October 25, 2014
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Power Reporting Resources For Journalists

Managing CAR

A Ten-Step Plan for Integrating
Computer-Assisted Reporting
with Daily Coverage in Our Newsroom


Our news organization must move aggressively to equip its news staff with modern computer tools and the basic skills in news research required of any worker in an information business.

Not only for distributing the news Ė but also for gathering it Ė our news reporters, editors and producers need a consistent set of computer tools and a literacy in computer-assisted reporting.

Why do we need these tools and skills?

to compete with other news organizations on breaking news. "Deadline CAR."

to check facts and background subjects. "Improve Stories."

to break mid-range and long-term investigative stories. "Enterprise."

to maintain access to public records that increasingly are available electronically. "Access."

to add value to our Web site with searchable databases tied to news stories. "Depth."

to improve hiring and retention of young, computer-savvy staff. "Morale."

In sum, weíre getting our CAR in gear so our talented staff will have a better chance of producing a news report that is different, that is fresh, that is substantial.

And it should be all of the staff. Itís easy to set up a special projects team with a database lab to do the home-run stories. Itís much harder to integrate the skills into the daily flow of the newsroom. This integration requires more commitment from management, tighter cooperation between departments, and a greater investment of staff time and training. From this integration, the home runs will come, along with a lot of singles and doubles.

We are not the first news organization to develop skill at computer-assisted reporting. Several news organizations have a running head start. We may have old computers that we couldnít give away to our elementary schools. But we can learn from the mistakes of others and copy their successes.

Here is a 10-step plan for getting started. Itís merely a generic suggestion, based on the experience of others, and we can modify it for our newsroom. It aims high. If we canít do a lot, at least we can do a little more.


STEP 1: STATE A COMMITMENT

The key ingredient in a successful CAR program is a long-term commitment from top management.

From this follow cooperation among editorial and technical staff, and enthusiasm among all staff.

If weíre not setting goals that all of management agree on, if the goals donít command the assent of the staff, letís change the goals before we move forward. Itís easy to waste a lot of time on a CAR effort if the department heads donít agree. That includes both editorial and technical departments.

It might be useful to start with a session with the department heads. We could agree on the goals, answer questions, make sure we are aware of their concerns. And flush out and discuss any barriers.

Then the senior news manager could announce the upcoming training with a note to the staff describing the goals and path weíll follow.

Then we might have an all-staff meeting to present the goals, the plan, the skills that are expected, the tools that will be provided. We also could show slides and brief videos giving examples of successful use of CAR for deadline work, in print and broadcast. And we can deal with questions and discuss the possibilities and pitfalls.


STEP 2: ADOPT ROLE MODELS

We have plenty of role models for the big-hit CAR series.

We need more role models for deadline CAR.

Here are examples from the Associated Press -- none of them "projects."

In rural Georgia, a commuter plane crashes. While our reporter and photographer drive to the site, the desk editor uses PhoneDisc on an internal network to locate neighbors. On our first call, Polona Jeter, who lives across the street from where the plane crashed, says she and her neighbors helped pull people from the plane. One survivor is on her front porch, and she wonders if we might want to talk with him.

The AP correspondent in Brussels tells this one: "I know zip about Nagorno-Kharabakh. I don't know who fights there, why, or since when. Yet you would not know that from the copy I wrote last Monday. From a European Union meeting in Luxembourg, I sent 450 words about Nagorno-Kharabakh to the wire thanks to AP's new archive system. It took minutes to retrieve the relevant background, wrap in the EU angle and massage it into new copy. The next day it was on the front of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

From New Orleans: "After the freighter ``Bright Field'' crashed into the Riverwalk mall, it was evening -- and a Saturday evening at that -- before the Coast Guard was able to give any information about its owners. AP already had it. A search of the Web for "Bright Field" found the China Orient Shipping Co., a company history, and a list of all its ships."

In Boston, the medical editor was researching a feature on Redux, a diet drug. "I wanted to see how well it was working in the real world. So I found the names of about 20 people who had sent in comments to diet newsgroups." I e-mailed them and eventually ended up talking to about a half a dozen really fat people. They were the heart of my story."

