NICAR 2018 attracts more than a thousand data journalists in Chicago

Data journalists of all ages gather together between conferences to discuss new ideas on March 11, 2018. Photo by Samata Joshi / BU News Service.

By Samata Joshi
BU News Service

CHICAGO — The coffee situation was getting out of hand at the downtown Marriott by Saturday morning. A few minutes before 9 a.m., wearied journalists were spotted grumbling in the hallways.

“I did think about grabbing a beer instead at the bar, don’t think I didn’t,” exclaimed one to another in the elevator. “A conference for journalists without an unlimited supply of coffee. Unthinkable,” another responded.

MaryJo Webster welcomed her students and began the session in the same beat.

“We’re going to learn some Excel Magic,” she announced. Suddenly everybody was sitting upright and looking alert, the coffee situation completely forgotten.

“If you think something you’re doing seems harder than it should be, you’re probably right,” Webster said. This is one of her top 10 data journalism rules.

Last week, over a thousand journalists gathered at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile to attend the Computer-Assisted Reporting (CAR) conference last week organized by the Investigative Reporters & Editors, Inc. (IRE) and the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR), the CAR conference is now in its 24th year.

Devoted to data journalism since 1995, NICAR is a traveling conference where journalists from all over the U.S. and world come together to learn, train and network with fellow data and investigative journalists.

The room where Webster is teaching Excel Magic isn’t designed for a workshop. The tables are spread out wide. At least five laptops sit on each one, put together by jumbled wires beneath them. Webster cranes her head to see students sitting in the corner, hoping they’re keeping up with her fast-paced class.

The data in the Excel sheets are being cleaned, filtered, sorted and merged with formulas. The class stops every few minutes when someone misses a step and Meredith Broussard, an NYU data journalism professor helping Webster with the class, quips.

“You cannot afford to make mistakes in data journalism,” Broussard said. “Pay attention and you’ll get there.”

There are some silent “oohs” and “aahs” in the air each time a formula works and the result is twinkling in front of the students’ eager eyes. After a four-hour tryst with numbers, they applaud in awe of the magic Webster was able to help them create.

Webster, a data journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is a veteran at the NICAR conference. Having been to 19 of them since 1997, Webster’s seen the conference grow into a big family who depends on each other, she said.

“Even in ’99, when I joined, we were very much on an island on our own,” Webster said. “We weren’t getting a ton of help from our employers because they didn’t know what we were doing, it was so new to them. We didn’t have other training opportunities and we didn’t have the internet to fall back on. Like, you couldn’t google how to use SQL, you know? It didn’t exist.”

Webster said this conference was a hub of intelligence and sharing knowledge within the field.

“The conference was that one place we got together and person A who’d learned something new would teach it to person B and so on,” Webster said. “Everyone had something to share. This was the culture with which NICAR was built: YES, I will help you. We’ll sit at the bar and I’ll show you how to set up that Python script. It’s craziness.”

This spirit of community Webster talks about runs potent in the conference. Spread over four days, sessions began in the early morning and ended by early evening, leaving the night for all the bar talk and learning Webster mentioned.

Glen Brylski, a bartender at the Marriott, is pleased with the crowd.

“These people are more casual, polite, excited about work, ordering alcohol until the wee hours of the morning,” Brylski said. “It’s like watching a college reunion.”

Every few steps, someone with a Python, SQL or R button is animatedly troubleshooting a problem or discussing ideas with a fellow journalist or student. Webster said that compared to other conferences for journalists, like the Online News Association (ONA) or South by Southwest, which are far more competitive, NICAR has carved its own identity with its collaborative culture.

“I almost think of this place as my Mecca,” Webster said. “I get to hang with my people, my tribe, who get me!”

Like Webster, many other senior journalists said working as a data journalist used to be a very isolating experience because of the small number of data reporters in newsrooms in the 90s.

The conference happens every year in a new location every but the experience is always the same, said Doug Haddix, executive director of IRE.

“Next year we’re taking NICAR to Newport Beach, California,” Haddix said. “The idea is to make sure journalists from all over have the chance to attend the conference and learn.”

In the past, NICAR had 300 to 500 attendees each year, but after the 2014 conference in Baltimore, the number of attendees rose to more than 900 annually.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Haddix said.

With time, NICAR has also become more diverse in terms of age, gender, race and ethnicity. Out of the 340 speakers this year, more than half of them were women.

“I remember, 10-15 years ago, a group called ‘Women of CAR’ got together to have a dinner one night at the conference to share their experiences and they could all fit at a large table in a restaurant,” Haddix said. “Look at the number now. It’s a remarkable change.”

The entire conference is organized with tools to help people maximize their participation, such as a webpage made by Justin Myers with a filter table listing all the restaurants and bars near the hotel. It includes details of how far each is, how much it would cost them and a map for directions.

After every session, journalists have the opportunity to collect digital tip sheets and notes from trainers.

“Ten years ago, all of this was on paper, which we would never go back to but now, it’s so much more convenient, especially if you couldn’t come to the conference!” said Maggie Mulvihill, a data journalism professor at Boston University.

NICAR 2018 boasted advanced coding language training sessions based on demand from the community that communicates constantly over an email listserv.

“We added a lot of R workshops this year,” said Cody Winchester, a trainer at IRE. “Which is a significant shift in how journalists are using programming languages in the newsroom,”

With more and more students and young journalists joining the NICAR’s community, the conference this year was also designed to benefit journalists with varying levels of expertise.

“It was a challenge but I think we managed it well,” Winchester said.

For first-timer Alena Maschke, a watchdog reporter at the Desert Sun, this was an opportunity to take back a wealth of resources and information to her newsroom she said desperately needs it.

“I am yet to experience this community in its glory because I recently joined but I can feel it in the sessions,” Maschke said. “I will definitely return next year to learn something new.”

Some left the conference feeling energized about what they’d learned and inspired by peers. Steven Rich, a database editor at The Washington Post tweeted his way back to D.C.

While some worried too many data journalists were still very unhappy with their newsrooms, Todd Wallack, of The Boston Globe, was moved by the number of young journalists looking for data journalism jobs and tweeted some real-life advice:

Tom Meagher’s, deputy managing editor at The Marshall Project, closed the conference by reverberating the values NICAR as a platform hopes to foster — collaboration, guidance, and hope.

“If you need advice or a sounding board or a job reference or someone to vent to about your clueless editor or publisher, holler,” he said. “I’m here and I’ll help however I can. … Just don’t give up or leave journalism. This is too important. We all need you, and we’re here for you. You’re doing God’s work, whether your bosses appreciate it or not. Keep going. … Onward.”

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