It’s all very simple for me to sit in front of my computer and proclaim myself a data journalist, or a programmer-journalist for that matter. I’ve spent a lot of time discovering my love for creating data-driven applications. But for many CAR reporters, the role of Web developer has chosen them as the field has developed. Assistant Metro Editor Mark Schaver, formerly computer-assisted reporting director, of the Louisville Courier-Journal, has seen his role shift from investigative reporter to Web developer, in his role as a CAR specialist. At the same time, he’s been asked to take on more traditional Metro editing duties, a role he said he’s coming to enjoy more and more. It’s a very real story of what’s happening with data journalism, outside of the idyllic academic bubble I’ve spent so much of my time in. Because while it may not always be all about data, it is always all about journalism.
This profile of Schaver is a part of my continuing series I’m calling “Data Delvers,” where I pass on summaries, quotes and audio clips from conversations with journalists using technology to find, analyze and convey data-driven stories and/or projects to the modern audience.
Entering CAR for investigative work
Mark Schaver first discovered his love of investigative reporting as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. He took a business reporting course with Phil Meyer. Soon after, Schaver worked as a reporter for the Louisville Courier, in the Paducah bureau, and later moving to Louisville. Throughout his reporting, he observed that databases were a way to enhance investigative reporting, and advance his career.
Technology wasn’t the primary reason he got into CAR — for him, it was all about the investigations. “I originally got into CAR because I was interested in investigative reporting, and that was an obvious way to make yourself stand out,” he said. “And I did have an interest in computers.”
Shifting nature of CAR
But in recent years, Schaver, who used to direct CAR at the Courier, said his role has changed significantly. “I’m filling in for the night editor who’s been on vacation and on furlough the last couple weeks, so I’ve been working every night, so I’m not doing much CAR stuff at all,” Schaver said.
It’s still a far cry from the investigative work he loves to do, because he’s being pulled in many different directions. He attributes some of that to a shifting of the CAR specialization. “It had totally evolved from a reporting, journalistic emphasis to a Web development, data munging for the Web kind of thing, ” said Schaver. “Parts of that I like, I’ve learned a lot about Web programming, but I don’t really want to be a Web developer.”
Data on the Web requires organizational support
He supports data-driven applications, but said your organization really needs to be behind it to do it well: “If your organization is committed to that sort of thing, I think it could be more interesting, but not necessarily when you’re a lone wolf trying to do a hundred different things, and you have no time to really develop things.”
He suggested that it might be easier if large newspaper chains arranged a central data team that could work on these projects for multiple papers, but that it becomes difficult when one reporter is the data expert trying to do CAR, frameworks, investigations, etc.
Using Caspio, a quick-hit data posting solution
Time is limited, and he said that’s part of what drives him to quick solutions to posting data. Caspio is one of the most common quick hit solutiiosn used in the journalism world. Schaver said he understands where others are coming from who believe we can do better (see Derek Willis’ posts here for some quick bullet points, or here for a longer explanation, to learn more about this viewpoint).
But for Schaver, he does what he has to do. “I don’t want to do it, I can do something better, but it’s like, I could turn it into an application if I had a couple days, but I don’t have a couple days. I got an hour, and I’m going to throw it into Caspio, and get it off my plate, because it’s just not worth more time than that, so Caspio fills that need.”
It’s not all about data
Schaver thinks data is an important component to journalism, but it isn’t all encompassing. “I’ve been thinking that most stories don’t have something that data will bring anything to in any reasonable time frame, data doesn’t even enter into the journalism,” he said.
But if you want to go into that world, Schaver recommends it as a good option. Yet, he’s careful to offer the caveat that it’s just one option, or journalistic subset, and it’s not the entirety of the future of the industry.
“There will also be people who are able to tell stories through video and audio and with multimedia and with databases, and that will be a piece of it. But the database part of it is just a very small aspect. It’s a significant one, and it’s new, and it’s interesting, and there will be a lot of cool things done, and if that’s your passion, you should do it, but I just don’t think it’s the main thing that’s really going on out there,” he said.
An adapted transcript of Schaver’s reflections on his work, and the role of data journalism, continues below.
Your role at the paper has changed recently. What is your day-to-day work now?
For much of the last decade, computer-assisted reporting director was my title, and I dealt with computer-assisted reporting. Sixteen months ago, because of all the downsizing, they ran out of editors and said, “Well, we wonder if you could fill in and be the Sunday night Metro editor temporarily.” And then it became permanent. And then last summer, they asked if I would be Assistant Metro Editor, about half the time. So essentially I’m the night Metro editor a couple of nights a week, and then late in the afternoon I help move and edit stories when the big rush is on, and then the rest of the time, I’m supposed to do computer-assisted reporting stuff. That’s the situation now, although in practice, the way it works is that the editing thing just takes over more and more of your time, so I’m probably spending most of my time on editing duties. Like this week, I’m filling in for the night editor who’s been on vacation and on furlough the last couple weeks, so I’ve been working every night, so I’m not doing much CAR stuff at all.
