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American Journalism Review
Baby You Should Drive This CAR  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1996

Baby You Should Drive This CAR   

Computer-assisted reporting (CAR) has produced excellent journalism and won fans among high-level newspaper executives and investigative reporters. But some techno-phobic journalists have been slow to embrace it.

By Rose Ciotta
Rose Ciotta is the Buffalo News' CAR editor and an IRE director.     

Rena Singer, a suburban correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, took a "loaded gun" to her interview with the budget official. Before firing off a question, she knew that the borough of Norristown had been running in the red in recent years by as much as 25 percent.

A spreadsheet analysis told her that the borough had overspent and then used a cash fund to close the gap. To taxpayers, the books looked better than they should have. Thanks to Singer's story, Norristown last fall issued its first true budget in three years.

Singer's piece was a mere blip on the Inquirer's journalism screen. It was a daily story on one borough, not a massive series destined for a Pulitzer. It didn't have the impact of the paper's more ambitious computer projects like "America: What Went Wronb?" or a voter fraud investigation that ultimately overturned the results of a state Senate race.

äut Singer's story underscores the fact that computer-assisted reporting is no longer solely the domain of computer wizards working on long, time-consuming packages. It's an important ingredient in daily beat reporting as well.

"I couldn't have done that story without the computer," Singer says. Adds Neill A. Borowski, the Inquirer's director of computer-assisted reporting, who worked with her on the analysis, "This story opened a whole new world for her."

Now being practiced by a third generation of journalists, computer-assisted reporting, or CAR, faces a new frontier as it moves from the computer nerd in the corner to the center of the newsroom.

Thanks to the computer's power, reporters are tapping into data and producing high-impact stories on topics ranging from criminals among nursing home workers and school teachers to unsafe elevators and the influence of political contributions.

Pulitzer winners in each of the last six years used computer techniques to uncover racism in mortgage loans, arson fraud, medical malpractice, government waste and lax building codes.

While cutting back in other areas, editors and television news directors are buying equipment and creating new CAR jobs because they see the value in the stories computers make possible.

CAR specialists are delighted, but they also realize they have a long way to go before computer skills become routine in the nation's newsrooms. Teaching journalists to see computers as essential tools for obtaining information requires a shift in newsroom culture in an industry that is notoriously slow to change. As a result, they are struggling to find the winning formulas for selling the tools and for teaching wary journalists how to use them in a time of dramatic technological change.

"What everyone is having a difficult time accepting is we're in a revolution in terms of news gathering," says Brant Houston, managing director of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR), a joint program of Investigative Reporters & Editors and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

From the mid-1980s to the early '90s, CAR journalists spent much of their energy trying to persuade top editors to invest in CAR. In recent years, their focus has shifted to winning over the rest of the newsroom.

"We're beyond, 'There's no money for hardware or software,' " says Nora Paul, director of news research programs at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, which hosts an annual seminar on CAR. Paul says journalists applying to attend the program have a new lament: "Universally, the biggest hurdle is, 'The guy sitting next to me doesn't get it and doesn't want any part of it.' "

There's also the challenge of fitting CAR – and the new jobs it is creating – into the newsroom organization. CAR editors (a.k.a. project or database editors) rarely have a reporting staff of their own, so they often must convince other editors or reporters to use computer data for a daily story or as the starting point for a larger project.

"CAR still needs an interpreter, a leader, someone who can show where it applies," Paul says.

The inexorable march of technology could cure the problem, experts say. As newsrooms shift to PC-based production systems, more and more reporters will be able to gather and analyze information via computers at their desks.

"Every newsroom must move toward the PC-based system. That's the tool for modern day reporting," says Jonathan Krim, a San Jose Mercury News assistant managing editor who is overseeing his paper's conversion from the so-called "dumb terminal," which allows reporters only to write and edit stories, to the personal computer, which can use other software. With PCs, he adds, comes the critical need to make reporters "technologically literate," regardless of how many CAR stories they produce.

At Newark's Star-Ledger, the recent switch to a PC-based operating system to produce the paper means reporters are getting basic training in Windows, handling a mouse and Microsoft Word. That significantly shortens the journey to using a spreadsheet, software used for calculations, or a database manager, software that organizes large volumes of information.

"The advantage," says Tom Curran, the Star-Ledger's projects editor and computer expert, "is people will lose their fear of computers."

There's little doubt that CAR is catching on. Recent surveys show increases in the newsroom in online use, computer training and staff devoted to CAR. When news organizations evaluate candidates for reporting and editing positions, computer skills are a plus. And the voices promoting CAR are increasingly at the highest levels of the newsroom.

"CAR is really exploding. It's growing exponentially," says Houston. "We're over the hump of whether it belongs or it doesn't."

