When Philip Meyer published his book, “Precision Journalism,” in 1973, only a few newspapers had used computers to assist in their reporting.
Meyer’s book introduced serious journalists to the idea of using social science methodology to uncover stories that public information officers, police chiefs and mayors would not willingly offer. Using tools such as scientifically valid surveys – just like today’s modern-day election polls – he encouraged journalists to tell more accurate stories and depend less on unreliable “he said, she said” hyperbole.
While covering the Detroit riots in 1967 for the Detroit Free-Press, Meyer was among the first to use computer-assisted data analysis. He and two colleagues conducted a scientifically valid survey – one with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent – of African-Americans by crunching numbers into an IBM 360, a mainframe computer about the size of a banquet table. The story, which earned Meyer a Pulitzer Prize, revealed that people who had attended college were just as likely to take part in a riot as high school dropouts.
Over the next several years, a handful of major newspapers used computers to analyze data for stories. The Miami Herald was the first newspaper to use computers to analyze government records. The Philadelphia Inquirer analyzed sentencing trends for a report called “Unequal Justice.” The New York Times used data analysis to show that black people were eight times more likely to be murdered than white people.
It was, Meyer thought, the dawn of a new day in journalism. Soon, he predicted in his book, reporters would regularly cull data from thousands of electronic records and identify patterns and nuances that otherwise would not see the light of day.
And, in fact, much of what he wrote about has become reality. Today’s newsrooms are blanketed with high-speed, incredibly powerful computers and software programs that make data analysis more feasible. The number of journalists who have the technical know-how to take advantage of these resources is growing, and the 2000 census led to an even larger push from newsrooms to train their staff on the benefits of CAR.
“I think a lot of what (Meyer) thought about has come to fruition,” said Ron Nixon, training manager for Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR). “If you look at the recent census stuff, you have people using the Gini coefficient of income equality and dissimilarity indexes, and that’s something sociologists have used for years, but we’ve never looked at.”
But Meyer, now the Knight Chair of Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is less impressed.
“My original intent was not to push computers – that’s a no-brainer – but to push the idea of journalism as social science. … And I thought it would diffuse much more rapidly. The use of computers diffused rapidly once PCs became available, but the higher level applications of statistical analysis and interpretation of scientific method haven’t diffused very much,” said Meyer.
Meyer said if the newsroom is a different place today than 30 years ago, it’s not because it’s full of computer geeks. He says most undergraduate students are focused on being great writers but have few statistical and computer skills “beyond finding and downloading a spreadsheet.”
“Today’s college students are very much into the storytelling side,” he said. “But we’ve had a hard time convincing them to invest time in learning social science skills.”
CAR GAINS MOMENTUM
It’s been four years since an academician or journalist conducted a scientifically valid survey of CAR use in the newsroom. The University of Miami’s Bruce Garrison conducted such a survey six times between 1994 and 1999. “We stopped when we didn’t see much change,” Garrison said. His last survey found that CAR was still predominantly a big paper phenomenon, though it was trickling down to smaller papers.
In 2000, according to IRE Director Brant Houston, enrollment in CAR boot camps peaked. Part of that can be attributed to a good economy, but the impact of the 2000 census isn’t lost on CAR advocates.
“The census was huge,” said Houston. “It was kind of the push that put people over the hump. Editors saw that in order to beat our competitors we had to have these skills.”
Over the past six years, 2,806 journalists have attended NICAR’s annual conferences, and 685 journalists have attended CAR boot camps. Attendance at those boot camps has declined slightly since 2000, but Houston attributes it to newsroom training budgets, not a disinterest in CAR. In February, NICAR added 16 seats in its computer lab in Evanston, Ill. – proof, Houston says, that there is no lack of interest in obtaining CAR skills.
“In fact, we are finding people are paying their own way to get this training,” he said.
The development of CAR in the newsroom reflects a classic case of supply and demand – that is, ample supply of new technology to spur newsroom advances and the demand for such technology caused by the success of stories that proved how powerful such tools could be.
