Data is nothing but a collection of numbers. But when you weave a story around data , you state the facts through a compelling narrative that connects with your audience and gives them a real world perspective through numbers.

Vishnu Padmanabhan, our next pathbreaker, Data Journalist, writes data driven stories on broad national issues and global trends.

Vishnu talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn to Data Journalism due to the ability to address pressing issues by communicating factual insights, no matter how technical, eloquently to the general public. 

For students, if you want to blend your analytical skills (Data/Insights) with creative skills (Storytelling), Data Journalism is for you !

Vishnu, tell us about your initial years?

When I was 11, my parents shifted to Singapore. Growing up partly abroad has helped in forging a different career path – especially compared to my peers in India. It meant that I was lucky to study in the UK for both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.  After that, I took a circuitous route –via different companies, sectors and countries –to eventually become a data journalist at Mint. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

At university, I chose to study economics. According to my application essay, this choice reflected a deep passion for economics. In reality, though, the decision was driven by more mundane factors.To be sure, I liked the subject – but this fondness was merely relative to other subjects. More practically, I had scored well in economics. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I had little clue about what I wanted to do following graduation and economics seemed to keep the most options open. 

Even my masters degree in International Political Economy was driven more by circumstance than choice. Like many undergraduates, I had applied indiscriminately to a variety of jobs while graduating. In one cover letter, my dream would be to help firms solve problems as a consultant; in another, I was passionate about helping banks navigate market risk. Unfortunately, I graduated in 2009. In a world deep in a financial crisis, my impassioned pleas were futile. With no job, I was forced to consider other options. One was to continue studying. 

In my masters, I chose to specialize in Political Economy partly because of my disillusionment with economics. After three years studying the subject, I knew how to solve differential equations but could not explain why the world was in a recession. I felt political economy, which is the study of the interaction of politics and economics, would help me understand the world better. But more importantly, political economy was also a generic enough subject to keep choices open for an uncertain job-seeker like me. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

I became a data journalist because it allowed me to marry three areas of interest: writing, public policy and data analysis. But I only knew about these interests after years of different types of work. I realized that in all my previous jobs, whether in an investment bank or an NGO, the aspects that I enjoyed most were analyzing data, generating insights and bringing it all together through vigorous writing. I felt data journalism allowed me to do all three things. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? 

I started my career at an investment bank in Singapore, doing economic research. I then moved to Delhi to work at a non-profit research organization (PRS Legislative Research). After that, I moved to Mumbai and then Nairobi with TechnoServe, a global NGO working on agriculture issues. I then returned to Delhi to work at J-PAL, a policy-research organization, before making the move to data journalism. Clearly, there is not much of a plan here! 

Each of these moves has been a result of some combination of choice and circumstance. For instance, my first stint at the investment bank was cut short abruptly because the bank shut down its entire economic research wing. Just six months into my first job, this came as a shock. In fact, on the day it happened, I’d arrived to work and, as usual, had begun my morning procrastination. But not even halfway into my morning scan of the sports news, I was summoned into the big boss’s office. There, via some classic corporate clichés, I was informed my services were no longer required. Returning to my desk, I found a sombre HR representative waiting. I also discovered I had automatically been logged out of my system. HR hovered over me menacingly as I packed my stuff, , then escorted me out of the building and back into the job market. Looking back, I can laugh but at the time it was not pleasant. And since I wasn’t too enthused by banks after that experience, I cast my net even wider when I began my job search. 

One of the areas I explored was working in India and, specifically,in the policy/development space. I’d successfully applied to PRS Legislative Research which provides research for Members of Parliament, much like how banks provided research to their clients. This seemed to be a natural transition and I was excited to work in a new city (Delhi). 

I’m glad to say that, since the bank fiasco, all my career moves have been more self-determined. I chose to leave whenever I felt I had a more exciting opportunity. But even finding these opportunities can depend on chance. For example, I was able to move to TechnoServe thanks to a friend’s recommendation.  And similarly, I was lucky to spot the advertisement for the Mint posting on my Facebook feed. 

How did you get your first break?

