Thought for the weekend

I posted this to the Poynter online-news list earlier today, in response to a debate over the value of online tools for managing and searching databases:

Large-scale data analysis will not be a component of journalism in the 21st century, as it was with the CAR speciality in the late 20th. It will be the *core* of journalism.

Journalism, if it is to survive as a relevant force in modern society, must move from being at largely literary endeavor to a becoming a form of social science. Reporting for story is no longer enough. The world now is simply too complex to address with cover with colorful vignettes. This is our Enlightenment. We must report with the scope and accuracy of a social scientist, using the data collection and analysis techniques that those fields have developed over the past decades.

Yes, we must write the results of this research in a manner that the general public can access and comprehend. Our need for good writing skills will not go away. But news organizations darn well better be hiring and training people who understand databases and the principles behind scientific research.

Late 20th century CAR skills are not enough. Today’s journalists must also be able to design online applications that collect and process data in real time, empowering crowd-sourced publications that can allow instantaneous reporting of breaking news events, as well as thoroughly-sourced investigative features.

Don’t make the mistake of seeing database and application development simply as “publishing” or “design” skills. They now are *core reporting* skills, and every bit as essential in a newsroom as the ability to look up court records or conduct a one-on-one interview.

To spur the debate, cast your vote on my comment below, then fire back in the comments, if you’d like:

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. one of my comments culled from the debate:

    Journalists should come to grips that working with databases and presenting that data in ways that help tell stories is very much a part of online journalism. In fact, it is probably the largest central component of quality online journalism currently. I can watch video on TV, I can read stories in print, but I can’t publish piles of raw data and make sense of it for my audience in either of those formats. Converged/multi media that is a patchwork quilt of platform agnostic content is not necessarily ground breaking online journalism. But what we can do with databases now that we a have a platform to open them up to audiences is nothing short of amazing. There can be no doubt that the most influential people in professional journalism today are the Adrian Holovatys of the world, or bloggers like Brian Stelter.

    disclosure: i might also note that although i am now a journalism professor, my degrees are in anthropology.

    The media job market is showing us this everyday. The people with skills in building rich applications with flash and actionscript or php/mysql or python or anything else are very much in demand. Writers are a dime a dozen, with a number of veteran scribes being laid off week after week and very poor prospects for freshly minted graduates who haven’t already broken in by self publishing their own blogs and building audience.

    They used to say that online was a new ‘wild west.’ Back in the old days on the real frontier, the pioneer press papers were composed, typeset and printed by one or a handful of people who knew content, advertising and technology together. In many ways, the pendulum is swinging that way again.