Shop Notes

NICAR Conference: Focus on products, tools, utilities

Posted: Feb. 27, 2012 | Tags: Investigative Reporters and Editors, Matt Waite, National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting

NICAR t-shirt

Last year, after the annual National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting conference, I suggested that a new group of “journalysts” is transforming the practice of journalism. Many of them come, at least indirectly, from training or experience in computer science.

Last week, when NICARIANs gathered again in St. Louis, yet another iteration of the field was on display: A new focus on products and tools, even if they aren’t directly related to the “journalism” of a news organization.

One clear example of this was a presentation by Ryan Pitts, manager of online operations at the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review, who showed off the mobile advertising application he built for his news organization.

Matt Wynn of the Omaha World-Herald talked about the real estate application he developed. Among other things, it gives homeowners information about their real estate tax assessments and how to protest them. The company charges $19.95 for a report showing nearby property values, which can be used as ammunition in a fight against a real estate assessment. The site also tracks home sales in the Omaha area.

Once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable for newsroom employees to be so closely involved in business operations. In fact, when I worked at The Des Moines Register, advertising employees were barred from the newsroom. Of course, one upon a time, dinosaurs roamed the earth and, slightly later, newspapers dominated journalism.

What is on display in these applications (and there are others around the world) isn’t an abandonment of journalistic values. Pitts and Wynn are both strong, thoughtful journalists. Instead, what I see is a group of people who are combining their journalistic sensibilities with the programmer’s mentality to make cool tools that work.

It is somewhat similar to a guitarist who can use the skills to make all kinds of music. In other words, you can use these tools to tell really good stories. But you can apply that same approach to other parts of a news operation. And given the financial weakness at many news organizations, we probably should focus more on what is being done, rather than who is doing it.

Wynn wrote on his blog last year when Curbwise launched: “I’ve written before about the need for newsroom developers to start experimenting with the revenue model. We’re pulling apart the old ideas of stories and narratives at the foundation, redefining how people experience journalism. I argue we can bring that same energy to making money.”

These programmer-journalists also are busy creating tools to help create better stories. A lot of work is being done in the realm of data visualization. Another area that is getting a good deal of attention is text analysis, which offers considerable potential for journalists and is bringing the field of artificial intelligence closer to the newsroom.

A third area of emphasis is on utilities that can help programmer-journalists (or whatever you want to call this new category) do their jobs more quickly and efficiently.

If you’re interested in seeing more details about the NICAR conference, Chrys Wu has put together a really great list of slides and links from the panels.  NICAR had a group of University of Missouri students blogging the event.

And no discussion of NICAR12 would be complete without a reference to Matt Waite's sardonic debut of  "drone-assisted journalism." At this point, consumer drones are mostly expensive toys, not really suitable (or maybe even legal) for serious journalistic work. However, the day is coming when that won't be true.

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