How do you feel about that?
I was actually glad about it because I wanted to get back into journalism more, although I have mixed feelings about it. I originally got into CAR because I was interested in investigative reporting, and that was an obvious way to make yourself stand out. And I did have an interest in computers. That was my original intention. And in the time I did this, initially we had an investigative reporting desk, and I had an office next to them, and I worked with them a lot. And I was learning stuff, and it was all new. And then, over time, as the media has shrunk, the investigative reporting team was disbanded, and the editor had left, and the job evolved more into putting databases on the Web, and doing Web-related stuff. It had totally evolved from a reporting, journalistic emphasis to a Web development, data munging for the Web kind of thing. Parts of that I like, I’ve learned a lot about Web programming, but I don’t really want to be a Web developer. So I was wanting to find a way out of the job that I was doing, and I was feeling a little trapped, because once you develop these skills, you’re hard to replace, so you have to find someone else who will do this stuff, which is even harder when we’re downsizing.
What type of skills do you see as being in such high demand?
We’re a mid-size newspaper, we don’t have a Web programmer. We have a guy who does PHP work, but he has a lot of other online duties, and that’s it. We don’t have a dedicated Web developer, like some papers our size do, like Indianapolis, who’s also run by Gannett. Some papers have chosen to hire people whose full-time job is to do Web programming. We don’t have, per se, a Web designer, so you’re doing that. In my time as a CAR guy, I created the internal budgeting application that we use to budget stories and assign photos and graphics. That’s not really a reporting function, that’s usually the thing that might be done by an IT person. That had started for one reason, and then grew and took over all these other functions. Recently, we adopted a new publishing system that actually has that functionality built in, so it’s gone away. You’re the one who built it, who programmed it, who knows how the databases work. If you get rid of you, they’ve got to have someone else who is going to do that stuff. I do a lot of the mapping with ArcView, I make maps for the Web, for stories, and I hand them off to graphics. That’s a skill, somebody has to do it, if we’re going to do it. The skills cover a gamut of different things.
How did you first discover CAR?
I went to graduate school at Chapel Hill in the ‘80s, and one of the professors there was Phil Meyer – that must have been where I first heard about it. I read his book while in graduate school. I took a course with him, although actually I couldn’t’ fit his reporting course into my schedule, I took his business journalism course. In the early ‘90s, I got my first computer, when I was a reporter here. I was a Western Kentucky reporter, so I lived in Paducah. That was pre-Internet. Back then, people were using spreadsheets and databases, and I’ve paid attention to it ever since. It was obvious all of the investigative-type projects would have some kind of computer-assisted analysis or component to it. So it was a niche that, because I was interested in long-form reporting, and because I was interested in bettering myself, I wanted to pick that stuff up over time. And so, I did.
Are your skills mostly self-taught?
I went to a few NICAR conferences, but I don’t go every year, often for money reasons, and I’m not a lover of conferences, as much as some people are. It’s a useful way to get to know people, and they’re always inspiring for me to see what people are doing. I haven’t had any formal training. The only IRE-type course I had was when I first became a CAR guy, I took a mapping course at Missouri.
Where did you go to undergrad?
Boston University. I was a political science and economics major, and I had no intention of doing journalism at the time. I was interested in becoming a reporter, I was interested in politics and current events. After I graduated, I worked various odd jobs in New York and elsewhere, and traveled overseas and in the U.S. I decided at some point I wanted to be a journalist because it would allow me to keep traveling for free, and because I wanted to write.
What did you do after graduate school?
I came to the Courier in 1990. At the time, we had bureaus, this is speaking of diminishing horizons of newspapers. In the ‘90s, we had bureaus all across the state. I was at a bureau in Western Kentucky, and I covered 19 counties. We even had an airplane that would fly people to the scene of important stories far out in the state. I was a Paducah reporter for three years, I actually followed my wife out there, by the way. I moved to Frankfurt, where I became an education reporter, and also covered the General Assembly. Then, I married my wife, who was also a reporter in Frankfurt. We wanted to have kids, so we moved to Louisville, so she could essentially go part-time. I became a police reporter and courts reporter in Louisville, and then I was asked if I wanted to do this job, the CAR job, which I actually don’t have anymore. I was Computer-Assisted Reporting Director for nine years, a title I never liked, because it was really hard to explain to people what you did. I reported to the managing editor for most of that time. Gannett got into, in a big way, renaming the newsroom, we’re not a newsroom, it’s the information center, and reconfiguring things and creating what they called data desks, which is essentially what used to be the clerks in the library, so they attached me to that for a while. When they asked me to do editing, they moved me back to the Metro desk. Now, Assistant Metro Editor is my title.
