NICAR 2012: Words and Nerds

Briefly, some recaps from my week at the 2012 National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference, held in late February in St. Louis:

The basics: 2012 marked my 10th NICAR conference, an annual gathering of journalists who work with data and, increasingly, with code to find and tell stories. It’s sponsored by Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit devoted to improving investigative journalism. Panels ranged from data transparency to regular expressions.

Catch up: Best way to review what you learned (or find out what you missed) is by reading Chrys Wu’s excellent collection of presentation links and via IRE’s conference blog.

Busy times: Our USA TODAY data journalism team served on a half-dozen panels and demos. With Ron Nixon of The New York Times and Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times, I led “Making Sure You Tell a Story,” a reminder to elevate our reporting, graphics and news apps. (Here are the slides from me and Ben.) I also joined Christopher Groskopf for a demo of his super-utility csvkit, which I’ve written about. And, finally, I spoke about USA TODAY’s public APIs and how building them helps newsrooms push content anywhere.

Award!: Our team was excited to pick up the second-place prize in the 2011 Philip Meyer Awards for the Testing the System series by Jack Gillum, Jodi Upton, Marisol Bello and Greg Toppo. Truly an honor.

Surprise Award!: At the Friday evening reception, I received an IRE Service Award for my work contributing 2010 Census data to IRE for sharing data with members on deadline and eventually for use in IRE’s census.ire.org site. Colleague and master of all things Census Paul Overberg also was honored, along with the NYT’s Aron Pilhofer, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer and others. Out of the blue and humbling.

On the Radar: I ran into O’Reilly Radar’s Alex Howard at the conference — the side conversations are always a bonus of these things — and he later emailed me some questions about data journalism. My responses ended up in two pieces he wrote: “In the age of big data, data journalism has profound importance for society” and “Profile of the data journalist: the storyteller and the teacher.”
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And In Local News … Editor’s Acquitted

So, you’re the 67-year-old editor of a small-town newspaper who also happens to do the books for a local businessman.

The local businessman’s not just your boss. He’s also the owner/landlord of your newspaper’s office, your residence, your son’s residence and your daughter’s business. You live in one of those in-grown places that dot America, a place where everyone whispers everyone’s business.

One day, you’re arrested. The charge: embezzling $9,000 from this businessman-boss-landlord.

The arrest happens in the middle of the day. Somehow, the local police chief decides to give you a perp walk in handcuffs down a main street of your little town, where everyone knows you and you know everyone. And, somehow, a freelance photographer just happens to be there, takes photos of you perp-walking, and sells them to a rival weekly newspaper, which of course publishes them.

You, the newspaper editor, say it’s all a mistake. Of course she didn’t steal anything … it was an accident!

The town’s in an uproar. Scandal! And on top of it a perp walk right in town for a 67-year-old lady!
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A Price That Minimizes Risk

Do pricing trends in music and books have any resonance for news and, in particular, investigative journalists?

When Amazon.com recently made a new album by Explosions in the Sky available for $2.99 for 24 hours, it caught my attention.

Until then, I hadn’t bought any of the band’s albums. I’d been mildly interested in EitS since it played an episode of Austin City Limits, but given my limited music-purchase budget, I hadn’t prioritized one of its albums over buying new releases by my favorite artists.

But $2.99 made it too easy. I clicked “buy.”

Later, I thought about the psychology of the buy. Why did $2.99 win me when $4.99 or $5.99 might not have? As I type, the price is back up to $7.99 for a download. Had I stumbled on that title today at that price, I would have passed.

But $2.99 hooked me. Why?
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Lessons From a Census Factory

After two months of processing Census data and writing about it here, I’m ready for a nice break. But before I go off to explore other topics, I thought I’d wrap this episode of Census 2010 with a look at how my teammates and I processed the data. My deepest thanks to my colleagues for doing such a great job. And many thanks to the journalists across the U.S. who offered encouragement as we shared our work with the journalism community.

*   *   *   *

On a Thursday afternoon in the first week of February, three of us from our newsroom’s database team gathered at my computer and tried our best to subdue the butterflies swarming in our stomachs. What we were about to do, we hoped, would not only help us cover the year’s biggest demographic story but also help journalists across the country do the same.

That’s because weeks earlier, somewhere in the midst of poring through Census technical manuals and writing a few thousand lines of SAS code, we’d had a bright idea:

Let’s share this.

Really?
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Free Software and APIs: NICAR 2011 slides

I had the privilege this week of speaking on two panels at the 2011 Investigative Reporters and Editors Computer-Assisted Reporting* conference in Raleigh, N.C. Here are the slides my co-presenters and I put together:

— “Free Software: From Spreadsheets to GIS” with Jacob Fenton of the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Here is part 1, and here’s part 2.

“APIs: Making the Web a Data Medium” with Derek Willis of The New York Times.

* Those of us with a few miles on the tires remember that the conference used to go by the name NICAR — for National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. People still call it that.