Meyer, a journalist later trained in social science research, had access to the most advanced higher-level language of the time called Harvard Data-Text. The IBM 360 he used was the predecessor of a machine used by NASA to analyze data connected with the 1969 Apollo launch.
The introduction of software that enabled mainframe data to be transferred easily to personal computers – enabling journalists to get data quickly without having to wait for mainframe technicians to help them – is considered the first technological breakthrough to impact journalists’ news-gathering abilities.
It was nearly 20 years before the next watershed year in journalism technology arrived, and in this rare case it was a journalist – not a software developer for IBM – who broke new ground. In 1989, Elliot Jaspin, then a Providence Journal reporter, introduced the Nine-Track Express, a software program that made it easy to read data from mainframes and download it onto a personal computer. That same year, Jaspin moved to the Midwest and started the Missouri Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting, NICAR’s predecessor.
Next came the introduction of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, which allowed reporters to search government, university and nonprofit sites for deadline and long-term work. “It made reporters comfortable with electronic news gathering,” said Houston.
But for journalists, a very results-oriented bunch, seeing whether the end justifies the means is essential. While new hardware and software raised the interest of a select few who were already using computers for their reporting, the compelling stories that garner awards are what drew new recruits into the CAR fold.
In the late 1980s, Jaspin’s work may have sold a generation of reporters on the value of using computers to analyze data. His analysis of 35,000 Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corp. records revealed that the largest and lowest-interest loans went not to the neediest families, but to children of high-ranking state officials. Jaspin also garnered several awards when he cross-referenced a database of Rhode Island school bus drivers with traffic and criminal violations – a report that led to the overhaul of licensing procedures in the state.
Over the past decade, more than half of the Pulitzer Prizes in beat reporting and investigative journalism were researched with some CAR – that is, the reporter used computers beyond e-mailing, searching the Web and writing in word processing programs.
During that span, The Boston Globe analyzed data on elevator inspections, showing that elevators were not being inspected and caused unnecessary injuries and deaths. The Anchorage Daily News won the Pulitzer for its analysis of the deaths of Alaskan natives. And the Miami Herald, crunching a slew of databases, proved that areas hardest hit by Hurricane Andrew were not those exposed to the greatest winds, but newer homes built under weakened building codes.
The 2000 census has been the most far-reaching opportunity for CAR stories, and it has prompted many journalists to seek CAR training. Many learned to use spreadsheets and mapping or Geographical Information Systems software for the first time. The importance of the census, and the fact that virtually every newsroom wanted to cover it competitively, gave CAR proponents a concrete story with a long shelf life as motivation to editors and publishers in charge of policing the purse strings.
Before the Census, ESRI, a California-based GIS software corporation, had few media clients. Eighteen months ago, ESRI hired away Kris Goodfellow, a veteran Associated Press reporter, to manage media accounts – a job that did not exist until Goodfellow arrived. Last year, Goodfellow visited more than 50 newsrooms – “closer to a hundred, I think,” she said – and sees business continuing to grow.
Today, more than 440 journalists have taken ESRI classes online, purchased how-to books or purchased ESRI software. The most popular software is ArcView, the powerful mapping software that many newspapers used in 2000 to map out trends from census data.
But for every CAR evangelist, every CAR advocate, there are many more nonconverts. Few journalists would say that CAR is useless, but it has failed to become a priority for many reporters and editors.
Bill Dedman, whose 1988 investigation of racial discrimination in home mortgage loans for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earned him a Pulitzer Prize, says there is a “need for demystifying” CAR.
“The failure to define what we mean (by CAR) is part of the problem, and we exacerbate it by always talking projects,” said Dedman, former director of CAR for the Associated Press. “We just need to be mindful that not everybody wants to be a projects reporter.”
It’s just as important to note that not every paper can afford to be a projects paper. Though using CAR is cheaper than analyzing data manually, paying for training and giving reporters the time to refine their skills can get expensive for newsrooms on a tight fiscal budget – especially when there are always budget lines that need to be filled for the next day’s newspaper.
