Posted by: structureofnews | March 7, 2011

Notes From NICAR

Just some odds and ends from the NICAR conference in Raleigh.  I was only there two days, and confess spent more time out of sessions than in, so I perhaps didn’t pick up as many tips and ideas as I should.  On the other hand, I did catch up with a lot of people and drank more than I should.  It’s all about tradeoffs.

First, WhoRunsHK got a nice reception overall, at least based on the questions that people asked in the sessions and judging by comments afterwards.   While most people didn’t know who all the people in the database were, they understood the general concept behind the project and the possibilities this kind of app could offer, both in reporting and presentation terms.  Plus, we had the Stanley Ho saga in the last few months – involving an aging billionaire, casinos, four wives, a dozen-and-a-half children, and daily contradictory pronouncements: Perfect to show off WhoRunsHK, even on an issue that doesn’t involve the US.  So we showed the video we made, highlighting also how WhoRunsHK can be a useful video tool, especially on hard-to-illustrate business stories.

Separately, there were good conversations with a number of people about the value of data and the possible business models that might be built around it; and I learned about some neat new apps that I’ll have to try.  One in particular is Needlebase, an intelligent scraper (and more) that can be taught the structure of a site and then lets you pull data from it without needing to learn code.   It looks like both a very useful tool as well as an indication of how fast software and machine intelligence is moving.

Another interesting site mentioned was littlesis, a free resource devoted to cataloging the relationships among the rich and powerful in the US.   I haven’t had a chance to explore it yet, but it looks like it has some interesting stuff in it.   Would love to peek under the hood of the data structure and see if it’s compatible with the WhoRuns visualization.

And there was a lively discussion about the lack of news app development teams at major US news organizations.  I mentioned this in any earlier post, and won’t add a lot more here, other than to say that it seems clear that one of the biggest obstacles to integrating data and news application into newsrooms is a cultural divide rather than a lack of resources or skills.  As one participant noted, there’s still a “service mentality” in many newsrooms, where the graphics/development team is simply expected to build what the reporter or editor wants, rather than a collaborative process.   Imagine if photographers were told to just take the angles the reporter wanted; we’d have pretty dull newspapers.

Alas, I’m not sure I see that changing in traditional newsrooms anytime soon; but I’m guessing there are enough non-traditional news organizations out there now that will eventually seed a new culture.



  1. Here is a nice summary of the tools, slides and links

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