I got a break in Data Journalism when the opportunity presented itself. I was not actively looking for data journalism roles and only stumbled upon the job posting on Facebook (a mutual friend had posted an advertisement on behalf of the editor). Reading the ad, my interest was piqued. So I applied, despite having no real journalistic credentials.

I was also drawn to the role by the application process. Unlike other job applications, where interviews assess how a candidate would potentially do in a job, the application process for the journalist position directly tested me in what I would be doing. I was asked to write two data-based pieces. I did well in the test but I also enjoyed the process. This helped me accept the offer when it came.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

One of the biggest attractions of an ‘off-beat’ career is that it is, well, off-beat: there is no fixed path for progress, no milestones to meet and no real answer to ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ The uncharted path can be exhilarating. 

But sometimes the uncertainty can lead to an uncertain mind. Doubts, and even regrets, can creep in and these can intensify when surrounded by peers in steadier, conventional careers. In another era, ignoring others was a viable solution but LinkedIn, a platform for self-promotion, now makes that impossible. 

Like with any self-doubt, the solution, at least in theory, is straightforward: stronger self-belief. In practice, this means avoiding comparisons and being dedicated to your work. Whatever progress means in your field, try to progress. And when doubts do surface, acknowledge them for what they are – natural and fleeting – and move on.

Where do you work now?

Obviously, being a data journalist requires an affinity for data. Specifically, this involves handling large datasets, cleaning them and analyzing them. Equally important is the ability to communicate insights, no matter how technical, eloquently to the general public. 

At Mint, on average, I wrote a 650-750 word piece every week. For a data journalist, this means each piece is accompanied by 3-4 charts which form the crux of the story.  Drafting a story usually involves understanding the issue (via research or speaking to experts); finding accurate, reliable data; compiling the data; analyzing and visualizing the data;and finally writing the story. The whole process would take up to a week – but often we’d have even less time. 

Story topics were driven by the news cycle and by broader national issues. In election time, we would write data-based stories about the elections. But we’d also write about other issues, such as climate change, which are perennially relevant. 

There are many exciting aspects of this process. The newsroom is a hectic workplace and there is a thrill in filing a story to a tight deadline. Collecting data and analyzing it can be fun (if you’re a geek like me). Writing can be frustrating, but the satisfaction of finishing a well-written article can last for hours. But the best part of the job was the tangibility.  The objective is clearly defined and the final output is clearly printed in the newspaper with your name underneath. And that is a great feeling to wake up to. 

How does your work benefit society? 

If the goal of journalism is to reveal truths, then data journalism does just that – by using data instead of stories or anecdotes. Across the world, it remains a fairly niche form but has grown in recent years with the rising prevalence of data. As journalism becomes increasingly polarized, data journalism is becoming an even more important service for society.  This especially true for a large, diverse country like India where anecdotes can be – and often are – found for every situation. Accurate, rigorous data then becomes crucial for revealing the truth.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

From climate change to India’s porn obsession, I wrote about a variety of issues using data. But I was particularly proud of one story: a data-based analysis of Mahatma Gandhi. Greatness cannot be quantified but, using data from Google and Wikipedia, I was able to at least measure his enduring popularity (the rest of my articles are here).

Your advice to students based on your experience?

If you want to become a data journalist, develop your data analysis and writing skills. Practise writing, keep practising and then practise more. Writing is a craft and, like for any craft, developing expertise requires hard work. There are plenty of resources online to help. Even if you can’t break into an organization, pitch your work to organizations. As with any career involving content, there is an element of self-promotion. Develop content and then try to get noticed. 

On general career advice, based on my experience, I could say pursue your passions, but that would be misleading. If I’d pursued my passions, I’d still be trying to become a tennis professional.  I could say do what you love – but for much of my career, I didn’t know what that was. So instead, I offer something more practical: find work that interests you. If that’s not possible, do the work that you dislike the least (or gives you the resources to do what you enjoy) . But whatever you do, do it well. 

Future Plans?

Though I talk about my time as a data journalist, I am no longer one! I’ve just joined a newly-formed organization working with Indian state governments. Since this is such a new job, I have little to share  at this stage and felt my experience as a data journalist was more substantive and relevant for readers. But who knows maybe I can share my experience from this new role in a year’s time.