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December 07 2010


Why Students Should Come to the CAR Conference

Hey there, journalism student!

A bunch of your colleagues are having a get-together in February, and you should come. Actually, you need to be there.

I’m talking about Investigative Reporters and Editors’ annual Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Several days of panels, hands-on training and talks with journalists from all kinds of news organizations. There’s even a great side event on data visualization. This conference changed my career, and I’m betting it can do the same for you.

For many of you, this may be a step into the unknown. Your universities probably don’t have much instruction in using spreadsheets, databases or mapping software for journalism. You’ve been focusing on the other fundamentals – writing, editing, maybe some multimedia skills – all of which are a proper part of your education. So what is “computer-assisted reporting” and why should you attend this conference?

I was pretty nervous to attend my first NICAR conference, as they used to be called, and when I sat around the hotel bar for the first time I’m pretty sure I made no worthwhile contributions to any discussion. But I listened to, and learned from, people who are giants in our line of work, and they were generous and awe-inspiring. And I found my people.

What do we do? We work with information in its many formats: text, maps, spreadsheets, databases. We learn to crawl, then walk and sometimes break into a light jog. Mostly, we get ideas that we can put to work. We try to find stories in places that other reporters don’t look – in documents or data, for example. And we try to use many different methods of storytelling, because not every story requires 800 words and a locator map.

Let me give you an example. In 1996 I worked for The Palm Beach Post doing some metro reporting and trying to do data work when I could, and my window to that world was the NICAR community. One of my colleagues, Andrew Metz, had heard about a local official doing land swaps with his county’s largest landowner that gave the official a larger, more valuable piece of personal property. But when Andrew went to try and nail it down, he found that this county kept its property records on 3×5 index cards. Even for a small county, it would take weeks of work to figure out.

But I remember hearing from the NICAR-L listserv about stories that analyzed property records kept at the state level, and found out that Florida indeed maintained a database of property records from all 67 counties. I promptly ordered the data from the state and was informed that two 9-track tapes were on their way to our office.

At this point you might be saying, “9-track tapes?” I sure did. But once again the NICAR community saved me. In this case, one of the legends of CAR, Elliot Jaspin, had written software to convert information stored on a 9-track tape into something that a PC could read. To quote Jaspin: “A reporter who can’t read a magnetic tape is as illiterate as the 15th Century peasant confronted by Gutenberg.” You probably never heard that in your classes, but it’s true. Andrew was able to write the story, using the data to prove what previously had only been rumor.

The point here is not that each of you must master a broad set of data-related skills and be experts at everything. The point is that by connecting with this community of journalists, you’ll find out that so much more is possible than you ever knew. Stories you may have dismissed as undoable suddenly are much closer to becoming reality, and new forms of storytelling are now within your grasp. That you literally can make yourself more productive and more valuable. The community around this conference is entirely about sharing what we know and bringing more people into the fold.

Now, we’re journalists here, so we can also be cranky, or slightly inappropriate at times. IRE members are, by and large, self-starters driven to better themselves, and they don’t have a ton of indulgence for those who aren’t willing to work. But if you’re willing to listen and try (and sometimes fail), there are plenty of rewards.

Once you’re in, you’ll become a contributor, too – on the listserv and at conferences (see some of my early presentations if you’d like a chuckle). You’ll become an evangelist for making better use of data in your own newsrooms, and you’ll stand out among your peers who cannot do what you can.

IRE is friendly to students, too. Registration for the conference is $100 for students, and that includes IRE membership, too. If you can get to Raleigh, there’s probably someone who is willing to share a hotel room (ask Andy Boyle, who drove from Nebraska to Indianapolis in March 2009 to attend). If you want to find a community of people who are doing interesting and valuable things in journalism, who are among the leading practitioners of the craft and who are eager to share what they know, then you should be in Raleigh in February. I will be, and I’ll be happy to say hello and welcome you to the club.

October 14 2010


The Newsonomics of replacement journalism

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Finally, we’re seeing light on the horizon. Journalism hiring is picking up.

