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NICAR Guides: Attending the conference as an editor or manager

Editors and managers will gather in Denver next week for the 2016 Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference. How can you best use the conference to transform your newsroom into a data-driven one? NICAR asked editors and managers who have previously attended the conference to share their best tips for making the most of the experience.

What should I do before the conference to make the most of it?

Check the schedule and map out a plan, suggests Matt Stiles, a freelance data journalist. "That way I can spend time chatting with people between sessions instead of fretting about which panel I'll attend next,” he said. "Also, obviously, pack all your device chargers."

Identify the teams whose work you most admire, and write a list of pain points your team is currently experiencing. Go in with the intention of seeking out the folks you want to emulate and finding a couple of approaches that differ from the way you normally work, said Troy Thibodeaux, data journalism team editor at The Associated Press.

Take a few minutes before or early in the conference to talk to any team members that are also attending about what you’re hoping to take away, Troy said. "Just having this conversation can help identify both the hard and soft skills your team needs to develop, both the technical chops and the ways of working together that make work good and make for good work."

How do you pick sessions to attend?

Go into the CAR Conference with a real problem or perhaps a data set in hand, then pick a session that could help your team further the story, said Challen Stephens, editor and reporter for the Birmingham News, Huntsville Times & Mobile Press-Register.

“Last year, I had a reporter who was working on environmental concerns near chicken houses and I was able to speak to some smart folks about the best possibilities for mapping farming operations along waterways,” Challen said. “I ended up finding the best fit at a QGIS session I might not otherwise have attended. And I’ve been interested in mapping since.”

"Just know that these ideas are critical to the future of journalism. Just because you can't write or execute a batch of code, doesn't mean that you can't feel comfortable talking to those in your newsroom who can. Or hiring those who can."
– Matt Stiles

Do an honest of appraisal of what you know and what you need to know, and focus your conference thematically along those lines. 

“The most important takeaway for me at many conferences was learning how to negotiate for data and to get it in usable formats,” Matt said. “Without that, all the technical skills in the world can't help much. But later I left each conference with new inspiration to try a new skill: stats, web scraping, programming, GIS, etc.”

Attend some of the “how we did it” panels, such as Saturday’s Spotlight on the Story.

“I listen for the origin stories,” Troy said. “What were the conditions that made that great idea possible? How did the team push it forward — with what level of direction, solo vs. paired work and percentage of time allotted?”

Pick one or two sessions out of nothing more than sheer intellectual curiosity.

“There’s a certain freedom to hearing really smart people talk about something that isn’t immediately practical; often it can spark unexpected connections, and sometimes that ambient awareness of a new technology pays off later when suddenly the perfect use case drops in your lap,” Troy said. “This happened for me with natural language processing a few years ago. It just sounded like something worth knowing about, but within a few months, we were using those tools to dig into the Congressional Record.”

How do you take what you learned and use it to better your newsroom or team?

Build lasting connections. “I always try to collect business cards from people I meet and digitize them soon after with notes about my conversations,” Matt said. “I also collect Twitter handles from as many people as possible to build up my NICAR contacts on social media. That way I can stay connected — and learn — after the conference.”

Listen up whenever you hear a presenter start a conversation with, "On our team, we... ." Learn how data and news apps teams define their culture, how they collaborate with other parts of the newsroom and what practices they put in place to do their best work. 

“Take the opportunity to follow up on these thoughts, catching presenters after the talk or in the bar to ask about what may seem some pretty mundane stuff: What kind of meetings does your team have?” Troy said. “How do you bulletproof your work before publication? How do you find time to work on your own ideas or to keep learning?”

Keep an open mind.

“You will probably hear confusing technology terms and see reporters approaching traditional reporting challenges differently,” Matt said. “Just know that these ideas are critical to the future of journalism. Just because you can't write or execute a batch of code, doesn't mean that you can't feel comfortable talking to those in your newsroom who can. Or hiring those who can.”

Look for management advice, and you’ll find it everywhere.

“This kind of everyday matter gets to the fabric of how a team works, and I learn from every editor and manager I meet either how I might want to lead my team or how I definitely don’t want to do it,” Troy said. “Even the technical sessions can offer management advice: if you know how to read a git repo, you can tell a lot about the way a team interacts — even how much they enjoy their jobs. And project structure can tell you a lot about project management structure, if you know how to read it.”

Schedule some time immediately after the conference to synthesize what you’ve picked up during the mad rush of sessions and meet ups, Troy said.

“I find the flight home is a perfect opportunity to go back to my original list, look over my notes from the sessions and pull together a plan of action to put what I’ve learned into practice,” Troy said. “There are usually two or three themes with a handful of practical steps I take away that we can experiment with in the coming year. I ask the folks on my team to put together a highlights list as well, and we talk about ways to try out what we’ve learned while the glow of NICAR is still fresh.”


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