This is another post republished from my Training Tracks blog at the American Press Institute. I added a few links that were not in the original. While the specific examples might be outdated, the general point still applies. This was published originally July 5, 2005. I have already republished a subsequent Training Tracks post that referenced this one.
You’re reading this online, so you have some understanding of the importance of computers in our lives. Unfortunately, too many of our colleagues aren’t doing enough to recognize the importance of computers in our profession.
The past two weeks, I have spoken at two outstanding journalism conferences: The South Asian Journalists Association meeting at Columbia University in New York and the National Writers Workshop presented by the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I don’t just speak when I go to conferences. When I’m not speaking, I listen to the other speakers. I’m listening to tips to make me a better journalist, listening for tips to cite in my training or writing for journalists, watching other speakers’ presentation techniques to steal some ideas if I can.
I heard lots of helpful tips at both gatherings. I might pass some of those tips along in a future column. For now, though, indulge me in a rant about a couple things that disturbed me.
At the SAJA conference, I sat in on a session on investigative reporting, led by a New York couple, Tom McGinty of Newsday (and formerly on the staff of Investigative Reporters and Editors) and Jo Craven McGinty of the New York Times. Tom asked the audience how many use spreadsheets regularly. A few hands went up, not even one-third of the journalists in the room, I’d guess. I think you’d get the same response, if not less, in most gatherings of journalists.
This is 2005. Public records are stored electronically. If you can’t access and analyze records, you’re not a competent reporter. I’m not saying you need to be a full-scale computer geek. I’m certainly not. In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t developed my computer skills further myself. But I can and have written page-one stories based on computer analysis of data.
Can you imagine a reporter confessing that she couldn’t take notes? Or conduct interviews? Or write a lead or organize a story? Or find public records in a courthouse or police station or statehouse? Or come up with story ideas? Or develop sources? Data analysis is every bit as essential a skill for reporters today. Just as some reporters are better at taking notes or writing leads or interviewing, some are going to be better at data analysis. But everyone should have the basic skill.
I can’t understand why a reporter would be satisfied today to admit that you can’t use a spreadsheet. As Jo demonstrated in her half of the McGintys’ workshop, a spreadsheet is helpful in organizing information, even in stories that don’t involve data analysis.
The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, founded in 1989 by IRE, does excellent work to train journalists in computer-analysis skills. But I think the rest of us have left that task too much to NICAR. We need to stress and teach computer skills in more programs. Newsrooms need to provide reporters and editors with the software they need to gather and analyze data. Editors need to expect reporters and editors to learn basic computer skills. When they hire reporters and editors who have other strengths but can’t access and search electronic records, they need to provide the training those journalists need and require them to update their skills.
Would photojournalists who couldn’t shoot and transmit digital photos be allowed to cling to film in this age? Would graphic artists be excused for their inability to use the computers their jobs demand?
We need to stop using the term “computer-assisted reporting.” We don’t refer to “telephone-assisted reporting” or “notebook-assisted reporting.” Computers are an essential tool of the craft, and not just for writing.
At the National Writers’ Workshop, I sat in on Tim Porter‘s session, “Using blogs to extend your beat.” It was a breakout session and some other terrific speakers were addressing other interesting topics. But the session on blogging drew only about 20 people of the 500 or so journalists who attended. Porter joked about his crowd being the “cutting-edge” journalists. But I wondered if the weak turnout reflected our industry’s grudging embrace of change.
I’ll admit to being slow to catch on about blogs. When I started this column last year, I was ignorant enough of blogging to think this was one. I thought a blog was essentially an online column, where you could read the previous columns as well as the most recent posting. But I write this thing every couple weeks. And it’s not interactive. It’s not a blog and I need to learn more about blogging. We’ll probably turn it into a blog soon, or start blogging in addition to the column, and I went to Porter’s session to advance my blogucation.
And I wondered why more reporters weren’t interested in learning more about blogging. As Porter said, “The Internet’s not something new any more.”
We don’t know how much of journalism’s future blogging will be. Is it our future? Is it a fad that will give way to something more lasting? I don’t know, but wherever we’re going, I don’t want to be left behind.
Right after the blogging session, the full crowd gathered in a larger ballroom to hear Jimmy Breslin. The feisty 74-year-old columnist was a delight. He drew some of his loudest applause and laughter for his shots at journalism today.
He rightly blasted the prewar reporting as “a great failure in American journalism.”
He noted that too many reporters use the telephone too much, rather than getting out of the office to gather news in person. “I would take half the phones out of every city room,” Breslin barked. “I know you got two feet. Use them to go out and get a story.”
I laughed and applauded along with my colleagues at Breslin’s acidic reflections on journalism today. We could learn some valuable lessons from past generations of journalists. But we still need to move into the future.