Alumni Q & A: Stacy Jones, Data Editor at Fortune

Stacy Jones works as a Data Editor at Fortune. She graduated from Rowan University in 2009 with a B.A. in Journalism and a Minor in Psychology. She as a M.A. in Online Journalism from the University of Maryland-College Park.

Briefly describe your job. What do you do on a daily basis?
I’m in charge of a very small department. It’s just me and a full-time data reporter. We have to dabble in a little of everything to get things done. I’d say I’m 70/30 split on data retrieval/cleaning/analysis and coding. Grace, the data reporter, is the inverse; she’s a stronger coder and still picking up data analysis skills. So we make a nice team. We work mainly in Javascript (D3.js), Python and SQL.

In the mornings, I read the news and scan for stories that might have an obvious data angle and send notes to the editors manning the joint Fortune-Time-Money news desk. Sometimes I go the extra mile and point them in the direction of datasets I know are trustworthy and would help with reporting.

For the past couple weeks, Grace and I have been working on a longterm project. We make sure we stay on the web traffic scoreboard by splitting up our days. She spends the first two to three hours of the day working on a short-term post. We publish around lunch-time, and then we switch gears to spend time on our bigger project in the afternoon.

Sometimes, when our open newsroom is especially loud/distracting, I book a conference room for us on another floor, and we camp out there for the day. It’s way easier to focus on coding when we’re not in the middle of the 24-hour gotta-post-it-right-now news churn.

One of the big goals I had when taking this job was to increase overall data literacy in the newsroom. My colleagues have come a long way, and I’m really proud of that. It’s not easy to be new and to propose changes to a publication’s culture. So every couple of months I host workshops and have been working on setting up office hours so reporters can consult with me on data project ideas.

What is one thing you love about your current job?
I love being a mentor to Grace, who just graduated last spring. There have been a few occasions where I’ve been able to stand up for her and encourage her in ways I wish I had been when I was still an intern or at my first job.

I also love being surrounded by magazine reporters and editors who have such deep knowledge of the business world. All data needs context and human voices before it can tell an engaging story. So when I happen upon a Walmart database, I have an award-winning retail reporter who will sit down with me to go through it and help me make sense of it.

People hear my job title and incorrectly assume that I spend all of my time staring at code, doing math or hacking things. I do a good deal of that. And I love all of those things. But I can’t publish my SQL queries on and call it a day. Connecting the data to real, compelling stories is a really powerful and cool thing.

What is one of the biggest challenges of your current job?
Fortune has never had a data department. We’ve always had a Fortune 500 editor who managed our list. He’s still here. But that’s such a big endeavor that he’s never asked questions of that data or looked for other ways to tell business stories with data.

When I first arrived, people would send me PDF files with colorful (often misleading) charts and call it data. Their request would often be that I “re-do” said charts in the Fortune style. I’ve had to tell them they’re wrong, and it’s their job to ask the PR flak for the data used to build a chart. And for the ambitious few, suggest that they do a little more digging and look for other stories in that data.

It’s been an uphill battle, but I’ve definitely made progress.

How did you get to this point in your career — from Rowan University to the present?
I got a job as a business reporter at The Star-Ledger after fellow Rowan University alum Stephen Stirling, who was working on their investigative team, gave me a glowing recommendation. I spent three years covering small business and running our social media accounts. I also tagged along to workshops anytime Steve and his CAR team were learning about a new tool or coding library.

I survived two rounds of layoffs before the whole business department was cut. I was lucky to land on my feet at Bankrate, where I worked as a data reporter. Data was brand new to them, and they kept asking for slideshows and lists, not data-driven stories. It really wasn’t what I had had in mind, so I was pumped when a friend — Steve’s old boss from The Star-Ledger who patiently let me tag along to his meetings — recommended me for my current job.

What advice do you have for aspiring journalists/media types studying at Rowan University?
Learn HTML and CSS. Even if you don’t aspire to be a news developer, you have to know the basics of making sure your work is presentable when it goes online. It’s quickly becoming unacceptable to file copy to editors that’s filled with rich text tags carried over from Microsoft Word. You don’t want your editor to spend their time cleaning up your mess.

For anyone who wants to do the kind of work I do, I’d say start by learning some advanced Excel — writing formulas, cleaning up data, finding correlation coefficients. MaryJo Webster is an Excel goddess, and her workshops are always packed at NICAR.

You won’t always work at a company where the IT department feels comfortable giving you admin access to your laptop (which you need if you’re going to code), but the Microsoft Office Suite is everywhere.

Becoming an Excel power user is also a great foundation for moving into learning a programming language. For years I struggled to pick up Python until I stumbled upon Automate The Boring Stuff With Python. I also had a lot of trouble getting the hang of using the Command Line until I found Command Line Murder Mystery.

I should mention that the first language I learned was ActionScript 3 and my first data visualizations were in Flash. I’m putting things gently when I say it’s been on the decline, and I’ll probably never touch it again. But I learned how to learn a programming language, which is a skill itself.

I say all that to make this point: The right programming language to learn is the one that allows you to do the kind of work you’re interested in and will follow through on. Being a beginning (and seasoned, sorry but it’s true) comes with LOTS of debugging, errors and headaches. If you don’t care about querying huge databases, SQL probably isn’t the right first language for you.

Lots of conferences, like ONA and NICAR, offer reduced rate registration to students. If you’re really driven, you can go for free and work on a team of students who are covering the conference. Do it. No, really, do it. There’s no better way to show a potential employer that you’re serious about your career than showing up in person to meet and talk with them.

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