Nicolas Kayser-Bril interview: ‘It’s important to institutionalise data practices’

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In 2008, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, a young graduate in media economics, fell into data journalism by chance because he could code simple stuff. He began his career by publishing stories with Le Monde and The Post ( the previous version of the Huffington Post in France). In 2010, he was part of the team at OWNI, a French digital think tank, that analysed the Afghanistan war logs. He is now his own CEO at the data-driven agency Journalism ++The highly accomplished data mastermind talked to Cristina Matamoros about the state of data journalism in France.

How did data journalism come to be in France?

There was a story of major importance that was run by The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, and a lot of media outlets realised they were left out of the story because they didn’t have people who could read SQL files. At OWNI, there were people who could do that, so I wrote the French version of the story with Pierre Romera and that’s pretty much when people realised that data journalism was a thing. 

Which company pioneered the usage of data journalism in France?

In France, it was definitely OWNI. I don’t think any newspaper or news organisation in France has made much progress in data journalism. Lots of things have been tried like Les Décodeurs from Le Monde, they’re a fantastic team. At Libération you have a new team, at le Parisien they have something as well. You have great things going on everywhere, but I don’t see any real data journalism team in the sense that you don’t have developers or designers as official teams as you see in Switzerland, Germany, and pretty much everywhere else in Europe, you don’t have that in France.

Why isn’t that the case in France compared to the UK?

In the UK, it’s the same situation as in France, in my opinion, in the sense that you don’t have news organisations driven by profit – the Guardian and the BBC are different – but other news organisations don’t see a return in investing in research and development. And this explains why you don’t have teams in France like you might have in Germany. This being said, there are many more interesting things in London than in Paris. One reason for that is because people who studied humanities drive journalism in France. So you couldn’t find a statistician in a French newsroom. So it’s much harder for French media.

If you were to direct the editorial team at Le Monde, what steps would you take to develop a data journalism team?

I wouldn’t, because the owner of Le Monde is not interested in profit. That said, creating a data journalism team is pretty easy; you just need a project manager, a journalist, and a designer, and have them work together. So it’s not that hard – it’s just that the French managers haven’t done it yet.

If you look at the ownership of local newspapers in France, you realise huge corporations mostly own them. And they have no interest at all in innovating journalism. What they really want is for the newspapers to do as little investigation as possible.

What is the advantage of doing local data journalism?

Nothing specific – it’s the same as doing data journalism at the local or national level. It allows better and more efficient reporting.

You have a lot of brilliant people in France, so you just need to find them and provide them with an environment where they can try things out.

And managers need to understand the need for investment in promising fields. But as long as these two conditions aren’t there, nothing is going to change.

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