TechRaking conference seeds journalism community with ideas from tech

Thursday’s “TechRaking” conference, sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Google, was not an experiment in transporting journalists into the world of ideas before reality smacked them back to the realm of the possible. No, it aimed to bring journalists and tech types together and see if they couldn’t find some way forward for investigative journalism, which many people claim to love and fewer and fewer news organizations can afford to fund.

Matt Stiles, a data reporter who works on NPR’s StateImpact project, told me over the phone that the conference gave him some ideas for news apps that can “help reporters and the public understand politics better.” For instance, he floated the idea of a Google Analytics-type site with customizable widgets that would let news consumers arrange data about campaigns — ad buys, coverage, social media. Perhaps reporters could use a more sophisticated version to find stories in all that data.

Stiles explained that “there’s this tension in the data journalism community: Does the data come first or does story come first?” In other words, do you pitch a story and look for supporting data, “or do you look at the data first and find the story in the data? It seemed to me I’ve always leaned toward the first,” Stiles said. “It is a nice tension.”

Lyra McKee, whose Muckraker blog focuses on journalism tools (she’s not averse to using a phone to report once in a while, though), barged her way into the invitation-only conference by announcing to the organizers that she’d bought a plane ticket to Northern California from Belfast. She ended up on a panel, talking about partnering with “hackerspaces” to create new “tools that would help me with newsgathering,” she said when reached by phone.

Suzanne Yada, who works at CIR and “tangentially” helped organize the conference, said they tried to invite “tech people who are outside the journalism industry but are interested” in its challenges. The presence of people who work for “data-driven companies,” Stiles said, allowed attendees like him to “get outside our little world of news nerds and talk to the real nerds.”

Yada came away impressed by the differences between the two cultures, particularly the “fail-fast” ethos of engineers. “The idea of a journalist who fails is scary, because the word ‘fail’ also means you have to issue a correction,” she said. “Journalists don’t like getting things wrong, and engineers do.”

Engineers, she said, think that “if something is perfect, that something is wrong. It’s almost like if you hand in a story and you don’t see any red marks on the paper, you wonder if the editor actually read it.”

She enjoyed comparing tools like pen and paper to technological solutions and wondered whether sales tools, like Salesforce or SugarCRM, could help reporters massing on a story stay organized and keep track of contacts. (McKee also told me she’d come away from the conference thinking about how project management tools might benefit journalism.)

“We did not want this to be a one-day event,” Yada said. “We wanted this to be a connection engine.”

Related: Google’s Richard Gingras: 8 questions that will help define the future of journalism

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