A PAPER FOR THE NETMEDIA CONFERENCE: July 1997
Poynter Institute for Media Studies
"Information is the currency of journalism," according to novelist John Katzenbach. Acquiring information is certainly the largest budget item in the newsroom's expense ledger. Whether it is information gathered from interviewing and reporting, web pages located through searching the Internet, documents found in a commercial database search, public records examined through use of spreadsheets, or chapters in a book, the cost of acquiring, searching and maintaining information in newsrooms is growing each year.
As is the importance of access to information. The competitive edge will go to the newsroom with the quickest and ablest access to the facts, background and sources that can give them the freshest angle, the deepest understanding and the broadest interpretation of news events.
But growing faster than either the cost or the importance of access to information is the complexity in dealing with the information options available. The information explosion is creating shell-shocked newsrooms. Newsrooms which 15 years ago dealt with single-medium (paper), limited resources (clips from their own publication and some books), simple technology (microfilm readers) are now being strafed with possibilities, choices, and ever-changing technologies.
The information strategy for the news library dealing with clippings was, according to News Information: The Organisation of Press Cuttings in the Libraries of Newspapers and Broadcasting Services (1965) was "divided into four simple steps: Selection; Classification; Preparation; Filing." This was fine for dealing with a single type of information resource, clippings from the newspaper. But how do you develop a strategy to deal with the information explosion? How can you develop a plan to make information an ally, not an enemy in the newsroom? Who should marshall the efforts to create an overall information strategy? What are the elements of a plan which must be considered?
This paper offers a look at the stages of information planning in newsrooms and discusses the critical roles that the information professional / news librarian / archivist in your organization must play. In many cases, these "new roles" are a re-vamping and acceleration of "old roles." The ultimate point is in order to manage this valuable resource, information, in your newsroom, someone will have to be overseeing each of these steps. The expertise which news librarians have been developing as the resources of the information explosion have been growing will serve newsrooms well in their development of an overall information strategy.
INFORMATION STRATEGY STEPS
INFORMATION NEEDS ASSESSMENT: What do you need to do?
The Japanese translation for "information" is Joho, according to Mindy Kotler, a Washington-based research consultant. But unlike the English term which describes a set of static facts, "joho" describes a purpose. Your purpose for information must be clear. An information needs assessment is one way to get that clarity of purpose. Survey the newsroom on it's daily information seeking tasks, find out those areas where getting that task done is difficult because of a lack of access to resources or lack of knowledge about available resources. Those will be your resource development priorities. (see a sample of a needs assessment tool - Attachment 1).
Traditionally, collection development and resource allocation has been the job of the librarian. Librarians have to know their customer base, what their information interests are, how they prefer to use information, how much of a demand there is for certain types of information to know what and how often they need to buy. News librarians should be surveying the newsroom, their customer base, to determine the needs they must be sure they can help satisfy. This assessment will also reveal overlapping needs - resources that have a purpose for one desk might also be useful for another. The assessment of needs can help prioritize the allocation of budget towards certain types of resources. Knowing the information seeking tasks most commonly undertaken by the newsroom can help in the design of a truly useful Intranet Resource page.
INFORMATION TASK DEFINITION: Why will you use it?
Before you start to select specific information tools, make sure you have defined the ways the tool will be used in reporting. For example, a "push" service for news filtering can serve a number of purposes. Someone needing to be updated on the latest, reliable information on a topic, place or person might find a push service from edited, mainstream type sources the best but someone who would like to use push technology for more serendipitous, idea gathering purposes might find non-mainstream material from news group messages and off-beat web sites would be more useful. They would need another push / filtering service. Be clear on the tasks and purposes for which an information tool might be used.
INFORMATION EVALUATION: Which should you choose?
What's worse than having no choice? Sometimes, it's having too many choices. The information options available have grown and the need to evaluate those options and compare their coverage, cost, credibility and availability has grown. Reference books are now available in a variety of formats: paper, CD, commercial databases, websites. Which format is the easiest to use, most up to date, most cost effective, most reliable? Ready reference materials (telephone directories, gazetteers, quote books, calculators, movie databases, etc.) are available on the Internet from many different providers - which one is the most credible, where does the information in the resource come from, what are the gaps in the information, the range of the data, how is the information searched? When selecting resources to use, the evaluation process is a critical, and multi-stepped process.