What do you think of the concept of the uncontextualized posting of data online?
It has its uses, but it’s not very interesting. I love Matt Waite’s term, data ghetto, which is true. To do it well takes a lot of time and effort and skill. It’s something lacking, that newspapers can’t do easily, The stuff that’s interesting is the stuff that people will spend a lot of time with. Then you have to justify the amount of time we spent on this project, is it better to do that, or is it better to produce copy and stories every day? I’m not the biggest enthusiast. I’ve done it, and I’ve tried to get better, but I don’t think I’m the best person at it. I think it’s better to have someone who’s a skilled programmer, not a self-taught one. Somebody who has a real passion for it ought to do it. I tried to do the best I could, and I’m still doing it, but it isn’t my passion, per se.
I’m more into the information gathering, and the investigative side, and analysis stuff that’s intellectually interesting to me. I enjoy the other stuff, but I don’t want to do it full time, and searchable lists are what they are. We’ve always published agate in the newspaper, and there were always people who would passionately go through the box score, and look at that stuff, and that’s great. But that doesn’t interest me that much. If we were doing a big project, something like Politifact, that was a project that involved lots of reporters, designers, editors, had top-level buy-in from management, and they worked on it and committed to it, and if your organization is committed to that sort of thing, I think it could be more interesting, but not necessarily when you’re a lone wolf trying to do a hundred different things, and you have no time to really develop things.
The New York Times, they do beautiful stuff, but they throw five, six really talented people at it, and spend a lot of time on it. That’s great, but I don’t think that’s a scenario that will work for most news organizations. I don’t know why the chains that have 90 newspapers, or dozens of newspapers, they haven’t done more to create news-type applications across organizations instead of letting each organization do it individually – it just doesn’t make much sense to me. I went to a NICAR conference in Cleveland a few years ago, and every session I went in, it seemed like it was a New York Times reporter. I went through the program, and added them all up, and it was like, 13 percent of all the presenters were from the New York Times. I thought this is a real distortion.
It was also the meeting where they had the Caspio guy, Caspio had really started pushing in the newspaper world, and Derek [Willis] is famous for not liking Caspio. He’s right in the sense that it’s better if we do it individually. It would be great if your organization commits to it 100 percent, but most people are working in a scenario where you’re balancing all these needs, and throwing it into Caspio is easier, I’ve done it recently. I don’t want to do it, I can do something better, but it’s like, I could turn it into an application if I had a couple days, but I don’t have a couple days. I got an hour, and I’m going to throw it into Caspio, and get it off my plate, because it’s just not worth more time than that, so Caspio fills that need. People are still going to do wonderful things, even in small places, and there’s still room for that, but I don’t think it’s the main river of where we’re going these days.
Where do you see the future of CAR?
If you’re in this CAR/data world, it is a new aspect to journalism. I don’t really agree with the notion that the world needs more programmer-journalists, I haven’t been convinced of that. It’s nice to have people with technical skills and an understanding of that, and it would better to have more people in journalism understand that, but the data side only applies to some stories. It’s great for me to be editing stories again, after ten years of basically thinking in code, and writing a few blog entries. To sit down and edit stories again, I’ve been thinking that most stories don’t have something that data will bring anything to in any reasonable time frame, data doesn’t even enter into the journalism. Most stories, it doesn’t apply to what we do. There is a class of stories where it does apply, and it’s great to bring it to that, but there are many, many other stories it doesn’t.
And to me, if you look at what’s succeeding on the Web, I really don’t think it’s the Everyblocks of the world. It’s a cool thing, and it’s well done, but what’s succeeding on the Web are people who are really good bloggers who can produce a lot of content, cover a lot of ground and update frequently, write with a voice with personality, who can interact with people on the Web, and in social media, and who can extend their brand and their name and their reach to an audience, that’s to me what’s the most important thing. That’s what succeeding.
The architecture underneath the site isn’t that important, but there will also be people who are able to tell stories through video and audio and with multimedia and with databases, and that will be a piece of it. But the database part of it is just a very small aspect. It’s a significant one, and it’s new, and it’s interesting, and there will be a lot of cool things done, and if that’s your passion, you should do it, but I just don’t think it’s the main thing that’s really going on out there. It is, if you live in this data world, you tend to see everything as data, and how important it is that we should really be embracing this. You can, but I just think it would be better to have ten people on your staff who can write with a voice, who can update their blog frequently, and keep reporting, chase a good story for weeks on end, updating continuously, and interacting with the readers who call and write in, or comment on Facebook and Twitter. I’d rather have ten of those people, than ten data geeks. So that’s just what I mean. I just don’t think it’s the future of journalism.