At TV stations, competition is creating an appetite for CAR. "I've been astounded at how open my shop has been to these stories," says Mike Wendland, who heads the I-Team at WDIV-TV in Detroit. Wendland has used the computer to do stories on dirty restaurants, unsafe highways and nursing homes.

At KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, Joel Grover routinely uses computers for investigative stories while daily reporters also tap into computer data for quick-hit pieces. "Every single story we do now we find some way that computers help make the story a lot better," Grover said at last fall's CAR conference in Cleveland.

As newspapers struggle to stem declining circulation, CAR is one way to produce stories that readers are demanding, says Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Maxwell E. P. King. Despite Knight-Ridder's orders to cut spending, King has made money available for CAR. He not only formed an in-house unit headed by Borowski to spread the gospel, he also promotes computer-assisted reporting within the chain as the chair of its CAR task force.

At U.S. News & World Report, with Senior Editor Penny Loeb leading the way, CAR has not only produced award-winning projects on special education and tainted blood supplies, but has become an integral part of the magazine's competitive strategy to produce investigative reporting based on "almost courtroom-quality evidence," says Brian Duffy, the magazine's assistant managing editor for investigations. And while CAR costs money, he adds, it's a wise investment that will help restore confidence in American journalism.

New York Times Managing Editor Gene Roberts, whose reign at the Philadelphia Inquirer produced a record number of Pulitzer Prizes for investigative stories, calls the CAR tool "critical to journalists." Roberts says he has been a "fan of computer skills for more than 20 years," since Inquirer reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele used a mainframe computer to analyze the Philadelphia court system.

Roberts recently told journalists at an IRE/University of Maryland conference that while he has no plans to venture into the online world – he prides himself on being the "last boss in the newspaper business who never uses a computer" – he has seen its value, particularly in covering major breaking news stories like the Oklahoma City bombing.

Forces outside the newsroom help ensure CAR's place in daily journalism. Governments are increasingly storing data on computers. Online data sources are mushrooming. The World Wide Web is rapidly growing as a prime venue for obtaining and publishing data. Hardware and software keep getting easier to use.

There's also growing interest in public journalism, which uses computer tools to research community issues.

All of which means that CAR should not be regarded as an exotic toy; it's an essential element in the craft of journalism. "Computer-assisted reporting is not for the getting ahead," says Jim Mosley, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's CAR specialist. "It's for the getting by."

As the practice proliferates, more and more reporters must learn how to carry it out. IRE has made training in computer-assisted reporting a key part of its mission. Some 5,000 journalists have attended training seminars hosted by IRE/NICAR in the past 18 months, and CAR training will be available at IRE's national conference in Providence in June.

"Demand has jumped and the skill level has gone up," says Rosemary Armao, IRE's executive director. "The demand isn't just for beginning training. People also want to know about mapping software and other higher-level skills."

Newspaper chains and major news organizations are teaching their employees computer-assisted reporting. The Associated Press last year sponsored 15 training seminars and plans 27 with NICAR for 1996. Gannett hosted three regional programs involving 22 newspapers and 52 people in 1995, and will sponsor three in 1996 involving 60 people from as many as 20 papers.

"We're making progress," says Anne Saul, Gannett's news systems editor. "We require at least two people to come from every newspaper, one of them an editor, so there is someone there to spearhead the CAR program and not leave the reporters swimming upstream by themselves." Still, Saul concedes that Gannett papers, like many others, "have a long way to go" before CAR becomes a tool as commonly used as the telephone.

At AP, the emphasis is on equipping reporters with the CAR tools to do daily stories. All 236 bureaus worldwide can access a library of CD-ROMs offering reference works ranging from telephone numbers to association names to the full text of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The wire service's 143 domestic bureaus are receiving new, powerful computers loaded with spreadsheet and database software.

AP sees a payoff. When Orange County went bankrupt, reporter Rob Wells used a spreadsheet to examine each investment to show how the county collapsed. In Wisconsin, Robert Imrie typed details about hunting accidents into a database manager, and learned that young hunters were shooting older hunters.

"This sort of stuff works," says Bill Dedman, AP's director of CAR. Dedman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution for an exposé of mortgage lending practices, has spent his first year at AP building the infrastructure to assist daily reporting. He's also shaped a nine-member team headed by Bob Port, a computer specialist who came from the St. Petersburg Times, and data wizard Drew Sullivan, formerly with NICAR, to supply data to the bureaus and do national stories.

At Cox Newspapers, the driving force behind computer-assisted reporting is Elliot Jaspin, the godfather of the genre known for his pioneering work at the Providence Journal-Bulletin.

Jaspin, who recalls the early days when skeptics doubted he could analyze 30,000 records, is breaking his own records. Last August, nine Cox newspapers published stories on doctors who were making millions on Medicare. Jaspin tackled the initial data – 100 million records that took up 290 reels of magnetic tape – and gave each paper its state's data so it could report on local doctors.