The second half of the year has so far produced TBD’s hiring of 50 in Washington, Patch’s push to pick up 500 journalists across the country, and the new alliance for public media plan to hire more than 300 journalists in four major cities, if funding can be found in 2011. In addition, the brand-name journalist market has suddenly flowered, as everyone from National Journal to the Daily Beast to Bloomberg to AOL to the Huffington Post to Yahoo compete for talent. These are bigger numbers — and more activity — than we’ve previously seen, though they build on earlier hirings from ProPublica to California Watch to Bay Citizen to Texas Tribune to MinnPost and well beyond.

It’s a dizzying quilt of hiring, in some ways hard to make sense of, as business models (how exactly is Patch’s business model going to succeed? what happens when the foundation money dries up?) remain in deep flux. Yet, amid the hope, now comes this question: Are we beginning to see “replacement journalism” arriving?

Replacement journalism, by its nature, is a hazy notion. We won’t see some one-to-one swapping for what used to be with something new. Replacement journalism will though give us the sense that new journalism, of high quality, is getting funded, somehow, and that the vacuum created by the deepest cut in reporting we’ve ever seen is starting to be filled. It is an important, graspable question not just for journalists and aspiring journalists welling up in schools across the country, but also for readers: Are we beginning to see significant, tangible news coverage in this new, mainly digital world?

So, let’s assess where we on, on that road to replacement journalism. Let’s start with some numbers. Take the most useful census of daily newspaper newsroom employment, the annual ASNE (American Society of News Editors) census, conducted early each year and next reported out at its April 2011 conference. ASNE’s most current number is 41,500. That’s down from 46,700 a year earlier, from 52,600 in 2008 and from 55,000 in 2007. So, over those three-plus years, that’s a loss of 13,500 jobs, a 25-percent decline.

As we consider what’s been lost and what needs to replace it, we’ve got to look as much at possible at reporting. That news-gathering — not commentary (column or blog) — is what’s key to community information and understanding, fairly prerequisite in our struggling little democracy. While we don’t know how many of those 13,500 jobs lost are in reporting, we can do some extrapolation. Using that same ASNE census, we see that a little less than half (45 percent or so) of newsroom jobs are classified as reporting, while 20 percent are classified as copy/layout editors, 25 percent as supervisors and 10 percent as photographers and artists. So — while not undervaluing the contributions of non-reporters — let’s say, roughly, that half the jobs lost have been reporters. That would mean about 6,750 reporting jobs lost in three years.

Okay, so let’s use that number as a yardstick, against a quick list of journalist hiring:

  • Investigative and extended enterprise reporting: It’s tough to come up with any one number for investigative or long-form reporting in newspapers or in broadcast. We know that many newspapers and broadcasters have cut the investment in staff here, though, through the carnage of staff reduction. (One indication: “The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009″, according to Mary Walton in the American Journalism Review.) Into this breach have come the new ProPublica, the restyled Center for Investigative Reporting (with its California Watch, most notably) and the growing Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. They are joined by smaller centers from Maine to Wisconsin to California. Loss: Probably in the high hundreds. Gain: Probably in the small hundreds. Net: We’ve seen real high-quality replacement journalism, but need more, especially on the community level.
  • Washington, D.C. reporting: Dozens of D.C.-based reporting positions have been lost over the last several years, certainly, and the number may stretch into the hundreds. For awhile, the biggest news was that the Al Jazeera bureau was among the fastest-growing. Now, of course, there’s the goldrush in government-oriented reporting as the newly emboldened (and funded) National Journal group and Bloomberg Government add a couple of hundred positions, and join Politico in the D.C-based fray. With both new efforts still in formation, we’re not clear what kind of reporting they’ll do. If it’s mainly government-as-business (Bloomberg’s seeming model) and/or if it’s mainly behind pay wall, then then this new stuff will be less replacement-like. Covering public policy implications for all of us nationally, and the particular impacts on those of locally, is a key, yawning need. Loss: Significant. Gain: Substantial. Net: Unclear we see the words on our screens in 2011.
  • Hyperlocal reporting: The biggest news here is Patch, of course. With 500 sites in various stages of rollout, we can’t yet assess how much new reporting — and of what quality, what depth — will be added back, replaced. Add in the redeployment of many metro staff reporters from Hartford to Dallas to L.A., and the fact that smaller community dailies and weeklies have weathered the storms better than bigger papers. Loss: Uncountable, but real across the country. Gain: With Patch and with the re-attention of metros to smaller communities through staff redeployment and blog aggregation, it’s now substantial. Net: One of the most promising areas in replacement journalism.
  • Metro-level reporting: The devastation seems clearest here, with newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News cut to 125 newsroom staffers from 400 a decade ago, and many other dailies down by 50 percent or more. The bulk of cuts, as well chronicled by Erica Smith at Paper Cuts, appear to be at metros — and they are continuing; witness recent job losses in Sacramento and Miami and at USA Today. On the positive end of the ledger, the TBD-Bay Citizen-Voice of San Diego-MinnPost-Texas Tribune-Chicago News Cooperative parade has added real journalistic depth in selected markets. Yet, unless they grow substantially from the dozens they are — the public media push, though only in formation, is the most promising here — there’s a low replacement ratio. This is the biggest conundrum in front of us: how do we maintain current newsroom staffing of 340 at The Boston Globe or 325 at The Dallas Morning News, against the ravages of change? Loss: Huge. Gain: Spirited and of noteworthy excellence. Net: Biggest gap to fill — and the gap may be widening still.

“Replacement journalism,” of course, is a tricky term, and maybe only an interim notion — a handle that helps us from there to here to there. By the very nature of digital and business disruption and transformation, we have to remind ourselves that the future is never a straight line from past to future, and that it will offer us great positive surprises as well as continuing disappointments. William Gibson’s enduring line sums that up: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Photo by Matt Wetzler used under a Creative Commons license.

May 03 2010


An Even Better CAR Conference?

It’s dangerous to blog late at night, so take what follows with a grain of salt. It’s more stream of (semi-)consciousness than anything else, but I’m curious what other folks think. Note: I wrote this before Aron’s thread about conferences on Hacks/Hackers, but some of it relates to that question, too.

Give IRE a lot of credit for what is a difficult task: putting on a computer-assisted reporting conference that appeals to both novice and expert. The CAR confab in Phoenix in March, like every year’s, tries to bring together a set of journalists who can teach each other and themselves about everything from basic spreadsheets to Web frameworks. For the most part it works, even if it means that a sizable chunk of the attendees are also instructors and speakers (often for more than one session). The energy and enthusiasm at Phoenix was great to see, and the sessions had a good variety of topics and formats.

But an IRE veteran would notice that quite a few of the big names in CAR work weren’t in Phoenix, or even at the last few conferences. Shrinking travel budgets are a factor, of course, but the IRE conferences have always had a segment of people who paid their own way. I suspect that for a small number of “high-end” CAR practitioners, however, the CAR conference doesn’t offer them much anymore, because of its long-standing tradition of appealing to a broad base of people.

That tradition is no bad thing at all: journalism needs to keep bringing in more and more people who want to learn these techniques, and expose those who already have some experience to greater challenges. This isn’t a call to drop introductory sessions. But I wonder if there aren’t some changes that could be made to make the conference irresistible for those who don’t see many chances for growth in the schedule.

For example, there were at least three sessions this year generically focused on “new tools” for reporting: machine learning, advanced methods and new frontiers. What if, instead, we blocked out some afternoon time on Thursday and actually tried out some of this software together? Bring a laptop and some legislation, and with a group of people figure out entity extraction and other classification techniques and then present it later in the conference and/or write it all up for Uplink. What if we voted on some new federal or state dataset and ran the traps on it together, finding out its pitfalls and uses, or brainstormed about better tools for newsrooms? What if some sessions were recast to produce something – the best documentation for a particular data source, for example – rather than a collection of tipsheets that might never be assembled into a coherent guide (or say, a beat book)? What if we turned the evening bar sessions – ok, ok, too much change. But still.

