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Dean's Digital World
Sources 51

Wither CARR?

By Dean Tudor

Dean Tudor

Lotsa questions these days, with all kinds of business failures and lack of proper corporate governance, regulation vs. deregulation of everything under (and over) the sun...

But instead of asking "whither" I think the question should be "wither"...

But then, it wouldn't be a question -- unless you pardon a pun...

So wither CARR?

"Take me for a ride in your car-carr, take me for a ride in your car-carr..." ---- Woody Guthrie, pre-Internet top investigative troubadour. But the car may be rolling onto the shoulder....

Computer-Assisted Reporting, Computer-Assisted Research, Computer-Assisted Reporting and Research, Computer- Assisted Journalism, CAR, CARR....all mean different things to different people. Let's just call it all CARR.

CARR means using/creating CD-ROMs and DVDs. CARR means gathering stuff off commercial databases and networks (Nexis, Internet).

CARR means using computers for delivering information in alternative formats such as e-zines, web-authoring or online newspapers.

CARR means multimedia.

CARR means using digital libraries.

CARR means New Media.

CARR means convergence. CARR means using free-text database managers (askSam, Folio) to control and contain found information.

CARR means spreadsheet manipulation of data (Lotus, QuattroPro, Excel).

CARR means using flatfile/relational database manager programs such as Paradox, FoxPro, Visual dBASE, Access, even PC-File.

CARR means using statistical packages such as SPSS and SAS to wade through government data and number-crunching.

CARR means using GIS mapping programs such as MapInfo or AtlasGIS.

But, in every case, CARR is "computer-ASSISTED reporting". It is not an end in itself. Stories must still be written: the computer file is just another "source" of data.

Any reporter can use the Internet to gather or fish for story ideas, use a spreadsheet to analyze a budget or campaign contributions, or create a database of criminal actions to analyze crime patterns. As many reporters have suggested, the question really is how hard or difficult it may be to gather information, whether it is in paper form, electronic media, or not available at all.

Jennifer LeFleur said it best: "Start with the story, not the data."

<www.ryerson.ca/~dtudor/classcar.htm> has a "Bibliography of Classic CARR" Stories (no links) and <www.ryerson.ca/~dtudor/cartexts.bib> has a "Bibliography of CARR Stories (1989+)" found on Nexis (no links). Try also <saturn.vcu.edu/~jcsouth/library/analysis/writing.html> for ideas on "Turning Data into Prose (by J.C.South).

The problem here is that the glitter and glam of the Internet has taken away much of the early thrust of CARR, the stories based on spreadsheet analysis of toxins, neighbourhoods, racial profiling, traffic accidents, budgets, election fundraising, education expenses, etc. Many media managers became convinced that doing the Internet thing was good enough to count as CARR. Simply doing an interview by email counted as a "computer-assisted story" because, well, it was assisted by the computer. Makes sense -- to a computer-illiterate manager.

With the development of websites, the whole Internet experience fell into a CARR black hole, and usurped the original meaning of CARR. A lot of heavy guns (i.e., journalists) in CARR moved over to website development and teaching online journalism... which created a whole slew of journalism students who were anxious about "new media" and the knowledge industry. If anyone is ever attracted to glam, it is youth. And they moved over to development of contextual material on media websites. The spreadsheet and database got bypassed. Several students I taught later admitted that they were scared shitless by the idea of actually creating a spreadsheet (that ol' math bugaboo in journalism again!), and gratefully took any Internet option assignment that they could.

The American experience has been that online journalism education has increased the intake into computer-assisted journalism courses, but only for the Internet-website side. Options became the norm, and fewer students were exposed to spreadsheets. Course outlines were widened in scope, to embrace "new technology". Yet any one can use an elementary DOS-based spreadsheet to come up with a CARR story -- even a freeware version of PC-Calc! Here are some discussion groups which could help:

<peach.ease.lsot.com/archives/access-l.html> ACCESS-L

<listserv@listserv.louisville.edu> CARR-L list for computer-assisted reporting and research

<www.peach.ease.lsoft.com/archives/excel-g.html> EXCEL-G list for everyday Excel questions

<www.peach.ease.lsoft.com/archives/excel-l.html> EXCEL-L list for sophisticates

<www.ire.org/membership/subscribe/nicar-l.html> NICAR-L list for the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting

<peach.ease.lsot.com/archives/vbdata-l.html> VBDATA-L list for Visual Basic data access

<peach.ease.lsot.com/archives/visbas-beginers.html> VISBAS-BEGINNERS

<peach.ease.lsot.com/archives/visbas-l.html> VISBAS-L

And for basic help in setting up CARR stories, try:

<www.quadrant.net/bdoskoch> Data-Crunching 101 for Journalists (by Bill Doskoch)

<www.j-walk.com/ss/> The Spreadsheet Page

<saturn.vcu.edu/~jcsouth/library/analysis/datatips.html> Number Crunching:
a tipsheet (by J.C.South)

A lot of this is reflected in the links on my website The CAR-CARR Page <www.ryerson.ca/~dtudor/mega11.htm>. I cleaned it up over the Summer of 2002 (I had merely added to it for about two years), and discovered huge chunks of links no longer worked. I did Google searches for new links and ideas, but that did not pan out. I turfed a whole series of syllabi because the courses were no longer being taught. NICAR has apparently stopped putting relevant CAR documentation on the web <www.nicar.org>.RICARC at Ryerson has apparently passed on. Governments have shut down their sources of data, and raw computer files. Freedom of Information requests in the USA and Canada no longer seem to be made for computer data. Cancar-l, my Canadian CARR listserv group, closed its doors. But lately, David Akin, now with Bell Globemedia, has resurrected a small Canadian CARR discussion group as a Yahoo group. Some of the top CARR spreadsheet investigative reporters are on it, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand -- excluding the middle digit and the thumb... Check it out at <cancar-subscribe@yahoogroups.com> or <www.caj.ca/car>

So where does CARR go from here? We need to have more spreadsheet analysis returned to the online journalism courses. Knowledge of spreadsheets should be made mandatory, in the same manner as spelling, grammar, and getting the facts right -- at least for those students in the "new media" streams. Associations and individuals need to hammer the governments for release of computer data. But of course, security and privacy issues have been highlighted since 9/11. Unless more journalists are attracted to computer-assisted journalism (former definition), CARR will shrivel and wither...Don't get me going on this...

wither convergence?

As a business strategy, "convergence" seems to have been defended by the advertising community -- but nobody else. Advertising firms and media are co-operating in developing ad content and distribution strategy across different media platforms. Expansion came too fast in the various firms, as all began designing and redesigning websites to cash in on the Internet experience. And then buying each other, in order to economize. Every acquisition or merger resulted in layoffs and cutbacks -- with no major improvement in services. Blunders appeared, quick profits were lost, and the whole convergence arena became somewhat like the Roman Circus games. CanWest Global keeps selling some media assets, Quebecor keeps cutting costs, BCE keeps refocusing its strategy. Three different approaches.

George Russell, editor of Time Canada, said in September 2002 that recent experience has proven "content drives convergence" and not the other way around. The key to success appears to be *how* to deliver a highly targeted audience to advertisers. BCE, with its Bell Globemedia, seems to be on the right track, with its expressed need for data research and tauter focus. But it is the only one of the three Canadian biggies doing this...Do I see a CARR spreadsheet in BCE's future?

It has been acknowledged by just about everyone that the basic content Russell alludes to is "online news" and "entertainment (music, games)". Get a handle on these with a targeted audience, and you'll probably have a functioning convergence model...

One strategy for online news is to sell the complete digital newspaper edition, which appears on your CRT same as it does in print -- complete with ads (yea!) and even the classifieds -- before 7 AM each day, no matter where you are. This is an apparent boon for those who usually wait 12 hours or days for their paper, the ones in deepest Arctic or Africa or Asia. Subscriptions and papers are starting slowly, with the New York Times being the first (at 65 US cents a day), followed by the Globe and Mail, plus 30 more scattered around the world. Most of these digital replicas come from the Austin, Texas-based NewsStand Inc. <newsstand.com>, which has a principal stakeholder in the New York Times. You do need broadband width, but that is almost a given these days for the researcher, business person, or music fan. The really serious user of the Internet gets broadband -- and his telephone back. Who knows, maybe cable companies will bundle whole newspapers to subscribers at a cheaper per issue cost. This will give new meaning to the phrase "bundle of papers". But unless a tighter focus is applied, convergence will just wither and shrivel by losing employees...Don't get me going on this.

wither the web?

Dot coms are now dot bombs. They started out with the philosophy of software, hardware, and the killer applications of the Internet being espoused as where the new technology should be, and thence everybody who invested would be exceedingly rich. Profits were always just around the corner -- but the corner that was turned had opened onto Wall Street. Yikes!! The investment market tanked, jobs collapsed (especially in the media dot coms), and it was sheer hell. You can now divide the Internet world into BWS and AWS -- Before Wall Street and After Wall Street.

