Shop Notes

Welcome to the new field of “journalitics”

Posted: March 1, 2011 | Tags: Institute for Analytic Journalism, Investigative Reporters and Editors, journalitics, journalysts, National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, NICAR, Phil Meyer, Precision Journalism, Steve Doig, Tom Johnson

I spent last week, along with more than 400 others, attending the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference in Raleigh, N.C. It was an invigorating and exciting time – the largest CAR conference in about a decade. 

And I came away convinced that we are seeing the emergence of a new field, which I am going to call “journalitics,” that is, the combination of journalism with analytical tools. Those who practice it are not merely “journalists,” but rather, “journalysts.” And these new practitioners were on full display at the NICAR conference. They bring not just new skills, but also new language and new conceptual understanding of how to process and present information to journalism. Many are facile programmers. Others are fluent in statistical methods. Many have come to journalism from computer science and other fields, attracted in part by the power of the Web to visualize information.

As with most anything “new,” this has been a long time developing. At NICAR, we paid homage to Professor Phil Meyer, now retired from the University of North Carolina and a member of the Investigative Reporting Workshop’s advisory board. In 1973, Phil published “Precision Journalism,” in which he argued that journalists and journalism would be better served if they employed more of the tools of analysis common to the social sciences, including applied statistics and survey research methods. The book was based on his groundbreaking coverage of riots in Detroit in 1967, when he surveyed those who participated in an effort to understand the causes of the riots. It is a seminal work and has served as the inspiration for many of us who became involved in CAR.

However, I think Phil, a native Kansan, might agree that he sowed those seeds in an infertile field, perhaps even a hostile one. In 1973 few journalists were equipped by inclination, training or experience, to really put his ideas into action. I first read “Precision Journalism” as a graduate student at the University of Missouri, shortly after its publication. At the time, a good journalist was someone who could do an interview, write (reasonably) clearly and fast. We got our “analysis” from our sources. Additionally, the analytical tools available were crude, expensive and slow, at least by today’s standards.

In other words, Phil was suggesting that journalists try to do something that ran counter to conventional practice, applied skills that most journalists didn’t have, using tools that were uncommon and inaccessible. Oh, and he was suggesting this to an immensely profitable industry that saw no reason why it wouldn’t always be immensely profitable. The general response was: "Thank you very much.  We will just keep doing what we have been doing, the way we have been doing it." In that context, it is easy to understand why “Precision Journalism” was initially rejected by publishers for being “impractical.”

And, as my friend, Steve Doig, the Knight Professor of Journalism at Arizona State, points out, a large group of journalists have been practicing computer-assisted reporting since the early 1980s. In fact, the Raleigh conference was the 18th put on by IRE (and there were a few others before that).  Doig’s own brilliant analysis of the causes of damage caused by Hurricane Andrew won the Pulitzer Prize for the Miami Herald in 1993 and remains one of the best examples of how CAR empowers journalism. IRE has trained thousands of journalists around the world to use spreadsheets, database managers, mapping software and other tools.

I also should acknowledge that another friend, Professor Tom Johnson, has created what he calls the Institute for Analytic Journalism, based in Santa Fe, N.M.. So even my terminology isn’t entirely new. Full dislcosure: I asked both Doig and Johnson to review this post before publication and I am grateful for their helpful comments.

What is new is this collection of people who have the skills and the training and the tools to actually implement Phil’s approach to journalism, even though, sadly, many of them did not aquire these skills as part of a journalism education.. What also is new is that at least some of those who control news organizations today are scared enough to consider new approaches.

The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, among others, have created units that do “journalitics” and populated them with some top-flight “journalysts.” In other cases, new institutions, like the Investigative Reporting Workshop and ProPublica and others, have put journalitics at the center of their work.

Another important development is that partnership and collaboration have become, out of necessity, much more commonly accepted in a field that once ignored or attacked the work of others. Open-source tools and a shared spirit that they are challenging conventional wisdom and practice have created a “band of brothers” feeling among many of the journalysts.

To be sure, there are challenges ahead for journalitics and journalysts. Diversity is one. The current profile of journalysts is too white and too male. Sustainability is another, in terms of being able to find ways to profitably use these new tools, to find and adapt new uses, to recruit and retain new participants.

For now, though, we should embrace the vigor and energy they are bringing to journalism.


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