s not ideal. Most journalists are full-time professionals trying to sneak learning sessions in around tight deadlines and travel schedules. 

When you’re already stressed and short on time, struggling to program something that feels like it has no relevance to your goals can be downright overwhelming. It can be so stifling that you just want to quit. I almost did. 

The Key to Motivation? Relevance!

Good news, though. I found that learning is much easier when you’re motivated! And the key to staying motivated is to focus on things that feel relevant.

That’s a big part of the approach we use on the Dataquest platform. We get students working with real-world data immediately to reduce the “What’s the point of this?” feeling that often comes when trying to learn programming syntax. 

Can I Learn Data Journalism On My Own?

You can try to replicate this experience on your own. But you’ll need to find and download an interesting data set, get yourself set up in Jupyter Notebooks, and start trying stuff.

Think you’re not ready to do that yet? That leads directly into the final big lesson I’ve learned . . .


Lesson 3: Not Ready? Do It Anyway!

Back when I was trying and failing to learn data journalism, I often found myself stuck. I could never get past the practice problems and projects my textbook prescribed. I never even tried to build a real data journalism project. Why? Because I felt I wasn’t ready.

What I didn’t know then is that there is no such thing as “ready.” Even the most advanced programmers and data scientists spend a good bit of time Googling problems, checking StackOverflow, and scanning through documentation to try to get things to work.

Constantly Failing? Then You Must Be Doing It Right

I wish I had known then that failing, Googling, asking for help, and straight-up copy-pasting code snippets from StackOverflow is all part of the learning process. 

My first real data journalism project seemed like an absurd pipe dream to me when I started it. And that’s because it was. I had almost none of the skills required. But I also had an idea that interested me enough that I decided to try it anyway.

This project required scraping data from about 700 webpages, which I had no idea how to do. Then I’d need to turn lengthy text strings into columns in a dataset with different data types so that I could actually analyze them. I couldn’t do those things, either. And I certainly didn’t know a thing about visualization.

A few weeks later, though, I had a finished project with working code. Not because I’m particularly smart or a natural programmer — I am neither — but because I followed a lesson I’d learned in an early Dataquest guided project step-by-step.

You’re Probably Already “Ready” to Learn Data Science

My advice? Don’t waste time getting ready to learn how to become a data journalist. I wish I hadn’t. Instead, start working on projects that genuinely interest you. This will give you a drive to learn that you simply won’t get from a textbook problem set.

From my experience, the way you learn to do data projects is mostly by diving in and learning what you need along the way. Every data set is different, so there’s simply no way you can be “ready” for everything that you might encounter.

So What Are the Prerequisites? 

Do you need certain skills to get started? If you want to begin with Dataquest’s data analyst path, then you can start with zero experience. If not, then the first step is to learn the basic syntax first. Once that’s out of the way, you can start diving into projects that interest you. 

From there, you’ll be able to figure most things out as you go. Don’t be fooled: It will be challenging at times. That’s why having a friend or a community who can offer some help when you need it works wonders!The Dataquest community is an invaluable resource. Here, you can search for help with a problem, share your work with your peers, and get support from others on the same journey as you.

Getting Started in Data Journalism

Ready to take the plunge into data journalism? I’d urge you to avoid my three mistakes and keep these lessons in mind as you navigate your own path to becoming a data journalist:

  1. Don’t waste time learning irrelevant skills or general programming skills with little data relevance.
  2. Find learning resources and projects that will keep you interested and motivated.
  3. Start working on real projects as soon as possible, before you think you’re “ready.” 

With Dataquest, you can start learning the skills necessary to work in data journalism right away. Signing up is free, so what are you waiting for? Open the door to your career as a data journalist today!

Get Free Data Science Resources

Sign up for free to get our weekly newsletter with data science, Python, R, and SQL resource links. Plus, you get access to our free, interactive online course content!

Charlie Custer

About the author

Charlie Custer

Charlie is a student of data science, and also a content marketer at Dataquest. In his free time, he's learning to mountain bike and making videos about it.

Learn data skills for free

Headshot Headshot

Join 1M+ learners

Try free courses