In comfort, I turned to Clifford Stoll, the hippie who cracked a KGB hacker attempt at Berkeley (written by Stoll in "The Cuckoo's Egg"). He wrote another book, about second thoughts on the information highway, entitled "Silcon Snake Oil" -- in 1995!! Just as Mosaic (pre-Netscape) was getting underway. It was originally pooh-poohed as being too opinionated and too negative about the Internet. Yet he was essentially right. The Washington Post, in a review of his book, said "Snake Oil is a manifiesto. It comes at a propitious time; the on-line world has been hyped beyond recognition. Few people have more impressive credentials to trash the Internet than Stoll". Just look at his index under "Internet", and you'll find entries for "avoiding creeps on the" "bandwidth crunch on the", "deceptive free cost of", "disorganization of", "false promises of", "false reality of", "faulty information on" (see next Sources, Summer 2003), "glamour of", "hostility on", "meaningless information on", etc. His book is worth a second reading.

Some of the current issues to grapple with include computer security, privacy, hackers, spams, and viruses -- all of which can make life hell on the information backroads.

But what new things can we expect? Since the web is a "mature" creature, it would be easy to call for faster access, cheaper prices, more adverts and different styles (e.g., popups), more software to deal with organizational things to keep it all tidy and retrievable, more audio, more video, more movement, more "instant messaging". And more spam. In other words, more of the same, more of what we already have: just faster and bigger.

But what of audiences? More young people are glued to the CRT than ever before. If not TV/DVD/Cable/Satellite, then the Internet. They stay home, getting fat by eating irregularly and lack of exercise. The cynicism of what they absorb comes out in the classroom the next day: smirking drives teachers nuts. So we end up with an unhealthy teaching environment, as well as the other considerations. The Internet, founded as a way for scientists and other academics to communicate with one another, has instead become a hotbed of junk science and other nonsense, not to mention scams and porn.

"It has become the medium of choice for hoaxsters and hucksters. By offering unprecedented access to an astounding array of information, truthful and otherwise, it has apparently gulled too many people into ignoring the absolute necessity for verifying and checking that information.", said Steve Lawrence, former editor of Forbes and Financial Times of Canada.

The Internet needs to attract different audiences and to keep them by being objective. Unless we replace the current cynicism with healthy skepticism, the Internet may just wither and shrivel....Don't get me started on this.


wither online journalism education?

It seems to come and go. The major problem is the nature of curricular change at universities. There is a well- known saying at colleges, which states that making curriculum changes at academia is like committing suicide by standing in front of a glacier. We need to replace the glacier with an avalanche. The bottom fell out of the online journalism education market when the media dot coms began tanking. The crush for learning about online journalism was displaced by the original crush that motivates all students: getting that first journalism job. There have always been courses dealing with information gathering, verifying, confirming, and the like. These moved over to how to use the Internet for these same processes, and web site development.

Occasionally, an enlightened journalism school would throw in a CARR course involving spreadsheets and databases. Then there were courses entitled "New Media". Streams were proposed, but these would take years to implement. A student in year two would declare, start taking courses in year three, and specialize in an online masthead in year four. All potential students in high schools had to have lead time. I can tell you, having been involved, that it is an onerous and time-consuming process.

The current swing again appears to be tagged to research funding. Two new chairs were created at Ryerson, funded by Rogers for the School of Journalism and by Bell Globemedia for the School of Radio and Television Arts. Research money will begin to flow, and courses will be taught, by Ph.Ds, in the areas of, for the School of Journalism, "strategies for adapting to and managing technological change within the Canadian news media. Other research areas in this context might include ownership of and access to intellectual property; censorship and the control of information; privacy and related legal issues affected by the new technologies and the transforming influence of technology and media convergence on newspaper operation, international reportage and journalistic investigation." It all looks do-able, at least on paper. The Journalism school research themes will address the relationship of journalism and news gathering to new and evolving communication and information technologies and the new economic models emerging from them.

The School of Radio and Television Arts will be concentrating on research in communication technologies common to broadcasting, new media production and broadband and wireless delivery systems, with a view to the marketplace.

And that's what drives it all: the marketplace. Otherwise, online journalism education will just wither and shrivel....Don't get me started on this.

Dean Tudor
Wine Writers' Circle of Canada, Professor Emeritus of Journalism, Ryerson University.
Look it up--you'll remember it longer; screw it up--you'll remember it forever
Wines, Beers and Spirits Site: <http://www.ryerson.ca/~dtudor/www.htm>
MegaSources Site: <http://www.ryerson.ca/~dtudor/megasources.htm>

 



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