By Derek Willis
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. That does not include IRE membership, but that’s just $25. 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.
Derek Willis works at The New York Times and is an IRE member. This article was originally posted on his blog, The Scoop.