In Kentucky, a military helicopter crashed in a remote area, killing a crew of five. The stafferís report: "After using the CD-ROM to find and interview people who had been the first ones at the scene, I called U.S. Special Forces Fort Bragg, which is where the public affairs office is for the ``Night Stalkers'' 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the elite group that was flying the helicopter when it crashed. But the colonel I interviewed would tell me only that the MH-47E was a modified Chinook. First, I jumped to the Alta Vista search engine and searched the Web for "MH-47E'." The first hit was a July 1995 press release from Boeing. It told me that only 26 of these helicopters were ever made; all were initially given to the 160th for training; they include a "sophisticated integrated cockpit control system'' and use "the world's most advanced integrated helicopter avionics systems for Öday or night flightÖ." It also mentioned that the helicopters are manufactured by the Boeing Defense & Space Group, Helicopters Division. I called Boeing in Seattle, asked for this division, and was transferred to Philadelphia. A company spokeswoman confirmed the information I already had, then faxed me a 3-page "spec" sheet on the MH-47E. She even sent a diagram of the helicopter and confirmed this was the first crash of an MH-47E."


STEP 3: DEFINE OUR TERMS

Weíre talking about public records, and deadline research Ė not data, not statistics, not projects.

Letís banish all talk of "CAR projects" and "government data."

This is more than a pet peeve.

The talk of projects reinforces a stereotype that this work is just for investigative reporters. It makes it hard to get the whole staff involved in developing the skills for deadline work.

The talk of statistics makes it sound esoteric. Besides, even when weíre getting large government databases weíre getting electronic access to the public records themselves, not to government statistics. That is, we donít want the ATFís reports on gun dealer licenses. And usually weíre not doing statistical analysis. Weíre just looking things up and counting and sorting. If we need a statistician to look over our shoulder, weíll get one at the university.

Beyond modifying our buzzwords, the best way to make these points is to include everyone (editorial and technical staff) in the memos, the meetings, the training, and the dispensing of tools. Some may get more training than others, but all should get the basic software and basic training.


STEP 4: ESTABLISH A SKILLS LADDER

"Computer-assisted reporting" is just too vague and daunting.

To learn, we need to know what specific skills we need, and in roughly what order to learn them.

So itís not "spreadsheets," but "know how to import a text file of cities and snowfall amounts from the Web into a spreadsheet and sort it in descending order by amount of snowfall, in feet and inches."

Every person in our newsroom can learn how to:

Use responsibly information gathered and analyzed electronically.

Develop an information awareness, an expectation that the facts exist and can be found.

Have a document state of mind, an understanding of basic investigative reporting documents.

See the story possibilities in electronic access to public records.

Use electronic tools (Internet, dial-up, archives, CD-ROMs) to research people, companies.

Use those tools to background a subject and find experts and common people to interview.

Find government documents available electronically.

Use the research services of IRE, NICAR, FOICenter and other helpful non-profits.

Write fluidly with context, without numbers getting in the way.

Maneuver around the hard disk, storing and retrieving files.

Share compressed files with others, on floppies, as e-mail attachments and over the network.

Use a spreadsheet to enter data, make calculations, sort information, and charts.

Use a database manager to enter data, retrieve data, analyze data, and print reports.

Import data to a spreadsheet and database. Determine the format of an unknown ASCII file.

Export data to other formats and to the Web.

Integrate the Web and a spreadsheet, moving formatted text into a spreadsheet for sorting.


STEP 5: ASSESS WHAT WE START WITH

Not every newsroom will use CAR in the same ways. Here are some variables to consider:

What is the size of our staff. How many people in each job type? On what schedules?

What equipment do we have? Desktop and laptop hardware? Software?

How uniform are the hardware and software from desk to desk, from desktop to laptop?

What skills do we have?

How are we organized?

What tools do we have for sharing and gathering information?

What is the chance of expanding the available personnel resources?

What resources are available for in-house development? For consultants?


STEP 6: DISTRIBUTE THE BASIC EQUIPMENT

We donít have to have the newest equipment. Remember, a lot of great computer-assisted stories were done in the 1970s and 1980s, which means they were done on what would now be antiquated equipment.

So if we have just one modern PC for everyone to share for research, letís get the right tools on it: a CD-ROM drive, access to the Internet, and the software and training materials we need.

If weíre outfitting one or more new PC, letís be careful not to create "haves" and "have nots." Every desktop, laptop and home PC should have at least the same software. Sure, the database lab will have fancier tools, but everybody else should get regular Army issue greens.

This is a moving target, and depends a lot on what we have already, but hereís a sample setup. It looks like a long list, but a lot of the items are cheap. Remember: There's a great deal of value in using what other newsrooms are using.

