It’s all about “the story.” It doesn’t matter what element of Web resources, databases or computers is involved. When you are training a working journalist the focus must be on “the story.” A working journalist doesn’t have the time or encouragement to learn for learning’s sake, so each new technique must be seen as useful for newsgathering, and its usefulness must be quickly proved.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve run more than 350 seminars and conferences with journalists during the past six years. Call it “reverse engineering” or “deconstruction,” but the basic principle for training is to start with the story.

Here is an outline of the steps:

  • Show dozens of stories, both print and broadcast, that resulted from using resources available on the Web or sorting and grouping electronic records with basic software.
  • Do a walk-through demonstration of those resources and techniques—a how-to overview.
  • Conduct hands-on training exercises of those techniques on information and data pertinent to journalism.
  • Go from exercises to the real data, and discuss the perils and pitfalls in using the new techniques.
  • Review how to find and obtain electronic data.
  • Make the real resources and data easily available.
  • Provide follow-up training and in-house adviser/mentors.

During the training, the application of these techniques to the story needs to be discussed and debated. Using a specific situation, an instructor can walk journalists through a mock assignment. In one instance, a reporter used the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) database ( to report a story about how a company run by a former defense department official has extensive government business. With the SEC Web site on the computer screen, the instructor navigates through the site’s Web pages to the “10-K” report that predicts an increase in the amount of business from the U.S. military.

“The Engineering and Construction Group has continued to expand its services to the United States military. The group sees improving opportunities to provide similar support services to other United States agencies and to government agencies of other countries, including the United Kingdom…. In 1999 the group increased logistics support services to military peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans and increased activities at the Devonport Dockyard in the United Kingdom.”

The report also shows the former defense official is the company’s CEO. (The company is Halliburton Company. The former defense secretary is Richard Cheney. And this report was used extensively in a front-page story in The New York Times.)

The instructor asks the journalists, who each have a computer connected to the Web, to repeat the steps. Then each journalist applies these research steps to examining a local publicly held company. The class then discusses what other resources are available to dig into a company’s background, what verification methods need to be used, and what kind of stories can be produced.

In another training session, an instructor shows a series of stories on campaign finance. The instructor then teaches the journalists how to download campaign finance data from the Web for the presidential election and place it in a database manager such as Microsoft Access. The next lesson involves ways of filtering and sorting the information. Once the basics are understood, the journalists download information from a local congressional race and repeat the steps. Discussion of possible stories follows.

While the structure of a successful computer-assisted training program emerged fairly quickly, many obstacles persist, and these make it difficult to make the kind of headway that journalism, as a practice, should. Among these obstacles are the insularity of the newsroom; the natural cautiousness and math phobia of journalists; the overselling of these techniques’ immediate value and underestimating of the time investment needed to master them; the lack of follow-up, lack of adequate equipment and software, and a dearth of training and support for mid-level editors.

Today’s newsrooms are often insulated environments. Staff cutbacks, the convenience of using the telephone (and now the Web), and increased time pressures exacerbate the problem of journalists not finding the time and flexibility to grapple with new ideas and techniques. In addition, fearful information technology departments have prevented many newsrooms from having direct and easy access to the Internet because of worries about hackers.

A 1998 survey of newsroom trainers by Scott Maier, a journalist then working on his doctorate at the University of North Carolina, found that half of the reporters at newspapers do not use the Internet routinely for research. And Maier found that trainers estimated only 10 percent use any kind of computer analysis. As recently as 1999, IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc.) and NICAR (National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting) trained at several of the largest newspapers in the United States where only a few computers in the newsroom could reach the Web. Maier also observed that some of the most effective training involves examining the work of fellow journalists. “Peer leadership has been key in the spread of computer-assisted reporting,” Maier said.

The slowness to connect to the Web for newsgathering has led to a situation where ignorance is not bliss but irrelevance. Reporters have been asked to write stories about the Internet and databases although they had never been on the Internet nor ever used a database. (The lack of familiarity with databases is currently most on display in stories being written about computer-based threats to privacy.) Because so much valuable daily information has moved from hard copy and faxes to availability on the Web, newsrooms are now becoming connected more widely. One of the noteworthy leaps for journalism and the Web was spurred by the release by Congress (via the Internet) of the Starr Report on the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation.

The increase in Web connections, however, re-emphasizes the need for training. Without guidance, many reporters waste time trying to find information on the Web and then determine—wrongly—that it has no value for them. Training in basic research skills and free “lean and mean” Web indexes with information that every journalist can use are helping to rectify this problem. [Web indexes include The Reporter’s Desktop at, by Duff Wilson of The Seattle Times, and the NICAR NetTour at nettour.] These indexes provide essential starting points for using the Web.

Another hurdle has been the conservative nature of reporters—they prefer to stick with what has worked for them—and their phobia about math. Journalists are, as a rule, cautious about using new techniques because of the fear of corrections and the ensuing public embarrassment. If they aren’t certain of how to apply these new techniques, they worry that mistakes will find their way into stories. Some also worry about appearing too “nerdy” and not enterprising enough. Even when Web resources or databases might provide critical information for a story, some journalists feel the need to emphasize old-fashioned “shoe leather” reporting. Journalists also have not received (or refused to receive) the most basic training in math, although they often cover stories involving budgets, salaries, population growth, tax rates, and crime statistics. “I didn’t get into journalism to do math,” is an oft-repeated refrain from reporters. However, training on spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel—the next step after calculators—works best when journalists are persuaded that official numbers are easier to scrutinize with this assistance and the accuracy of their stories can be improved.

For some journalists, the challenge of training revolves around their reluctance. But for others, just the opposite is true. They are too enthusiastic about what this kind of training can offer them. Some trainers play into this eagerness by promising instant results. But new skills in research and data analysis require practice and time, as many journalists discover as they try to master even the basic skills of this kind of reporting. “Even if you have the data on the Web or on disk, if you’ve never used it before, you’re bound to run into glitches,” wrote Heather Newman of the Detroit Free Press in an article this year in the NICAR newsletter Uplink. And journalists need follow-up help after the initial training.

“I think one of the biggest psychological challenges is overcoming the mindset of ‘I’m too busy now. I don’t have time to do what I have to do, to do the reporting I do now, so why would I add more to the plate?’” observed Nora Paul, a long-time expert in computer-assisted reporting, now at the University of Minnesota. “The other issue is giving training but then not giving the opportunity to really use it on a routine basis.”

But even follow-up training won’t be enough if the proper equipment isn’t available for journalists to use. Until recently, some journalists received training and then returned to a newsroom that did not have the most basic computer equipment and software. Since these skills require practice, unless journalists are willing to make private investments in their home computers they will quickly forget how to use what they learned.

Belatedly, perhaps, newsrooms are recognizing that editors who are responsible for assigning reporting also need this training. At some papers, reporters are delivering stories developed using electronic sources and computer skills that their editors have never seen or used. This has spurred some editors to raise questions about the accuracy and reliability of the reporters’ information. “We don’t know the questions to ask,” some editors tell us. But what is becoming clear to them, and to us, is that they, too, have a need to learn.

Brant Houston is executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. and the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, which has conducted more than 350 seminars conferences with journalists during the past six years. He is the author of “Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide.”

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment