So it’s been a week now since returning home from the NICAR conference in Baltimore, and I still can’t get over the size of the event: 1,000 attendees, up 400 from last year’s meeting, which was already a record, and three times as many as IRE was struggling to get to show up not that many years ago.
Which is great news on so many levels, even if the crush of people there made it awfully hard to fight through to the bar to get a drink. Not that I noticed the conference was any more sober than normal. But I digress.
It’s great because the conference is one place pulling together the disparate strands of “classic” computer-assisted reporters, journalist-technologists, design and user interface experts and computer scientists – and we need to get together more if we’re to play a leading role in how the industry develops. And it’s clear – at least based on a couple of observations in Baltimore – that we’ve got a long ways to go before we all understand each others’ language.
Back in the day when printing presses reigned supreme, newsrooms could focus on getting and writing the news; the hugely important intricacies of print runs, color quality, delivery routes and subscription fulfillment were someone else’s problem, and probably quite rightly so. But these days, the means of production is digital, the internet delivers your product, and not only can anyone start up a news site at will, the form and format of news itself is rapidly evolving. So if we don’t take a broader view of what it means to gather, analyze, produce and deliver news – well, someone else will.
But that takes a fairly big change of mindset, and we’re not there by a long shot. At the level of story or project, it’s still hard for some editors to grasp the notion that the data app that accompanies a multi-month reporting endeavor needs as much care and feeding as the stories themselves. Or, as Sarah Cohen of the New York Times noted on a panel in Baltimore, editors will spend days poring over every word in a story, but hardly any will put in the same effort to edit the data app.
Which is understandable, in some ways – it’s near impossible to go through and vet every data point in a large app, and especially if it’s constantly being updated. And, as we learned in the course of the Connected China project, there are all sorts of new processes needed to verify data, deal with questions or errors, or post corrections. But as we increasingly publish data-rich apps and interactives, we’re going to have to come up with better systems to deal with these sorts of issues.
And that’s working on the ‘content’ side of online information; what about the broader questions of making sure your audience can get the information you’re trying to give them?
At one panel in Baltimore on bridging the gap between developers and journalists, someone in the audience commented that most journalists are focused on the impact of their story on day one; after that, they’re less concerned if the story still exists online down the road. Which also makes some sense, given how news is still largely offered to people – in discrete stories that are delivered when we finish them. But how does that structure fit in with sites like Politifact or Homicide Watch, where value comes from the slow aggregation of information over time?
More broadly, how much are we thinking about how audiences are coming to our content, interacting with it, and being engaged with it? Or how usable or resilient our site is? That’s traditionally been much of a role for a product manager, but as Aaron Pilhofer, who runs a state-of-the-art developer team at the New York Times, noted at one session: “We have to start thinking of these things as products.”
Meaning, we have to go beyond our traditional focus on writing stories (or producing slide shows, or graphics, or whatever) – in other words, creating the news, and embrace the broader mission of getting it to audiences. And that means being much more deeply involved in newsroom and publishing technologies, user interface and experience design, audience research and metrics, and much more. It’ll be a pain, and requires new skills and mindsets. But it’s by and large a good thing. Because we’re now in much more control of what and how we can offer the public.