The Future of IRE Training

Nov 29 2009

Anyone in journalism who knows me knows how much of a debt I owe to an organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors. Sure, I liked playing with data before I found out about IRE, but the knowledge and support that I’ve received from IRE training, conferences and members has been the single most positive influence on my career.

The trouble is that IRE is a non-profit organization tied to an industry that increasingly has cut back on spending for training, travel and other “luxuries”. So while attendance at this year’s IRE conference in Baltimore was very strong, a lot of folks there were paying their own way. Same deal for the annual computer-assisted reporting conference in Indianapolis. That’s simply not sustainable, given IRE’s current orientation towards providing hands-on training and data services to news organizations. My IRE membership will be pried from my cold, dead hands (and you should join, too), but attracting new members and offering them the kinds of training and services they’ll need will be increasingly difficult.

If you ask me, IRE needs to reorient its training and service offerings to take advantage of the distributed nature of the Web and the broadening of acts of journalism. Yes, hands-on training must continue, but do trainers need to travel all the time? What about video-based training? Yes, IRE should collect the best expertise of its members, but the age of the tipsheet alone is gone. We have so many other options: screencasts, podcasts, YouTube – hell, even Google Wave – to deliver the kind of knowledge that is the lifeblood of IRE.

Crucial to that effort is the recognition that as the potential base of members and users of IRE services expands, so too the need for individual training modules. Yes, IRE should still offer a 5-day bootcamp on computer-assisted reporting. But it also should offer half-day refreshers on SQL, or 10-minute screencasts on a useful Excel function. Look at what PeepCode does – and I don’t think IRE would need to have such high production values to be valuable – and you’ve got an idea of what I’m talking about. IRE members are some of the leading experts in journalism on subjects such as the Census, mapping and various obscure datasets. Yet the only option for purchasing audio from conferences is all or nothing.

Similarly, the Resource Center needs a good update. IRE books, which are tremendously useful but can have a short shelf-life, need to be sold in print and revised online to remain attractive and lower the costs of doing new editions. Future tipsheets should be digital-only, and categorized not just by keyword but also by speaker. If I want to overdose on Paul Overberg’s Census material, I should be able to do that without searching (they should also be sold to journalism schools for classes). Nearly all training exercises should be available online – this would require greater standardization, but that’s not a terrible thing – and members or paid users should be able to schedule video/chat time with an IRE trainer or volunteer as a follow-up.

While we’re at it: Uplink is, well, I don’t think even IRE knows for sure, but it definitely isn’t working. Simplify it. Give it a narrow mission. Make it easier to find the expertise that currently is spread across email, blog posts, tipsheets and tutorials. The value of the organization lies in the ability of its staff and volunteers to intelligently organize and disseminate the unique and valuable information it has within it.

All of these things require changes to the way IRE currently works, and that’s the tough part; it’s hard to argue that IRE hasn’t been doing good work, and I am definitely not making that claim. What I’m saying is that as both the market for IRE’s services and the methods for delivering them undergo some significant changes, it’s time for IRE to meet those changes head-on.