Reinvention is key at the new frontiers of journalism

There is one common, constant challenge facing journalists and journalism today, and a dedication to training is the key to overcoming it.

ICIJ's Mar Cabra training journalists in Ecuador.

Whether new to reporting or an experienced editor in a newsroom, all journalists face one common, constant challenge today: reinvention.

Reinvention means adapting to a changing media environment. It means flexibility. It means constant learning, training, and mastering new and increasingly complex skills.

Many media organizations, including my own newspaper, El Comercio in Ecuador, have committed to a program of retraining their journalists. This week ICIJ’s Mar Cabra along with programmer Álex González from the Outliers Collective are training a group of 22 journalists in Quito to help them reinvent themselves.

We will learn about scraping data from the web, and about converting PDF files into more usable formats. We’ll look at how to manage data in a spreadsheet, how to visualize data effectively, and produce interactive graphics.

It’s a long way from where I started as a young reporter at a nationwide newspaper, twenty years ago. 

Back then, the journalistic paradigm was quite different. Most of the information came from all kinds of sources, official and unofficial, and one of our first lessons was to understand that all sources had direct interest in the information, especially if they were related to public affairs.

In this context a journalist´s most important ability was to confirm and contrast all the angles of the story.

While those skills are still relevant, nowadays the situation is different. In a society where information is everywhere, instantly through the internet, journalists are often given the task of organizing and processing huge amounts of data in order to find and confirm information and angles of a story.

In the last decade we’ve had to add a new tool to our skill set. Databases are the gateways to new frontiers in journalism.

They allow reporters to quantify phenomena, and also to discover links to global issues that cross geographical boundaries.

This new tool requires specific training in technological abilities, but also needs strong cooperation among teams who, years ago, would have had very few interactions. Journalists, system engineers, graphic designers must now all speak a similar language and know how to work together in ways not needed before.

This is why in this week's training we have not only journalists but also programmers and designers.

Last year I was able to participate in the Offshore Leaks investigation led by ICIJ. As a member of El Comercio newspaper I was allowed access to the Offshore Leaks database, and focused my attention on Pietro Francesco Zunino, an Ecuadorian banker who created two companies in the British Virgin Islands. He was the owner of Territorial Bank, which was investigated for money laundering. The story was published just a few days after the expedition of a new, strong and punitive legal framework, called the Organic Law on Communications, which severely cut down on press freedom in Ecuador.

The Offshore Leaks project was my first experience of this nature. I’m lucky that my employer understands that its role in Ecuadorian society demands that it keeps pace with this constant reinvention in the world of journalism. This is why we have started a continuous training program with a solid team of researchers.

It is also why we’ve reached out to organizations like ICIJ to assist us. It is our investigation and data unit which will lead the way in revolutionizing both our own newspaper and the press here in Ecuador. It is training like this which is at the core of our reinvention.

Arturo Torres Ramirez is an ICIJ member and the research editor at El Comercio in Quito.

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