What I learned at NICAR

Mar 14 2014

Recently, I was one of the almost 1,000 journalists who descended upon Baltimore for the 25th NICAR conference. NICAR stands for the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting. What is computer-assisted reporting, anyway? It’s all about data: how to gather it, how to manipulate it and how to present it.

Though the conference was all about data journalism, the lessons learned can be extended to what we do in Reese News Lab.

We in the Lab understand that “journalism is not dying. It’s just different,” as executive director John Clark put it. Journalism is different in consumption, funding and form. NICAR is focused on rethinking the presentation of information, and data journalism is all about rethinking how we can can tell stories. In the Lab we are rethinking the business of journalism, so NICAR taught me a lot about how we should approach our products.

1. It’s all about learning

It sounds meta, but the major thing I learned from NICAR is to always keep learning. Learn a new programming language, learn a new way to gather data or learn a new way to design and present that data. At NICAR alone, I learned the basics of Ruby, the syntax of d3.js and smarter ways to write Python. Journalism today is a dynamic field in the sense that there is something new to learn every day. In a startup environment like Reese News Lab, the goal is to find those products that will tell a story better and a product that people will pay for. We learn from each other and use the knowledge others have to generate ideas. Learning about what is working and what is not working is key to finding a marketable media product.

2. Measure things

The craze around data journalism is warranted because while storytelling through quotes, anecdotes and descriptions is incredibly valuable, data can tell a story too. And sometimes data can tell a story better than descriptions and personal accounts. At Reese News Lab, we use numbers in our pitches. If we believe a product is worthwhile and has a market, we use numbers to back that up. Excel spreadsheets track the amount of money people will spend on a product, the number of people who will use a product and the demographic that will use a product. These numbers tell a story of the potential success of a product, and this story guides us to creating a successful product targeted toward the right demographic for the right price.

3. Focus on the user

Though data journalism is not new, its value is recognized more each day. The energy at NICAR signals the value of data and the possibility that it is key for the media industry to thrive. In the Lab, we are focused on creating products specifically for the user – not for advertisers and sometimes not for ourselves. User testing and user feedback is key.

4. Don’t get discouraged

Sisi Wei from ProPublica gave one of the best pieces of advice during the conference: If you’re frustrated, it means you’re doing something right. She was referring to learning to code, but the lesson can be carried into any environment. There are so many reasons to get discouraged when you set out to invent a new product. Product pitches on your ideas can be met with criticism. The question of how a product can fund itself can come up with an empty answer. Questions might discourage you and make you feel as if the product idea is not worth pursuing. But questions are meant to help structure your product idea better. If there is still interest in a product, keep going. Find an answer to that question. Learn something from that question. Questions are not bad. They might be frustrating, but they are key to finding the answer that will result in success.

Matt Waite from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln wrote a five-step recovery plan for first-time attendees of NICAR. His fourth point is a valuable lesson that we in the Lab can do good to remember: Don’t quit until it’s done. “The idea of quitting, of letting it beat you, should be offensive to you,” he wrote. There will be times that the process of getting your idea into a concrete form that people find appealing will be frustrating, but it is not over until you have exhausted all of your resources.


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