Posted by: structureofnews | February 29, 2012

The Frontiers of Journalism

Just back from this year’s NICAR conference – and, as usual, there was much to take in: Flying cameras! New tools! Cool visualizations!  Copious amounts of alcohol!

It doesn’t get much better than that.  But it probably will.

The conference is an annual gathering of a bunch of very smart, technologically savvy, data-oriented journalists and journalist-programmers.   Its roots are in data – NICAR stands for the National Association of Computer-Assisted Reporting – and investigative reporting, and many of the sessions are devoted to the nitty gritty of digging out stories from data.

But it’s also evolved tremendously over the last few years, and in many ways it now resembles a conference about the frontiers of journalism – except minus the pundits and grand speeches that characterize lots of other such events, and much more grounded in the day-to-day workings of the leading edge of change in newsrooms.  And with a public interest mission at its core.

This year’s meet drew a huge crowd, a fair number of international attendees, and no shortage of computer scientists and developers.   There were sessions on new tools to tame the masses of unstructured text coming our way, but also discussions about the kinds of algorithms being used to characterize the sentiment of tweets, and much more said (and shown) about visualizations and the visual grammar of data.  Plus a spirited panel about the ways to make money from newsroom-generated apps and data.  (More of which on a coming post.)

It’s a fascinating peek into the (possible) future(s) of the business.

That’s perhaps not that different from what goes on the program at other conferences, but here the attendees as well as the panelists tend to be people who have been – and continue to be – on the front lines of these issue in news organizations.  That brings a real practicality to discussions, not just in terms of how things get done (and don’t get done) but also in actually building apps and tools and using them.  Which means a much more nuanced and smart level of discourse to panels – not to mention at the bar afterwards.

The conference will likely keep evolving, bringing in new strands such as deeper dives into complex social science methods for journalism, business models for apps, and so on.  But it makes you wonder how much more the conference might be able to spur the discussion about the future of journalism if it was more explicitly about that topic.  Anyone can start a conference about new trends in news; few can get this particular crowd to show up in a single place for a long weekend.  Even if they offered free drinks.  Although that would help.

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