By: Bruce Garrison
A main stumbling block at many newspapers is convincing the
uninitiated that integrating computers into the newsgathering
process can be easy and it does not have to be expensive sp.
THE COMPUTER AGE of reporting is swarming over daily newspaper newsrooms.
Online news research using commercial services and the Internet, database analysis and other forms of computer-assisted reporting (CAR) are no longer something news managers should plan to do in a year or two.
They are here. Now. And CAR does not have to be expensive. It can be a tool for all news organizations and all reporters.
There is a growing number of newspaper newsrooms where this attitude prevails. Individuals in these newsrooms want CAR to be integrated into the daily reporting on almost all stories, not become a tool reserved just for special projects work. But for some news organizations, CAR is still a fancy topic for conferences and seminars. Many of these managers feel CAR is a special projects tool reserved for investigative reporters. It does not have to be so special.
“I really believe this is journalism’s future,” Brant Houston, new director of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR), stated at a recent press association meeting in Florida. “I think that if we don’t pay attention to how to get to information electronically, how to access it, how to analyze it, and how to disseminate it, we’re going to be in a situation of going on the information superhighway in a horse and buggy.
“Two things are going to happen: One is that we’re never going to get there on time and we won’t have the news. The other is that we are just going to get run over. So I think we are really going to have start taking this a lot more seriously and integrating it into a routine of our newsrooms.”
The problem is showing the uninitiated that integrating computers into the newsgathering process can be easy and that it does not have to be expensive. Some smaller news organizations are learning the lesson. For example, look at what the Independent Florida Alligator in Gainesville, Fla., has been doing for more than a year. It is high tech, cutting edge, and makes many much larger daily newspapers look technologically backward.
The student-based newspaper serving the University of Florida area has used computer databases and sophisticated analytical tools for a number of important local and regional stories, not the least being the investigation and trial of a man who admitted committing five student murders. Reporters and editors there used computers to monitor the trial online, real time, and to analyze 100,000 pages of text documents released during the investigation by the Gainesville Police Department and the local county court.
Despite the advantages of using computers in reporting, nothing replaces doing reporting the hard way. CAR is icing on the cake. Most editors and reporters will agree to this.
Tim Kelly, executive editor of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, emphasizes this.
“We use a CAR approach on some of our stories, but you can never forget that type of reporting must be supplemented by other, more traditional types of reporting such as interviewing,” he said.
Jim Leusner, a veteran investigative reporter at the Orlando Sentinel who also covered the Gainesville case, caught the essence of this attitude about using computers to supplement reporting.
“Nothing can replace good, old-fashioned reporting, but CAR is an additional tool,” Leusner stated.
Journalists do not have to be investigative icons like Newsday’s Bob Greene to use online research tools to check out who owns a car, what the size of a house might be, or what patterns of crime exist in a community. This sort of work takes just one PC, one reporter, one modem, and some rather unsophisticated software.
Based on research at the University of Miami over the past three years, including informal or more formal interviews with national leaders in the field and a national survey of over 200 daily newspapers using CAR, it is apparent that several computer-assisted reporting trends are evolving:
? Some respected news organizations are not spending any money on online research or on database analysis and, amazingly, have no immediate plans to do so.
? Some editors do report they are thinking about ways to begin use of CAR. Some are moving slowly, waiting until the next generation of newsroom PCs are installed to replace existing front-end systems. Some newsrooms are starting by default ? that is, their employees use their own personal tools to do online research or import or build public records databases for stories whether the news organization itself supports the effort. And, to make matters worse, these reporters or low-level editors are often doing the work on their own time.
? Some journalists are jumping into CAR head first. These are mostly reporters and editors at larger newspapers with sufficient money to spend on hardware, software and even training. Some newspapers and news magazines have spent tens of thousands of dollars for fast starts, but then the reporters/editors explain that their supervisors expect results far too soon and that those results are supposed to be “blockbuster” front-page, award-winning projects.
Some reporters explain that editors do not understand the process of database building an analysis or online research and they expect too much too soon.
? Some news organizations have no clue what CAR is all about. A few respondents have send back questionnaires in the University of Miami national study indicating a very fundamental misunderstanding of what computers can do beyond enhancing writing and editing.
Several unenlightened newspapers, for example, responded in 1994 that they were exploring pagination or that their CAR system consisted of their new front-end writing and editing system. That was the extent of their understanding of computer-assisted reporting.
? Newspapers such as those need to realize their PCs can be used for much more than writing, editing, pagination, and graphics. There are a large number of news organizations that do not even use off-the-shelf business applications for their maximum benefit in news reporting.
? CAR remains a competitive edge for newspapers in 1995. Few broadcast organizations at the local level are even trying special CAR projects or CAR integrated into reporting on a daily basis. If they do, it is individually motivated and initiated. Virtually no broadcasters attended the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ CAR conference in Raleigh in 1993 and only a handful were present at the IRE convention in St. Louis earlier this year. This could be an area of immense potential growth for individuals who wish to become specialists in television news, especially.
? Most newspapers have begun both online news research and database analysis with the same sort of enthusiasm and support. However, some news organizations are doing only one and not the other. That is a little surprising, but it is easier to find them than originally thought. Some are doing some elementary database analysis, but no offline research. And vice versa.
? Some news organizations, those tending to be larger dailies, have some absolutely sharp people in charge and they know what’s going on. These are the leaders of the field in the public records database analysis and online research movements: they are found at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Raleigh News & Observer, Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American, Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Newsday, Washington Post, USA Today, and a few others. And they are not necessarily the ones that won Pulitzers with CAR over the past five or six years.
? Most CAR work in most newsrooms began with a computer enthusiast who also happened to be a reporter or editor. The pattern seems to set itself everywhere the same way: One or two persons are more computer literate than everyone else and these persons get tapped as CAR director or newsroom systems czar, or both.
? But the more interesting observation is that there is no set pattern from where the “CAR czar” originates. Some are desk editors. Some are line reporters. Some are investigative or special project reporters. Some business editors/reporters, some in other news-editorial departments. But one thing is certain: few, if any, are managing editors or higher level editors and newsroom managers.
?(Garrison is a professor of journalism at the University of Miami. His new book, entitled “Computer-Assisted Reporting,” was published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, N.J., in May. Some of the material in this article was taken from the book.) [Caption]