Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Computer-Assisted Reporting near Complete Adoption

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Computer-Assisted Reporting near Complete Adoption

Article excerpt

Computers have been a part of mass communication in the United States almost since the first commercial computers were developed at the end of World War II.(1) Rare uses of the then-expensive-to-operate mainframe computers included polling and survey research for national elections in the early 1950s. But these uses were limited to large dailies, and television networks with the resources for such original, time-consuming and expertise-laden projects.(2) Computers have had a significant impact on American society in the past half-century, comparable to that of the telephone, radio and television. Computers, especially those linked by networks, have become the core of operations and management for contemporary government, business and industry. Recent national focus on the so-called "Y2K" or year 2000 programming problem indicated the high degree of dependency on computers at almost all levels of society in 1999. Computer systems have become the foundation for a wide range of mass communication, as well, including gathering and distributing information.(3) Computers have changed how citizens are informed about current events and what they know about their governments and themselves.(4)

Although there have been substantial technical advances in the past decade, little is known about computer use for newsgathering. This investigation evaluates the changing roles of, and growing dependence on, computers as newsgathering tools in newspaper newsrooms during a five-year period from 1994 to 1998. The analysis reviews computer use patterns, computer newsgathering skills of journalists, computer tools most commonly used for newsgathering, individual news story and project subjects that used computers in gathering or analyzing information. The study also explores advantages and disadvantages of the use of computers as reporting resources.

Originally, computers were used by mass communication industries for business purposes such as payroll, advertiser billings, inventory and general accounting. At magazines and newspapers, early applications included management of circulation data and subscriber lists.(5) While business uses were common at newspapers early in the evolution of the computer, newsroom applications were not. In the 1960s, mainframe computer use in newsrooms was expanded to include isolated analyses of public databases and public opinion surveys.(6) A few database-oriented projects produced from government data and copied onto nine-track tape appeared during this era, but these were extremely unusual.(7) Some of the first regular applications of computers in newsrooms occurred in the 1970s when the copyediting and typesetting stages of the production process became computerized. But these uses had no direct connection to newsgathering.(8)

Mainstream use of computers for newsgathering did not become commonplace until the early and mid 1980s. Smaller and less expensive personal computers became available at the same time that online resources began to expand. Proprietary online information services began to appear. Furthermore, computer-based information retrieval was determined to cost less than obtaining the information in person.(9) Thus, a revolution in newsgathering began gradually to occur. As these desktop computers simultaneously grew more powerful and less expensive and software became increasingly user-friendly, applications in newsgathering expanded.

The stage was set for the beginning of radical change in newsgathering in the early 1990s. Traditional in-person and library archive research began to give way to computer-based news reporting. Newsrooms were in the midst of this revolution in the late 1990s. Regardless of what computer newsgathering has been called--from "computer-assisted reporting" to "database journalism"--the process of irreversible change in newsgathering is underway,(10) Reporters and their editors are increasingly dependent on the Internet, commercial online resources and other networked computers for information gathering. …

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