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Getting Started in Computer-Assisted Journalism

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Getting Started in Computer-Assisted Journalism

Article excerpt

Getting started in computer-assisted journalism

News organizations wanting to use computers as a reporting tool can spend thousands of dollars to get started. Or they can spend nothing--well, almost nothing.

The St. Petersburg Times recently decided to set up a workstation for those interested in computer-assisted journalism, spending thousands to get the equipment and software it wanted.

In contrast, when David Ashenfelter at the Detroit Free Press first started using a computer as a reporting tool, he used his own Kaypro II.

The rest spend somewhere in between.

It takes a personal computer to get started. It can be an IBM, IBM compatible or an Apple Macintosh. The computer can be a desktop or a portable (especially handy when government will not let the records leave an office).

The computer needs at least one disk drive. Hard drives hold more information than a floppy disk drive. The bigger the hard drive, the more information that can be stored and the faster it can be processed. (Bigger also is more expensive.)

The system also needs a floppy disk drive to get programs and data onto the hard drive. News organizations can make it easier on information sources by having access to drives that can read 5 1/4" and/or 3 1/2" floppy disks.

Next, there is the monitor. The bottom of the line is monochrome. A high-resolution graphics and color monitor makes screen displays more interesting.

A printer or access to a printer lets a journalist print out results.

A modem allows the personal computer to connect with a mainframe computer--something powerful enough to analyze almost all electronic records provided by a governmental unit. To make a modem useful requires a communications software program.

A nine-track tape reader, with a computer card and some software, lets a journalist mimic the power of a mainframe on a personal computer.

The two most popular software packages for journalists are Nine-Track Express, co-developed by a former journalist, and Tapeview, the only company that expressed interest in working with the National Institute for Advance Reporting.

However, all this equipment is powerless without instructions (software.) First, it needs a base language. For IBM or compatibles, MS-DOS is the operating system that sets up the computer to run other programs. Then, the computer needs something to work with words, numbers and records.

A word-processing program, such as XyWrite or Wordperfect, works with text; a spreadsheet, such as Excel or Lotus 1-2-3 takes care of the numbers and complex calculations, and a database program, such as dBase or Paradox, will sort, index and analyze records.

Sometimes, a news organization can do the first projects without buying any equipment. For instance, the business or marketing offices often already have equipment and software that a reporter could use once the offices are closed. Many use spreadsheets routinely; some use database programs that can work for newsroom projects.

The art department also might have equipment and software that will work. For instance, many artists use Excel on their Macintoshes in building bar graphs or pie charts. The same program will work for journalists who want to work with numbers from records.

The equipment, with the right software, also may work when acquiring records from small government units. …

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