It’s no secret that journalists have been slow to take advantage of new computer technology. With the exception of basic word processing, the only major role computers have played in journalism until recently was helping to create massive, in-depth investigative series for large media outlets.
But a simple PC connected to the Internet can help reporters in many ways, such as speeding up data retrieval, data analysis, as well as accelerating the speed information is transmitted in all stages of the reporting process.
At the same time, the Internet has increased exponentially the amount of raw information directly available to the news consumer, which make the three basic duties of today’s journalist — hunter-gatherer, filter and explainer of information–as important today as ever.
Increasing numbers of our core audience are finding they can sometimes bypass the news media, gathering information about specific subjects on their own by going online and finding it directly from the source. For the most part, these are the heavy news and information consumers who make up only a small percentage of households but who buy almost all the magazine subscriptions and a third of the newspapers in the United States. But as more readers become familiar with how to use the Internet, their numbers will increase.
The good news is even the most savvy online information gatherer can’t shun the news media altogether. What’s more, no emerging technology will make it possible to reliably gather information from people and sources who do not want it to be taken from them.
State governments, for instance, are not about to make all their information databases readily available to the public at large. And much raw data that is or will be available online often needs careful checking and comparison with other data before it can be called useful information.
Yet the journalist’s role as filter–deciding what goes into the paper or the evening news and what doesn’t–may soon be obsolete.
New jobs are already emerging for journalists to serve specialized markets–such as the growing number of personal financial services websites–and not a moment too soon. If we don’t package news for specialized markets–as the wire services like Reuters and Dow Jones have begun to do–individual players in those markets will produce information that appears, at least on the surface, to be journalism but is really something else.
Only in our role as explainer and storyteller do journalists have a reasonably secure position. But to explain we have to do more than produce reportage–and that means using the computer to add new angles to a story that individual readers simply don’t have the time or the skills to dig up.
Here are a few examples of stories that probably wouldn’t warrant a Pulitzer prize, but are the kind of article that could be enhanced through computer-assisted reporting.
Families of the seven Space Shuttle Challenger disaster victims received over $7 million in compensation. On the surface, that sounded like a hefty sum–more than $1 million per victim. But the payments were spread over several years, so the actual “net present value” of the payments–the amount it cost to buy annuities to fund the payouts–was less than $2 million. After quickly doing the math on a spreadsheet, each victim’s life is worth only about a quarter million dollars–not much for the highly-litigious American judicial system.
Here’s another example. Former US Senator Bob Dole ran for President in 1996 promising a 15 percent cut in personal income taxes. He claimed this would require a reduction of only 5 percent in federal spending. The real number was about 7 percent.
But Dole then went on to exempt most programs from cuts, leaving welfare, environmental protection, funding of scientific research and various other government programs to suffer whopping 40 percent slashings. A few graphs and charts quickly hammered out in a spreadsheet would make the story even clearer.
Even municipal issues, which some readers might deem horribly mundane, have great potential for elaboration and enhancement with the use of computer-assisted reporting.
Here’s an example of some typical municipal news copy:
“Freeport homeowners will see an eight percent jump in local property taxes next year if the budget is approved at tonight’s council meeting. That represents an increase of $320 on the average $125,000 home.”
The story of the future might also add the following:
- Expected tax increases for every piece of property in town. A clickable button will match the subscriber’s name with his or her property tax records.
- Graphs showing trends in expenditures, by category, for the past two or ten years.
- Stories on other communities’ budgets and trends.
- Community-to-community comparisons of spending for various items such as fire, police, and road maintenance.
- Some statewide, countywide or national trends. For instance, property taxes tended to jump in the 1980s as federal aid to states and municipalities was either cut back or held to increases that didn’t keep pace with inflation.
- Historical quotes about reasons for tax increases, so readers can put political doings into context.
- Standard material quoting relevant municipal or state tax laws.
This material would only be in the news slate on days a tax story ran. But the news organization would probably make it available for download, for a small fee, from a central location anytime. Most of these ideas consist mainly in print journalism adapting and expanding to use the Web to enhance stories.
Video is a bit more difficult to adapt. Printed words are better than video for delivering vast amounts of background information and for jumping from place to place within the data heap. Most people can read two or three times more information than they can listen to in a given amount of time.
Some networks already have database links. For instance, CNN’s environmental unit offers supplementary information to viewers through America Online and the World Wide Web. And video clips are also being used by print news organizations online.
In the end, it is the routine story, done better using all resources available to the journalist, that does the most service for readers and listeners. And the routine story, done better, can provide a more secure base for finding the real Pulitzer-prize winning article.