It’ll be difficult to appeal to absolutely everyone, but if we made it easier to do more than talk for 50 minutes at a time, perhaps by providing the opportunity to get together with a range of folks and produce something that we couldn’t do alone, IRE might be able attract even more people new and old. There are an increasing number of people attending the CAR conference who are in a position to evaluate and develop tools for newsrooms, and they want to do this. Pairing them with folks who have spent years combing through data and documents while reporting can only be a good thing – we might end up with a base FEC data parser that newsrooms could customize, or the best set of documentation for IRS migration data, or even some cool dashboards to help reporters spot trends. Maybe we could designate a theme for a particular conference.

If you spotted the influence of open-source development in this post, you’d be a keen observer. One of IRE’s defining moments, the Arizona Project, was in part about doing a public service by marshaling a wide set of talent. It was a fairly radical act of selflessness that not all IRE members agreed with, but to me it represents a key strength of the organization: collaborative learning. A lot of open source software projects out there would kill for the dedication of IRE members. What else can we do together so that we all benefit even more?

Tags: IRE

November 30 2009


The Future of IRE Training

Anyone in journalism who knows me knows how much of a debt I owe to an organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors. Sure, I liked playing with data before I found out about IRE, but the knowledge and support that I’ve received from IRE training, conferences and members has been the single most positive influence on my career.

The trouble is that IRE is a non-profit organization tied to an industry that increasingly has cut back on spending for training, travel and other “luxuries”. So while attendance at this year’s IRE conference in Baltimore was very strong, a lot of folks there were paying their own way. Same deal for the annual computer-assisted reporting conference in Indianapolis. That’s simply not sustainable, given IRE’s current orientation towards providing hands-on training and data services to news organizations. My IRE membership will be pried from my cold, dead hands (and you should join, too), but attracting new members and offering them the kinds of training and services they’ll need will be increasingly difficult.

If you ask me, IRE needs to reorient its training and service offerings to take advantage of the distributed nature of the Web and the broadening of acts of journalism. Yes, hands-on training must continue, but do trainers need to travel all the time? What about video-based training? Yes, IRE should collect the best expertise of its members, but the age of the tipsheet alone is gone. We have so many other options: screencasts, podcasts, YouTube – hell, even Google Wave – to deliver the kind of knowledge that is the lifeblood of IRE.

Crucial to that effort is the recognition that as the potential base of members and users of IRE services expands, so too the need for individual training modules. Yes, IRE should still offer a 5-day bootcamp on computer-assisted reporting. But it also should offer half-day refreshers on SQL, or 10-minute screencasts on a useful Excel function. Look at what PeepCode does – and I don’t think IRE would need to have such high production values to be valuable – and you’ve got an idea of what I’m talking about. IRE members are some of the leading experts in journalism on subjects such as the Census, mapping and various obscure datasets. Yet the only option for purchasing audio from conferences is all or nothing.

Similarly, the Resource Center needs a good update. IRE books, which are tremendously useful but can have a short shelf-life, need to be sold in print and revised online to remain attractive and lower the costs of doing new editions. Future tipsheets should be digital-only, and categorized not just by keyword but also by speaker. If I want to overdose on Paul Overberg’s Census material, I should be able to do that without searching (they should also be sold to journalism schools for classes). Nearly all training exercises should be available online – this would require greater standardization, but that’s not a terrible thing – and members or paid users should be able to schedule video/chat time with an IRE trainer or volunteer as a follow-up.

While we’re at it: Uplink is, well, I don’t think even IRE knows for sure, but it definitely isn’t working. Simplify it. Give it a narrow mission. Make it easier to find the expertise that currently is spread across email, blog posts, tipsheets and tutorials. The value of the organization lies in the ability of its staff and volunteers to intelligently organize and disseminate the unique and valuable information it has within it.

All of these things require changes to the way IRE currently works, and that’s the tough part; it’s hard to argue that IRE hasn’t been doing good work, and I am definitely not making that claim. What I’m saying is that as both the market for IRE’s services and the methods for delivering them undergo some significant changes, it’s time for IRE to meet those changes head-on.

Tags: IRE
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