Report from CAR Rock

By: Steve Outing

Last Friday I spent the day in Cleveland, Ohio, at "CAR Rock," the national conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR). While I wasn't there for the entire conference, I did get to go to several sessions. Since CAR (computer-assisted reporting) hasn't received much coverage in this column, I'll try to make up for that today.

This was the first CAR event I had attended in a while. I am impressed that newsrooms around the U.S. (this was primarily a conference of American journalists) are now putting more effort and resources into CAR programs. My sense was that many newspapers have made a major commitment to CAR, with numerous newsrooms emphasizing getting everyone on the news staff up to speed with CAR techniques -- not just relegating CAR work to a handful of "number crunchers." This is a marked change from 2 years ago, when I attended a CAR workshop and heard nearly universal complaints that newsroom executives still "didn't get it" and weren't adequately funding CAR initiatives.

Not that there isn't a long way to go. In Cleveland, I heard several reporters from smaller papers complain that they could not even get laptop computers, or that access to the Internet and online services is restricted to the newsroom library.

The lighter side of CAR

At my favorite session of CAR Rock, the point was made that CAR projects do not have to be big, time-consuming, expensive special projects. Nor do they need to be serious.

Jennifer LaFleur of NICAR talked about some feature stories performed using CAR techniques. For a piece on "Punxsutawney Phil," the famous Pennsylvania groundhog who "predicts" the onset of winter by seeing or not seeing his shadow, LaFleur charted the rodent's successes and failures using Microsoft Excel -- effectively debunking Phil's prognosticative powers.

For a piece on where to find single men in the Peninsula area of the San Francisco region, LaFleur made maps of the largest groupings of single men, based on Census data. Then she overlayed data on income, to point to where the wealthiest single men could be found. As with all CAR projects, numbers don't tell the whole story, so she followed up the number-crunching with interviews with single men in the identified single-male-dominated neighborhoods.

For a piece on dog names, LaFleur pointed out, the Buffalo (New York) News studied pet name records from the city to find statistics and examples of pet owners who name their animals after themselves.

Kent Robinson of the Hartford (Connecticut) Courant talked about using the Internet to find sources that otherwise would be difficult to track down. For a feature story on why men give their penises nicknames (yes, he actually did get that story into the paper!), he searched the Internet and found a woman who had written the definitive paper on people giving pet names to their sexual organs. That woman is probably the only person in the U.S. who has spent time researching this topic, and without the Internet Robinson probably would not have found her.

For a story on why bank automated teller machine customers abide by an unwritten code of standing well back of other customers who are using the ATM, Robinson posted a query to ProfNet, an Internet-based network of university public relations officers who find sources for reporters. ProfNet pointed him to the researcher who had written the "seminal work" on "personal space" and Robinson interviewed him about humans' behavior at bank ATMs.

Let's get serious

At a session on "Managing CAR," Jonathan Krim of the San Jose (California) Mercury News said that his newsroom's experience has shown that the entire editorial staff needs to get involved in and learn CAR. The approach that many newspapers have taken of creating a small team of "database jockeys" who serve as a "service bureau" for other reporters is less efficient than teaching everyone basic CAR skills like searching the Internet and using a spreadsheet program.

Ideally, reporters will have a PC on their desk, which can be used for accessing the Internet and running spreadsheet or database software -- as well as writing, of course. Steve Sidlo, managing editor of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, said that many newspapers are beginning to replace their outdated newsroom computer systems with PC-based networks, with the goal of publishers being to create pagination systems. The result is a boon to CAR efforts, since PCs are workable tools for CAR while the old "dumb" terminals many reporters work on are worthless for anything beyond writing and editing.

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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at


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