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NICAR Guides: Attending the conference as a data journalist

Data journalists of all stripes will gather in Denver for the 2016 Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference in just a few short weeks. From spreadsheets to data visualization to the latest technological advances, the conference offers endless opportunities to learn and grow as a journalist. But the range of choices can be overwhelming, especially for those new to the conference. NICAR asked seasoned journalists for their best tips on making the most of the experience.

Which sessions should you pick?

Focus on panels that teach you a skill you can quickly implement at your job.

You’ll lose important momentum if you go back to work and realize that all of the new, exciting skills you just learned don’t lend themselves to something you can accomplish in your newsroom.

“There are panels/sessions where people show off some really amazing work. But in my experience, if it's too far over your head or isn't directly applicable to your job (or can't be made applicable in the somewhat near future), then there might not be much of a useful takeaway,” said Walker Moskop of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Pick one session or track of sessions aimed at where you’re at/what you’re doing now that will raise your skill set immediately — whether that be upping your Excel skills or learning scraping techniques or intermediate Python,” said Meghan Hoyer of The Associated Press. “This should be something you can go back and use the next day, and which will pay off in the short term.”

But also pick a panel or two featuring people who are doing work that might seem really sophisticated, complex or intimidating to you.

"Pick one session or track of sessions aimed at where you’re at/what you’re doing now that will raise your skill set immediately."
– Meghan Hoyer

“It gives you a sense of what's possible, motivates you to keep learning, and emphasizes how important it is to keep teaching yourself things in your own free time,” Walker said.

“Pick at least one session on a topic that you know nothing about but are interested in and which is at a level above your current skill set – it helps to know what’s possible, and gives you something to shoot for in the long term,” Meghan said.

Take advantage of the tipsheets and presentations, which will be uploaded to the conference website throughout the week. All of the tipsheets and presentations will also be added to the IRE Resource Center after the conference. Meghan said this was a great way to reinforce a session you attended or catch up on what you weren’t able to make it to.

Are there any sessions that are “musts” for data journalists?

If you don’t have much experience with Excel or writing SQL queries, those sessions are a good place to start.

“I think it's worth checking out some basic mapping tools, such as Google Fusion Tables or QGIS — I think those are a little easier to use than people starting out might realize,” Walker said.

Meghan said it’s a "must" to spend at least one session completely out of your comfort zone.

“If you’re primarily a reporter, maybe this is a good time to hear about how to design better graphics,” Meghan said. “You never know what you’ll be inspired by — and a general understanding of how other parts of the newsroom work never hurts.”

How did attending a NICAR Conference help you with your job?

"I'd like to emphasize the significance of being introduced to a programming language (in my case, Python) at a NICAR conference (and a boot camp a couple years back),” Walker said. “My code is sometimes hideous — just band-aid after band-aid. But you know what? I usually get it to work, and it makes portions of my job so much easier and allows me to do things that I didn't imagine being capable of when I first started as a journalist." 

"NICAR is where I first took at stab at R and where I first learned about regular expressions,” Meghan said. “It’s taught me so much. When I first attended, I was a reporter, but as I’ve moved into data analysis as a full-time job, I’ve relied on the listserv regularly, and on my once-a-year NICAR immersions as a way to recharge, up my skills and come away inspired by all the possibilities.”



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