What Skills Does the Journalist Require to Take Advantage of New Technology?

By Fulton, Katherine; Johnson, J. T. et al. | Nieman Reports, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

What Skills Does the Journalist Require to Take Advantage of New Technology?


Fulton, Katherine, Johnson, J. T., Markoff, John, Nieman Reports


Katherine Fulton

This panel is called a panel on training in the broadest sense. What does it take to be a journalist in the world that is being created? Tom Johnson is both a working reporter as well as somebody who has taught journalism and thought a lot about it, and a really sophisticated user of the technology. Tom is also involved in starting something called The Institute for Analytic Journalism that's looking for an academic home now. The idea is to train mid-career journalists in analytical skills using computer technology in ways that very few of us yet do know how to use it. You all may have read about the technology and heard this new thing everybody is talking about intelligence agents who are going to roam out through the oceans of data and find what you need and bring it back to you. On my computer when I get one of these there is going to be one that says "Markoff," because I'm going to want everything that John Markoff writes and I don't care whether it's in The New York Times or anywhere else.

J.T. Johnson

One hundred years ago [the coding of card to store information was developed] for the 1890 U.S. census. Though the storage medium was not electronic, the card-punch technology of hole and no hole is the fundamental binary system. By developing a coded sequence of those holes and no holes or ones and zeros, the storage capacity is infinite. And so it is that data and tools of analysis, and the resulting information flowing from that process, is grounded in binary code.

That binary information world has spawned a revolution that I believe will be every bit as influential as the revolution that gave us symbols of ink on paper. But here's a special challenge we all face; when it is stored, the data we need to analyze - analyze for security, analyze for economic gain, improved health or for mere pleasure - when it is stored in its native form, the data looks like nothing but ones and zeros.

Now the most traditionally literate person in the world hasn't a clue what these ones and zeros mean. Equally significant is that the world's best programmer could not take this slice of data and tell you whether it's used to create a lower case z on a computer screen, or to determine the color of an individual pixel on a computer, or to say that it's part of someone's EKG drawn on a computer screen. All of our traditional skills, skills correlated with literacy in the artistic or journalistic sense, are useless when living under this new data storage retrieval analysis environment. Those skills of literacy are useless unless we know how to use the tools of the new literacy to extract meaning from the data that pumps through the veins of the contemporary world. Our eyes, ears and brain alone, even if coupled with traditional literacy, simply do not increase our ability to identify, analyze and communicate that data, that analysis. In fact, we are struck dumb in its presence.

What's the major impact of all of this? Well, first is that time and geography are not simply transcended, they cease to have any influence at all. We do not need to go physically to the data to get it. For a journalist, that can mean no more trips to the cop shop to pick up the arrest reports, no more trips to the press office of [the Supreme Court] to get rulings and decisions, no more nagging ignorance about the underlying numbers used to prepare the city or the county budget.

Secondly, it means economies of scale in terms of capital investment for the practice of journalism are either lost, or in the case of print journalism, they work against us. I can reach a larger audience with my data information faster using a $500 computer and a phone line than any traditional publisher can ever hope to, no matter how much he or she spends on a new printing operation. And as John Markoff indicated in his Sunday story 10 days ago, we're just that far from doing the same thing with television, only we'll have to put another zero on that desktop investment, make it $5,000, not $500. …

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What Skills Does the Journalist Require to Take Advantage of New Technology?
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