The project, which involved 25 staffers, revealed that 72 doctors nationwide grossed at least $1 million each in a single year from treating the elderly.

Jaspin, systems editor in Cox's Washington bureau, says the effort to embed CAR in newsroom culture "is still in its infancy." At Cox, he's focusing on linking the newspapers with high- speed data lines so they can share information.

The idea of chains sharing data isn't new. Gannett Special Projects Editor David A. Milliron routinely supplies all 92 newspapers with ready-to-use national data on CD-ROM. The papers can also tap into Gannett's private forum on CompuServe for data and assistance and Gannett News Service's electronic bulletin board. "Every single one of our papers has used at least one of the databases for a story or package over the last year," says Milliron.

He's especially proud of reporters and editors at small newspapers, like Buster Wolfe at the Monroe News-Star in Louisiana (circulation 38,949) and Cheryl Phillips at the Great Falls Tribune in Montana (circulation 34,471), who produce CAR stories using antiquated equipment. Phillips was recently rewarded with a high-speed Pentium PC after writing a series on gangs in Montana using a database she created herself.

"It's our smaller papers that are pulling off the 'well dones,' " says Milliron. "The biggest misconception is that you have to be a large paper with the latest equipment to do CAR."

At Knight-Ridder, two developments are aimed at encouraging more CAR throughout the chain: a data library for all of its newspapers and a mentor program so that the experts can help the beginners.

While interest in CAR is growing dramatically, so is anxiety about its arrival. Journalists who consider themselves writers above all else are especially apprehensive.

At the Poynter Institute, journalists attending a writing seminar were brought together with computer types interested in new media. "You could feel the anxiety level in the room go up 300 percent," Poynter's Paul says. "Writers were defensive, asking, 'What's wrong with just being a good writer?' "

Not everyone in the newsroom needs to be a computer wizard, experts agree. But, they add, even good writers can't afford to be left behind by the technological revolution. Some practitioners, like Steven S. Ross, who teaches CAR at Columbia University in a graduate program that emphasizes the marriage of computer data and narrative writing, say the ultimate CAR challenge is to produce stories about people with data in the background.

CAR enthusiasts recognize that they must do some proselytizing to bring computer atheists and agnostics into the fold. They want everyone to learn online searching, including on the Internet. Most should know how to use a spreadsheet and when to use a database manager. "Everyone should know the possibilities," says U.S. News' Loeb.

CAR specialists advocate a variety of strategies: assigning a powerful PC to those who show initiative to produce CAR stories, celebrating successes with in-house publicity and designing software to make computer work easier.

"CAR doesn't emphasize enough the using of the network in the newsroom to share information," says George Landau, manager of information services for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I'd like to build a newsroom where any public record of any likely use to a journalist is updated and made available to journalists who are taught how to use it."

In Philadelphia, CAR specialist Tom Torok designed a way to search a database so Inquirer reporters could use voter registration records to identify New Jersey parolees who were encouraged to illegally register to vote in Philadelphia in order to collect welfare. The reporters needed only to type in a name or an address to get the information. Other newsrooms set up similar systems for motor vehicles information. Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot put police and school data on the World Wide Web for use by both its staff and the public.

It's also critical to smooth the transition into the world of computer-assisted reporting. Carol Napolitano, a public affairs team reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, urges papers to shy away from major projects when starting CAR. Rather, she says, easy-to-do stories "bring more people into it so a larger percentage of the newsroom can have that first experience." There's nothing like success with front page stories made possible by the computer to trigger excitement and break down resistance.

The best sales vehicle for CAR in the newsroom is word of mouth, says Jennifer LaFleur, former NICAR training director and now database editor of the San Jose Mercury News. "The best way to promote CAR is to get a few key people interested and using it and others will see it and see them getting stories in the paper."

Despite all of the cheerleading, CAR faces a variety of challenges on the newsroom floor, where there may be too little time and equipment for much computer-assisted reporting – or too little interest. Some journalists are satisfied to limit their CAR experience to Internet surfing. Others want no part of a skill that emphasizes mathematics and detail work.

Even the experts agree that not every journalist needs to master higher-level skills like mapping (transferring data onto traditional maps) and statistical analysis.

But equipment shortages can pose problems. Most newsrooms don't have enough PCs for every reporter, although most have a few for common use. Increasingly, they are linked on a network where data is available for general use. Few offer e-mail or Internet access to anyone who wants them. Time is also a problem, as cutbacks mean the doubling up of jobs.

"It's still a struggle for most people to find the time, both for training and reporting," says reporter Bob Warner of the Philadelphia Daily News.