Microsoft Windows 95 (free with most PCs)

Microsoft Office Professional (at least Word and Excel) (cheap with new PCs)

Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator (free)

"Favorites" or "Bookmarks" loaded for I.E. or Navigator (free)

Windows FTP client (such as WS_FTP95 shareware)

Windows mail client (free)

Windows news client (free)

Windows version of Telnet, Whois, Lookup, Ping, Finger, TraceRoute (free)

Lotus ScreenCam player or Microsoft CamCorder (free)

Acrobat reader for PDF files (free)

PKZIP for Windows 2.5 shareware, registered version

Macsee 2.2 shareware, registered version, or other Mac disk reader (on one machine at least)

free client software for Lexis-Nexis, DowJones Interactive, any other online services


STEP 7: START BASIC TRAINING

Every employee should receive a mandatory amount of basic training each year in news research.

This could be four days a year, or eight, or only two, but let's set a minimum. Yes, this might be more training than we now get in an entire career. But the bar has been raised.

This training must be mandatory. Think of it as hepatitis vaccine before an outbreak.

Before the training, we should compile and distribute a set of training materials:

A CAR bookshelf should be added in the newsroom with a selected list of books and training films and self-help CD-ROMs, newsletters, and magazines. It should include general materials on investigative reporting.

Each staffer should receive a CAR guide to accompany the training. It should state the goals, summarize the curriculum, and lay out the skills to be learned.

CAR training films at (such as ScreenCam files) should be made available on at least one machine.

Each staffer should receive a laminated card, or cheat sheet, for his or her desk, giving basic commands for each of the shared resources: CD-ROMs, dial-up research tools, etc.

The actual training should begin with the managers.

The classes should be small (no more than 15), with one computer per person. Do you have a computer training room for the newsroom, or nearby on campus?

The training plan will vary from newsroom to newsroom. One model is at Power Reporting.


STEP 8: CREATE A NEWS RESEARCH DESK

Start now on this one, even if it means reassigning someone from the motor pool or using a valuable intern slot for a little summer kickstart.

We have cross currents here. Even though more research tools are moving to the desktop of the reporter and editor, more than ever we need trained researchers (itís OK, you can call them librarians) to acquire and manage these tools, to control their costs, and to train others to use them efficiently. Managers who think that "going digital" means fewer librarians have it backwards.

We can start with a dedicated, smart staffer who gets training. They should make connections with the News Division of the Special Libraries Association..

But it would be better to start with a trained professional news librarian. Itís a small network of people. We should be able to find a good one.

This person would:

Sit smack in the newsroom, not in a remote office.

When asked to do research, do it, but mainly try to help the staffer learn to do it themselves.

Do the more involved searches, though most research can be done by writers and editors.

Do research that costs too much to turn loose the entire staff at hourly rates.

Attend every story meeting, and work the newsroom to find out about stories earlier.

Order and maintain the CD-ROMs on a central network, and train staff to use them.

Order and maintain printed resources: magazines, books.

Clearly this will, at some point soon, be more than one person. Weíll see the need for more people in this department: a leader, chief researcher, a resource manager, and, depending on the size of the newsroom, perhaps two or more researchers so we have coverage around the clock. One or two of these will have an MLS degree.

A note about interns: Minority journalists have lagged behind others in being exposed to CAR. This may have several causes, such as self-selection or the giving of priority to more senior journalists for training and "project time." We have an opportunity to contribute to the training of minority journalists. We could establish a fellowship for a minority journalist in computer-assisted reporting.

For a primer on news research and news librarianship, consult the experts at the Special Libraries Association: http://sunsite.unc.edu/slanews/. This wonderful site lists reference books every newsroom must have, reference CD-ROMs, online services, etc.


STEP 9: BUILD SHARED TOOLS FOR RESEARCH

These are the tools that the few on the Research Desk will make available to the many in the newsroom for deadline reporting and editing.

As we develop or improve our Web site, we should look for ways to cooperate with the newsroom on research tools. The hardware and networking that weíre buying anyway for the Web can be used to help our staff write better stories.

Letís break this down into two phases.

Immediately:

Select and purchase a basic set of research CD-ROMs that are located at a public-use PC with a CD-ROM drive or jukebox (holds many, plays one at a time, not networked) in the center of the newsroom with simple how-to-search info. Donít put this off waiting for a CD-ROM network. If we hustle, we can have these in time for the first wave of basic training staff.

