IRE’s CAR Conferences: What I’ve Valued

In two and a half weeks, Investigative Reporters and Editors will host¬† the 2010 CAR Conference — the annual gathering of journalists who crunch data for stories and visuals. This year’s conference is in sunny Phoenix, a welcome change of pace for those who’ve endured a few blizzards this winter.

If you’ve never attended and are wondering whether to go, here are five things I’ve found valuable:

– You’ll be challenged to up your game. Every year, I am reminded that if I stand still in developing my skills, I am actually losing ground. The Web has forced journalism to become nimble, and the people and talks here will challenge you to be the same.
– There’s lots of opportunity to learn. Training is a huge component of the conference. People are genuinely open and willing to share data, code and skills.
– You won’t leave empty-handed. Every year, I go home with plenty of tips on new software or programming techniques, sources of data and story ideas.
– Beginners are encouraged. There’s a really good mix of super-technical subjects and sessions for those just starting in data analysis, programming and visualization.
– You’ll meet some smart cookies. The speakers’ list includes Pulitzer winners, folks working in the emerging area of non-profit journalism, expert coders and statisticians, and a load of really, really good journalists all around. Their stories and ideas will inspire you.

Spreading data journalism in the newsroom

A reporter called recently for tips on setting up “a CAR desk” in the newsroom of a decent-sized community newspaper. The editor had watched the reporter’s success at gathering and analyzing data and, as typically happens,¬† now wanted the reporter to train the rest of the newsroom.

Here was my advice:

Focus on a few: Instead of holding building-wide Excel classes or database journalism seminars, start with just one or two reporters who show a combination of interest and decent technical smarts. That lets you go deep on a couple of beats rather than spread yourself thin. Also, success breeds success. Watching a few reporters land great stories will possibly spur interest from others.

Have the right goals: Goals like “publish one CAR story a week” miss the point. Better objectives are to have data-thinking ever present in the reporter’s mind, have the reporter well-versed in her beat’s data sources, and have the reporter develop basic data skills. From that, stories will flow.

Inventory data: Speaking of data sources, have each reporter you work with find out the sets of data local governments keep. File FOIA requests for table layouts and database schemas. Get the data, then study it. That will spur story ideas.

Crawl first, run later: All the hot talk in data journalism these days is on Web frameworks and visualizations, but there’s plenty of work for the beginner in the land of Excel and Access. Build those skills as a starting point.

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