Digital Diffusion in Newsrooms: The Uneven Advance of Computer-Assisted Reporting

By Maier, Scott R. | Newspaper Research Journal, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Digital Diffusion in Newsrooms: The Uneven Advance of Computer-Assisted Reporting


Maier, Scott R., Newspaper Research Journal


A survey of CAR trainers found that half of reporters at respondent newspapers do not routinely use the Internet for research. Trainers estimate that 10 percent of reporters used computers for data analysis.

Ready or not, the news business has been propelled by technology into the new information age. The way news is gathered is changing as enterprising reporters turn to computers to conduct interviews, research information and analyze data. The way news is disseminated is also changing as practically every major newspaper and magazine goes on-line and the division between electronic and print media begins to fade.

But, despite impressive work by some technological pioneers, the news industry overall has been hesitant and, at times, resistant to new technology. From database analysis to electronic publishing, use of the computer in the newsroom is often relegated to the technological elite. Computer technology enables journalists to provide dispassionate analysis of complex social issues, but, sadly, the chasm between social science and news reporting remains wide. Clearly, the journalism profession needs better approaches to bring new technology to the newsroom.

The purpose of this research is to gain a clearer understanding of opportunities for and barriers to newsroom use of computers for gathering and analyzing information in the process of developing news stories and features. To achieve this objective, a national survey of leading newsroom trainers of computer-assisted reporting was conducted. This inquiry offers a frontline perspective of what works and doesn't work in promoting computer-assisted reporting (a term frequently referred to by its acronym CAR). While other surveys provide a benchmark on how the newspaper industry as a whole has adopted computer-assisted reporting, this inquiry gives insight into how these technological skills and practices are (or are not) developed within newsrooms. The focus of this research is on computer use by traditional print journalists, but the findings may be instructive for managers and trainers seeking to broaden staff involvement with on-line newspapers and other emerging electronic media. This survey of leading CAR trainers, though not representative of all newspapers, helps establish a research agenda for a critical, yet largely unexplored, area of mass communications.

Background and research questions

The power of computers as a reporting tool is well established. Numerous articles in trade and academic journals extol the use of computers as a means to uncover, organize and analyze information that can be used to develop substantive news stories. In nearly every year since 1986, reporters have won Pulitzer Prizes for stories based on computer-assisted reporting. But only in recent years, as the new technology became easier and more versatile, have computers become a tool for everyday newsgathering. Brant Houston, managing director for the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, noted:

   Computer-assisted reporting ... is not a sidebar to mainstream journalism.
   The tools of computer-assisted reporting won't replace a good journalist's
   imagination, ability to conduct revealing interviews or talent to develop
   sources. But a journalist who knows how to use computers in day-to-day and
   tong-term work will gather and analyze information more quickly, provide
   more context, and develop and deliver a deeper understanding of the story's
   subject.

Researchers have documented CAR's widespread diffusion. In a 1995 national survey of daily newspapers, Bruce Garrison found that more than 70 percent of U.S. newsrooms were using computers as a reporting tool. Two years later, Garrison's annual survey documented that 95 percent of large newspapers were engaged in computer-assisted reporting and smaller newspapers were scrambling to catch up with the CAR-driven big dailies. Reporters have been going on-line to gather the news at even a more rapid rate.

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