Select and obtain accounts on the main online databases for news research. Train staff to use them, or take advantage of the free training offered by the vendors. From the start, negotiate for discounted fees or all-you-can-eat pricing, in exchange for free or discounted ads or credits on the site. If youíre new at this game, hire an experienced news librarian as a consultant to handle these negotiations and get you set up quickly.

If you donít have an in-house, full-text, Boolean-searchable, Web-based archive of all stories filed, accessible to all staff, at least make sure youíre saving all files and corrections.

Establish budget lines for online research and data purchases.

As soon as we can:

Expand the CD-ROMs to a network, allowing simultaneous use by any staffer (in the building or remote) with TCP/IP access. The Computers in Libraries conference is the best place to see all the vendors at once. Maybe one of our technical people should attend.

Add training "films" to this network for our shared resources, Excel, Access, etc. These are amazingly easy to record (10 minutes tops) with Microsoft CamCorder or Lotus ScreenCam.

Make available to staff a Web-based newsroom Rolodex of phone numbers and Web resources for news research.


STEP 10: MUSCLE UP FOR ACCESS TO RECORDS

Government databases will allow our staff to break stories, and regular updates allow updates of information for lookup by staff and the public.

A larger news organization will eventually feel the need to equip and staff a database lab. This lab would give us the ability to acquire and analyze government and commercial data, whatever the form. Includes tools for receiving data on various media (nine-track tape, 3480/3490 cartridges, Jaz, etc.), creating databases from paper records (scanner), analyzing data (PCs with software), storing data (disk arrays, backup tapes and CD-ROMs); and sharing data (archived on CD-ROMs with Access front ends, Web-based lookup through SQL Server and Microsoft Web Server, and queries through ODBC connections to Access).

We need to develop a strategy for government databases:

Acquiring databases, not just once but on a regular schedule

Analyzing them.

Mapping them.

Making them available to staff for lookups.

Making them available to the public via the Web.

Documenting them.

Our approach to these issues will depend on resources: capital expenditures for hardware and software; operating expenditures for data; and personnel time and training.

Much of the capital expenditure can be delayed. We may not need to download and convert nine-track tapes anytime soon. That we can do through cooperation with NICAR and its students. But that cooperation needs to be discussed more thoroughly, and normalized, maybe even formalized.

But at a minimum these steps should be taken this year:

Develop a strategy for putting databases (with easy to use front ends) in front of staff (and the public) for the most common federal government databases. This might best be done as a cooperative venture with NICAR and other partners.

Find the person on staff who knows or can learn mapping software, and the person who knows statistical analysis. Enlist their volunteer help first for special projects. Establish a relationship with a consulting statistician if necessary.

Find the person nearby who knows Access and SQL Server front-end development who wants to do news databases as a demonstration project.


STEP 11 (I KNOW, I SAID 10): KEEPING HOUSE

A few housekeeping details will have to be done. For example:

How will staff keep momentum going and share what they know? An in-house electronic bulletin board? Brown bag lunches with volunteer speakers or guest speakers or discussions? Can we subscribe to the IRE and NICAR lists and archive them in one place in-house, so many staff donít have to subscribe? Will we route CAR newsletters from NICAR, et al., through the newsroom?

How will we get out the word to our staff on our efforts and resources? Do we need a newsletter? Maybe an e-mail or electronic newsletter? What will we put in the company newsletter?

How will we get the word out to the world? Will we promote our stories with reprints at IRE, NICAR conferences, etc.? Will we promo stories on the IRE and NICAR lists?

Who will enforce safeguards for responsible use of computer-assisted reporting? This will require, in some cases, direct supervision of reporting and writing, and in general a raising of literacy in the appropriate use of data, privacy, access law and other concerns.

What are our procedures for acquiring data from government agencies and private companies? How much will we pay? Who has authority to spend? What do we do when rejected or rebuffed? What standard form letters do we use for requests? What media and formats will we request? When will we call on legal counsel?

How will we credit researchers who contribute to a story?

How will we fold computer-assisted reporting into the list of skills on which news staff are evaluated?

And how often will we re-evaluate the direction of our CAR effort?


You can reach Bill Dedman by e-mail at Bill@PowerReporting.com.


COPYRIGHT ©1997-2005 Bill Dedman