WITHIN A DECADE, reporters seeking information at city hall or the local courthouse may no longer be able to pore over a written log or file drawer. Election-night returns will no longer come to the newspaper in sheaves of printouts. Names, records, statistics and salaries that are a routine part of the public record may be inaccessible or indecipherable.
A brutal crackdown on the First Amendment? No. The information will be there. Indeed, there is likely to be more of it than ever, but it will come in a form that now confounds the resources of many small and midsize dailies: computer databases.
The ability to process and analyze computerized data "will be in every reporter's job description" in the very near future, predicts Max Jennings, editor of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News and a former journalism professor at Arizona State University.
Jennings' newsroom already employs computer-assisted data analyses routinely -- not for just major projects -- and the Daily News is not alone.
* More than half the newspaper readers in the United States now get papers that are doing some sort of computer-assisted records analysis, according to a survey of 192 daily newspaper editors conducted this past summer and presented at the convention of the Association for Education and Mass Communications in Montreal.
The average circulation of the surveyed papers was 150,459. The median circulation was 79,000. Questionnaires were sent in March to 235 editors; 192 were returned, for a response rate of 82%.
* Three-fourths of those editors said that the ability to analyze records by computer will be "very important" in the coming decade; virtually all said it would be at least "somewhat important."
* One-third of the editors said that their papers had done 11 or more computer analyses in the past year, which suggests that many of them are doing analyses on a fairly regular basis and not just on long-term projects.
* More than 80% said they analyzed local and state government records; 62% said they also analyzed larger federal databases. Several said they created their own databases from hard-copy records.
* About 70% said that their newspapers were tied into data-retrieval networks such as Dialog or Nexis.
* Those editors who said that their papers were not doing computer-assisted record analyses most frequently blamed the lack of computer equipment and trained personnel. Some editors whose papers are not yet doing analyses said that they were getting the equipment and training the personnel to begin.
Most papers -- more than 90% in this survey -- already use computers for writing and editing. How does "computer-assisted" journalism go beyond that? It involves the technique of obtaining records in database form, usually quantitative rather than textual, and processing them in some way -- sorting, categorizing, or doing other analyses -- to reveal patterns not discernible in any other way. …