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NICAR Guides: Attending the conference as a student

Students 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 students to reflect on their past experiences and offer up their best advice.

What should I do ahead of time?

Read up on the sessions offered ahead of time, then make a tentative schedule.

“I had marked all the classes that were recommended to me, but that wasn't enough," said Ani Ucar, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California. "Really making a full schedule for yourself will help ensure that you actually get the most out of your time." 

Figure out which journalists are going to be there and read up on them. Then contact them before the conference even gets rolling.

“Before the conference, reach out to a few folks whose work you admire — maybe you follow them on Twitter — and set up a time to get coffee with them and learn about their work,” said Alex Duner of the Northwestern University Knight Lab.

"Don’t be afraid to speak up in discussions or in sessions. Kill your imposter syndrome for the weekend."
– Alex Duner

How do I pick which sessions to attend?

There are an insane number of sessions to choose from, so go into the conference with a story in mind or even a story that you've already been working on. And/or, pick a certain skill that you want to hone. This will help you focus and avoid spreading yourself too thin.

“If you know exactly what you need to achieve in order to move your story along, you will be able to ask better questions of your instructors and really get the most from each class,” Ani said.

Attend at least one session a day about a topic that you know nothing about. It’s a way to push your comfort zone, discover what’s out there and gather story ideas. Alex said he accidently went to a session on data sets about infrastructure and left with story ideas he never would have thought of. He warned not to try to go to every session, however, adding that “NICAR is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Pick a couple of introductory technical sessions and go in with an open mind. Don’t get overwhelmed if you don’t always keep pace.

“You won’t learn all of D3 or all of R in an hour. But what you can get out of those sessions is an understanding of what certain tools let you accomplish and a framework for how to keep learning more. NICAR isn’t just an opportunity to learn, but a chance to learn how to learn," Alex said. 

How do I network well?

If you really enjoy a session, hang out afterwards and introduce yourself to the instructor.

Hang out at the bar at night, even if you’re just grabbing a soda.

“Hanging out around the hotel bar is where you will get to meet cool people who do cool things. Plus, last year, the bar gave me free soda all conference, so that was a plus,” Alex said.

Bring business cards (you can easily make your own online if your university doesn’t supply them).

Ani said to hand out cards to anyone you meet, and don’t be intimidated to strike up conversations with those around you.

“Just talking to people about story ideas you have could lead to some amazing conversations and ultimately could spark original/innovative ideas for you to apply to your work.”

What do you wish you would have known before your first conference?

Remember that you have things to contribute, too.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up in discussions or in sessions. Kill your imposter syndrome for the weekend,” Alex said.

Show up early and pace yourself.

Ani said that sessions will fill up fast, so take that into account when making a schedule. Budget time to get to classes early, and don’t forget to eat and take breaks. Otherwise, you’ll burn out by day two.

Simeng Dai of Boston University said to Google the presenters if you haven’t heard of them already. You never know, they might work at your dream publication.  


Will Drabold of Ohio University and Northwestern Knight Lab fellows Nicole Zhu and Ashley Wu contributed ideas to this guide.



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