How journalists can use VLOOKUP


In order to understand the practical use of any function in Microsoft Excel, you must first know the limitations, capabilities, and the arguments required by the formula.

Contrary to what you might think, many functions, like VLOOKUP, are not limited to just data analysis – and journalists can certainly benefit from learning to understand and apply them. It’s just a matter of using them appropriately for your needs.


So what is a VLOOKUP anyway? It is one of the most widely used built-in functions found in Microsoft Excel. You say, “But I’m a journalist. I don’t use spreadsheets.” However, you might reconsider if you keep reading.

Essentially, the ‘V’ in VLOOKUP stands for vertical. The function looks up data by searching throughout a column, as opposed to a row. This means that, for best results, you should arrange your data table vertically.

VLOOKUP syntax

Four arguments make up the VLOOKUP. Three of those are required while one is optional.

‘=VLOOKUP(lookup_value, table_array, col_index_number, [range_lookup])’

While that looks very technical, here is the translation with examples is parentheses:

  • lookup_value: Value you want to lookup for a match (contact name)
  • table_array: The range of data you want to find the lookup_value in (contact list with names/phone numbers/emails/etc.)
  • col_index_num: the column number in the table_array containing the data value you want returned (contact phone number)
  • range_lookup: exact or approximate match (indicated by selecting 0 or ‘FALSE’/1 or ‘TRUE’

The benefits for journalists

Now that you have some idea of what VLOOKUP is and how it works, let’s talk about ways that a journalist can put it to practical use.

Let’s say you have a spreadsheet of thousands of source names with their phone number, email address, home address, and comments/notes. Depending on how large your list is, manually sorting through that list could get tedious and inefficient. Alternatively, you could set up VLOOKUP formulas to have your source’s information pop up by simply typing in the source’s name as your lookup value[M1] .

And it doesn’t even have to be the name. You could type in the phone number, or perhaps you could type in the email address, and the VLOOKUP function would make the rest of the corresponding information appear. It all depends on how you arrange your data table (more on that soon).

With a VLOOKUP, journalists can save themselves the headache of having to review a spreadsheet manually in order to find the information that they are looking for. In the world of journalism, time is of the essence. Developing additional efficiencies will ultimately create more time and space to focus on things that are more important. The VLOOKUP function is a great tool to make that happen.


While the VLOOKUP is extremely useful, it still has its limitations. The single greatest drawback of the VLOOKUP is that the function can only look to the right to fetch its data match. This means that if the value you are attempting to lookup is to the left of your lookup column in the data table, then the VLOOKUP will not work. At least not until you rearrange your data to accommodate.

Find out more about VLOOKUP here.

Image: AJC1.