“In theory, CAR is great, and spending hours upon hours sitting at a computer terminal crunching numbers and data is a great thing that I’m sure would produce fantastic stories – if we had the personnel to do that,” said Charlie Deitch, managing editor of The Review, a small daily in East Liverpool, Ohio. “But it’s hard to sit at a computer when you’re shagging every traffic accident that happens within a 20-mile radius or covering every check presentation to the United Way.
“A lot of the reporters that we get have these grand ideas about the use of CAR, but at this level there’s just no time to practice that. What I need is someone who can write 15 stories a week, take their own pictures and lay out a couple of pages a week,” Deitch said. “I need that more than I need the next Bob Woodward.”
Paul D’Ambrosio, investigations editor for the Asbury Park Press, agreed that the daily grind often gets in the way of long-term investment in CAR.
“Newspapers are a hungry beast,” he said. “If an editor has his druthers and can choose a guy who’s going to crunch numbers and come out with one story a week or a guy who will publish five stories a week … who’s he going to go with? For many papers, they have a news hole to fill, and they have a small staff, so they have decisions to make, such as, ‘Can I give someone a few days or even a week to come up with something that might not be a blockbuster … or should I put him to work on deadline?’”
Cliff Schexnayder, a general assignment reporter for the San Bernardino Sun, a 90,000-circulation in San Bernardino County, Calif., said he wants to learn how to make better use of databases and spreadsheets, but the whims of his stories often lead him in other directions.
“A lot of this stuff sometimes chooses you,” said Schexnayder, a six-year veteran. “I think, ‘OK, I want to go do this’ … and then (a different) great story comes at me, and I suddenly need to learn a lot about Freedom of Information requests.”
Some journalists express fear that getting too involved in CAR will disconnect them from the newsroom and their everyday sources. Brian Bowling, a veteran reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail, says learning and practicing CAR can get in the way of taking traditional skills to a higher level – but only if you let it.
“Reporting skills, like any other skills, depend on practice for improvement or even maintenance,” he said. “Given that we all have the same 24 hours in a day, the hours we spend developing or maintaining one skill are hours that we don’t spend developing or maintaining other skills. The skills I improved the most during my first years on the job were mainly interpersonal communications, note taking and other traditional reporting skills. If, at the same time, I had been trying to develop CAR skills, I’m certain it would have hindered and possibly prevented some of the improvements I made in the other skills.”
Bill Serrin, a former New York Times reporter who now teaches at New York University, says journalism students at NYU are very interested – perhaps too interested – in using computers for reporting.
“The problem is that professional journalists and students come to think of it as some sort of magic device by which they don’t have to go out anymore,” said Serrin, author of “Muckraking: The Journalism That Changed America.” “Newspapers were once communal places, but today you can’t get journalists out of the newsroom with a stick.”
Serrin said some old-time editors’ resistance to CAR reflects the same rationale or fear elicited when telephones first became commonplace.
“The fear, back then, was that reporters would never get out and have face-to-face interviews,” he said. “Editors today fear that, and they should. I know people at The New York Times who never leave their desk.”
Rose Ciotta, a veteran investigative reporter who now is the CAR editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says journalists should go with CAR only as far as they want.
“I would argue that a journalist has to be very cognizant of how deep they’re going into the technology so they’re doing it because that’s what they want to do. You can move into the point … where you never interview anyone,” Ciotta said.
“My job is very much stories and the whole spectrum of being the journalist. I didn’t hang any of that up when I picked up the CAR skills. If someone finds themselves as the geek in the corner and they don’t want to be, then they need to think about how they became the geek in the corner.”
But, says Ciotta, reporters using technology to aid their journalism skills shouldn’t be shortchanged.
“These journalists should be celebrated every bit as the journalist who scored a key interview or wrote moving prose,” she said.
Bob Nolte, editor of the Tampa Tribune’s zoned Hernando County edition, says he still looks for reporters who can get the information they need to advance their stories. But his staff, he says, only “dabbles” in CAR, leaving the high-level research and data crunching to the newspaper’s downtown office.
“Basically, we take advantage of the Trib’s research department, and that’s where all the CAR is done. Those are the guys that we tap into,” Nolte said. But he also acknowledged that, as a zoned edition of a 200,000-plus circulation newspaper, that’s a luxury few can afford.