Ray Robinson of the Atlantic City Press sees "tremendous interest" fueled by major awards won by computer-assisted projects and the work of organizations like NICAR that give reporters a forum for sharing techniques and stories. While CAR ideas are easy to sell, says Robinson, "the hard part is executing the idea after it's been sold. That's because our reporters are busy people, often producing three or four stories a day." Others describe a reluctance to embrace CAR because it's new, different and not user-friendly.

"A lot of newspaper reporters are not willing to try something new or to make the effort," observes LaFleur, who spent 20 months training journalists for NICAR. LaFleur says she often found more interest in learning CAR skills among bureau reporters on major dailies, who see them as a way of getting ahead, than among senior staffers downtown. She also found success stories at small dailies where management provides training and equipment for everyone.

Some say journalists should take it upon themselves to buy a computer and learn how to use a PC even before their companies make them available. Others say there's a lot to learn and that success has to be measured in small steps. And management support is crucial.

Stephanie Reitz, who has tasted CAR success at Connecticut's Waterbury Republican-American with page one stories on delinquent taxes and city workers' overtime, warns that some journalists shy away from CAR because they are intimidated by the jargon.

"I fiddle with my databases on planes, at home over the weekend, whenever the mood strikes me," she says. "It's like fiddling with my hair in the morning. I just want to see what's possible. If you make training fun, you've won half the battle."

While everyone agrees training is critical, there's no unanimity on exactly what a training program should look like. Newspapers increasingly are setting up their own newsroom "universities" to teach everything from Windows to spreadsheet and database software to basic mathematics.

The Raleigh News & Observer, which has won praise for its commitment to newsroom training, recently gave its program a second look and decided to start giving reporters month-long internships during which their primary task is learning how to analyze data.

"Our goal is to teach reporters how to analyze data so there isn't any question they can't answer," says Pat Stith, the paper's CAR editor, who will train three reporters this year. While Raleigh has more than 60 reporters who have written stories based on computer data, many can't do the analysis themselves. The N & O's goal is to produce reporters who are self-sufficient. "You can't get there if you're relying on nerds like me," says Stith.

Stith's training idea – immersing oneself in the new software language in the same way a student might go to Paris to perfect his or her French – has already been borrowed by Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, where Toni Whitt, a city hall reporter, recently spent a month learning such skills as creating and analyzing a campaign finance database. "When you do it every single day, it sticks with you," says Whitt. Lise Olsen, the paper's CAR mentor, says she plans to offer month-long training to five others this year. Her goal is to have a CAR specialist on each of the paper's 12 news reporting teams.

Even a month – a luxury in today's newsrooms – won't turn reporters into computer wizards. "It's a real step forward but probably not enough," says Dwight L. Morris, a CAR high priest. Morris, a former Los Angeles Times staffer who is now a computer analysis consultant, says most editors don't appreciate the time it takes to teach computer skills, especially to professionals who generally shun math. "Most senior editors, when they decide they want to get active in CAR, they might send someone to one week of training and that's sort of it," he says. "There's no follow through and not enough training."

Teaching reporters to be self-sufficient also stems from the survival instinct of CAR specialists, who often find themselves with a bottleneck of reporters who want to do stories but can't do the requisite analysis. Add teaching and daily coaching duties and CAR editors find they have trouble getting enough stories in the newspaper.

Another source of angst for some CAR specialists is the issue of bylines. Sometimes the data person is denied a byline when others have done the traditional reporting and interviewing. The computer specialist may receive credit in a tagline, graphic or "nerd box." Some say this stems from a lack of respect for computer work and will fade as more reporters do their own analysis.

Others, like Stephen K. Doig, the Miami Herald's associate editor for research, are in management positions and choose not to receive bylines even when stories are based on their work.

At the Tennessean in Nashville, Database Editor Lisa Green is struggling with reporters who want data for their stories but don't want to learn how to get it. Her approach is to work with reporters until they are confident enough to do their own analysis. She looks for relatively simple stories, like a study of school field trips, to show reporters the power of the tools.

When the paper canvased staffers to see what type of training they wanted, she says, "computer skills came out number one." At San Jose, LaFleur's survey also showed high interest and low skills. The same gap exists in newsrooms across the country.

CAR pioneer Philip Meyer says the next wave of CAR stories will demand high-level statistical analysis, a skill lacking among most journalists. "That's the next hurdle," he says.

Gene Roberts agrees that computer training is important. But he warns against viewing CAR as a panacea. In some cases, he says, CAR "becomes a crutch... We rely so heavily on reporting statistical data that you can overlook empirical evidence and journalistic footwork."

And, of course, data can't do the job by themselves. It's critical to flesh out the numbers with people, with the sights and sounds of the street, and strong narrative. Roberts says the Times is working on two projects that began with computer data. Once the numbers have been crunched and studied, he adds, reporters will hit the streets with the job of "breathing life into this data."



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