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NICAR Guides: Attending the conference as a reporter

Reporters from all over 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 reporters for their best tips on making the most of the conference experience.


Tip 1: Make a plan ahead of time with one or two things you want to learn and soak up everything you can on it.

Tony Schick of Oregon Public Broadcasting said he spent his few CAR Conferences trying to soak up a dozen different things throughout the weekend, which was overwhelming and unproductive. Do some research ahead of time and plan out which panels and hands-on sessions you want to prioritize. You can also download the conference app (through Guidebook) the week before the conference to help keep track of what you want to attend. The hands-on sessions are especially helpful for gaining new skills, and you’ll want to show up early for them, as they can fill up fast.

"Don’t ignore everything else completely, but don’t get pulled in so many directions that you’re only scratching the surface of any one thing."
– Tony Schick

"I spent the most recent CAR Conference focused on learning to use Python for data analysis – writing a script that could take my raw data, clean it and analyze it," Tony said. "I now use that almost daily. Don’t ignore everything else completely, but don’t get pulled in so many directions that you’re only scratching the surface of any one thing. Take note of sessions or tools that catch your eye so you can dig deeper on your own or at the next conference. By the end of the conference, you’ll be more likely to come away with something you know enough about to put into practice."


Tip 2: Meet people. Make connections.

Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe said that the conference is a valuable opportunity to meet other journalists in person and seek advice.

“Maybe someone has written a story you admire," Todd said. "Or maybe you want guidance on how to do a local version of a national story. Don't be shy about talking to speakers after sessions or at the bar. Plan for long days. The sessions start early. And some of the best moments come from talking to people informally afterwards."

Kate Martin of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. said a great way to meet people is to bring a power strip and sit next to an outlet. Outlets can be sparse at the conference, and people are always looking to recharge their devices. You will instantly become their best friend.

Tony recommended that you do some research ahead of time so you know who to seek out at the conference. Look through current and past Philip Meyer award winners, IRE’s Uplink blog, the Extra Extra blog and the IRE Journal to find journalists whose work you admire. It’s likely many of them will be at the conference.


Tip 3: Within your first three days back in the newsroom, put your skills and new story ideas to use. Or, better yet, start on the plane ride home.

Mark Greenblatt of Scripps News Washington Bureau said if you don’t immediately put your new skills to use, you may lose them or just return to old habits. Schedule time to put your new skills to use, even if that means coming in early or staying late.

“Remember, you are investing in your own career and you are investing in getting better at finding new skills that will help you discover and report stories that will change the world for the better," Mark said. "Your work has the potential to change laws, reform industries, even to save lives – if you pick your research areas well. Why would you wait one more day to begin such an important, fun, and rewarding journey?”

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