One of the traditional roles of the librarian is information evaluation. Clearly, this role will grow as the options for what resources to use grow. In the information age, the information professional will be the key player in evaluating and selecting resources. "Test driving" different resources and doing detailed comparisons, and knowing how to use the resources well enough to be able to teach their use to others will take time in the short run, but will save hours for the end-user searcher.
INFORMATION ACQUISITION: Who's going to get it?
The actual ordering and receiving of information resources (books, service accounts, CDs or datatapes) must be coordinated. Information acquisition involves negotiating for data from recalcitrant agencies, working out the best access deals from "make a buck" commercial services, following through on orders and receipt of resources. Whether this is one person's responsibility or is done by different people in the newsroom, the overall process must be documented. The idea of a deputy managing editor of Information who would have oversight of all the data and information ordering in the newsroom is one way to manage this process. No matter where an individual resource ends up residing in the newsroom, a coordinated, central ordering function is needed.
INFORMATION ACCESS: Who gets to use it?
Another part of the information strategy must be determining who will use which resources. In the past, some of the concerns about information access and who had it revolved around the cost of access. Now, the concerns are more around quality and credibility of researching. "Precision journalism" guru Phil Meyer talks frequently of his concern for "data cowboys with their loaded disc drives shooting off their toes." All news researchers have horror stories of reporters searching databases without allowing for truncation or alternate spelling or appropriate logical connectors between search terms who end up missing key stories. The Information Strategy should outline who has access, what do they need to know to be able to use the resource (training received, skill demonstrated, checks of the results gotten).
INFORMATION SEEKING SKILLS / TRAINING: How do you learn about it?
It's much easier, in most newsrooms, to justify hardware and software investments and upgrades than it is to get money to upgrade the wetware - people. In some newsrooms there is a commitment to training, but in most newsrooms the idea is we buy the hardware and software and you figure it out. In developing an information strategy it is critical to consider the training needs for whatever resources will be acquired. Training support by the vendor of information resources might be a consideration in the selection of resources. Go with the database vendor who will come in a train or has an excellent telephone support service over the one who takes your money and runs. In too many newsrooms resources are sitting unused, or, worse, used poorly, dangerously.
The librarian's role as facilitator of information use has always included training. In conjunction with the information needs assessment, an information skills assessment is a great tool for developing a training program.
INFORMATION MAINTENANCE: Who will preserve it?
Having made this investment of time to assess needs, evaluate options, order and understand the resources, who will maintain this investment? A news librarian friend said it best, "Our responsibilities are to discover, nurture, cultivate information; harvest it, keep it clean, store it, protect it, and share it." Making the information available, keeping it up to date, alerting users about changes to the data, ensuring the equipment and software needed to use it is available is a big job, and it might be several people's job. There must be coordination of the resource maintenance. Who will do that, who will make sure the information resources in the newsroom are available when needed? It may be different people for different types of resources. An information strategy, well outlined and thought-through, will answer that question.
In addition to the roles that news librarians will play in developing an information strategy in newsrooms there are other roles which will grow in importance as the need to utilize the full range of information resources grows. These include conducting complex or complicated research, coaching end-user searchers on search strategies, and compiling information packages for use in the newspaper, on the electronic news product, or as background material on a newsroom intranet. None of these tasks range far from the librarian's traditional roles of selector, evaluator, maintainer, instructor, and user of information resources. It is the scope of their role and it's merging with the newsroom's functions that will be different.
The final paragraph of the 1965 book on how to run a news clipping operation in a newsroom says, "Looking even further ahead, it is probable that one day news information will be programmed on to a computer, rendering much of the discussion in the foregoing pages as out of date as a town crier's bell, but that is a matter for another book."
This predicted move to news information on a computer has happened and it is a matter in need of a different strategy, a more complex strategy than "select, classify, prepare, file." A strategy where the overall information needs are known, where the options available to satisfy those needs are evaluated, where the training and understanding of how to use the resources is available and the attention to maintenance of the resources is consistent and well-planned. Develop an information strategy, designate those responsible for seeing the strategy through and you will be using the resources of the information age wisely and well.
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Last Updated: 04/9/2001