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Journalists Must Embrace Their Inner Nate Silver to Survive (Study)

Journalists could benefit from becoming experts in data from particular fields, argues a study by Columbia Journalism School

Evolve or die, has been the motto for many journalists across many newsrooms as the media business has undergone tectonic shifts in the digital age.

But evolve into what? That's the question that the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University's School of Journalism grapples with in a sprawling report on the state of the news industry, entitled "Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”  The answer, the study's authors say, is to use the web to lasso great streams of data and re-purpose it into a readable and engaging form.

It's not just a question of growing Twitter followers or posting articles to Facebook. The new way of breaking and disseminating news will require journalists to become more proficient in writing code, in deploying algorithmic approaches to analyzing information and in exploiting forms of crowd sourcing. Tapping into the pools of firsthand observations and knowledge across the web has been successfully utilized in everything from reporting on Hurricane Irene to the killing of Osama bin Laden, according to the report.

Getty Images"The short version is that journalism is good and we want more of it, but we need journalists who have more technical skills and more specialization, and we need institutions that allow for more experimentation," Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center and one of the study's authors, told TheWrap.

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The study was written over a year and drew primarily on interviews with journalists and media analysts, as well as the authors' experiences in the profession. Bell and her co-authors argue that some journalists are ill-equipped to thrive in this new environment. Although the old ways of relentless, often trenchant investigations of the powers that be remain essential, the old approach to lifting the veil on corporations and bureaucracies requires a dramatic overhaul. An emphasis on scoops, often supplied from a journalist's network of sources, will need to be complemented by greater fluency in drawing on financial and government reports and other public sources of information.

"It's not what we’re comfortable with," Bell said. "Most journalists tend to come from the social sciences and tend to be interested in the human end of the story and less on the skills that can be performed with a computer. We rely too often on random sources and anecdote."

Bell said that a greater truth can often be unearthed by looking at something as orthodox as a balance sheet, citing the example of the blockbuster story Bethany McLean wrote in 2001 for Fortune Magazine that helped expose financial fraud at Enron.

"All of that information was in the public domain, but none of it was being investigated," Bell said. "That was about interrogating public information and knowing who to ask and what questions to ask…we have to equip journalists with the ability to find information quickly and efficiently. So the core capability doesn't change, but everything else about the methodology has changed." 

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In this froth of change, the people who rise to the top often are not classically trained journalists. Instead, they are experts in a particular field, like economist Nouriel Roubini or statistician Nate Silver, both of whom are crunching numbers and drawing on their vast experience to provide more targeted coverage of the economy and politics than most beat reporters. In the past, journalists would typically climb up the rungs of major newspapers by jumping from desk to desk. For the sake of being well-rounded, they would have stints covering everything from science to business. That old education might no longer be feasible or desirable in a post-FiveThirtyEight world, the study's authors argue.

"We are at a point where there are clearly deficits of knowledge around complex subjects like finance and business  and science — areas where journalism has tended to be more superficial in its coverage," Bell said. "We haven't quite moved away from the idea of a journalist as a generalist and towards having them be more highly specialized."

Just don't position the future of news-gathering as an epic struggle between old and new media, says C.W. Anderson, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor of journalism at College of Staten Island (CUNY). In many cases, bloggers and startups need to take a page from newspapers and magazines in order to reassure readers that won't simply burn bright and then flame out in a famously fickle internet economy.

"It’s kind of the common story that the old media dinosaurs are collapsing, because they are trapped by rigid processes and a new group of upstarts are not burdened by these problems," Anderson said. "What surprised me is that many of these digital upstarts want to or need to become more like traditional institutions. The upstarts need to institutionalized. They need to give their employees health insurance, hire lawyers, use real offices and give a guarantee to the public that five years from now, they will still be around."