John Tischner, managing editor of the Suncoast News, a community newspaper in the Tampa Bay area, says CAR skills are not necessarily a high priority at smaller, local papers.
“I think database management and advanced Internet searching has its place in journalism to a degree,” said Tischner, cautioning that reporters need to use the Internet as a first-blush look at something and get people to confirm what they see.
“Being a community, twice-weekly newspaper, we really don’t use CAR all that much. Our sources mostly are local. The importance of prying secrets from nervous sources, soothing victims of tragedies and talking to local community people has definitely not diminished in my editorial department,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we are constantly re-emphasizing that these are the best sources for stories. We are a community-oriented newspaper, and our stories rely heavily on these types of sources. I want my people to get away from computers and out into the community where the news really is – in coffee shops, barbershops, in community centers, on the neighborhood streets and the like.”
Larger budget considerations also are a hindrance to CAR being embraced by news organizations. Meyer points to the low salaries many entry-level journalists make, which he says scares computer-savvy graduates away from the profession. And NICAR’s Nixon points to the greater legal risks that larger, CAR-based projects create for news organizations.
“It’s a legitimate problem. These guys cannot afford to go to court and tie up legal resources or tie up money on legal fights. It’s just not possible and so you take the safe road,” Nixon said. “There is a big barrier in terms of people stating that, well, we got the report, we’re going through it, and we dig and we find stuff and we attribute it to the report, and we’re done. … But if we go and take their data and screw it up – if we get the format wrong and it’s $200,000 instead of $2 million – somebody’s neck is going to be on the line.”
Today, the most respected undergraduate journalism programs in the country – the University of Missouri, University of Maryland, University of Miami and Northwestern to name a few – still offer CAR-centric classes only as electives. Even UNC-Chapel Hill, the home of CAR guru Meyer, offers CAR classes only as electives.
Ciotta says it’s a generational issue.
“A lot of people who are running college programs did not have experience with CAR, so they might not feel comfortable integrating it into the traditional courses on news gathering,” she said.
Meyer says smart hiring editors want CAR skills, but few undergraduate students are interested in acquiring them.
“The demand is there, but I have failed at convincing undergraduates that this would help,” said Meyer. “I can’t even get my colleagues to agree on that. They’re very aware that young people choose journalism as a way to avoid math, and the tendency is that the (student) market dictates our course work.”
Matthew Waite, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, acknowledges that he was one of the many who studied journalism in part because he expected he could avoid math, a subject he hated in high school.
“But I ran into a professor who kept telling me, ‘You need this. This is great stuff,’ “ Waite said.
Houston, who also teaches at the University of Missouri, says CAR classes are very popular there, touting the program’s successful alumni. Jo Craven McGinty at Newsday, Jason Grotto at the Miami Herald and Jack Dolan at the Hartford Courant are all Missouri alumni and CAR mavens.
MaryJo Sylwester, database manager for USA Today’s sports department, says her CAR skills gave her an edge when shopping for a job after earning her master’s degree at the University of Missouri.
“A lot of my colleagues that came out with me that didn’t have CAR skills, I don’t even know if they’re in journalism,” said Sylwester. “I’ve been lucky.”
Meyer says classes that teach journalists how to integrate social science research methods into their traditional reporting skills should be “at the core of every journalism program.”
“It makes perfect sense to join the two,” said Waite, who in three years at the Times has developed a reputation as the go-to guy for data and mapping problems.
But most journalists – whether CAR advocates or not – agree that good storytelling must remain at the heart of good journalism.
“If you can’t put a face on the story, if you can’t show impact, if you can’t make people give a damn about your story, then all the CAR skills in the world won’t get you a job in the newsroom,” said D’Ambrosio. “I’ve seen spectacular CAR work with esoteric data that doesn’t add up to a hill of computer chips in the real world. I’ve also seen some incredibly moving stories that were made even better because of a little shred of data that was used to add perspective.”
Louis Rom, an eight-year veteran of daily newspapers and who has self-described “intermediate CAR skills,” is Public Life Editor for the Times of Acadiana, his first stint with an alternative weekly.