Journalism Student to Join Panel at National Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference

by | Jan 31, 2019 | Journalism, Student Awards & Achievements

After spearheading a fall 2018 project that explored how student loans affected recent Arkansas graduates, one data journalism student in the U of A’s School of Journalism and Strategic Media has been invited to join a prestigious panel that will discuss the topic at the 2019 National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) in March.

Katie Beth Nichols will join Holly Hacker, a longtime data journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Annie Waldman, a ProPublica reporter who covers education, to discuss what the documented increase in student loans means for graduates.

“They said it’s going to be a 40-minute presentation and then 20 minutes of question and answer afterwards, so I’m excited to get started with them to learn what their experiences have been, as mine have been pretty limited,” Nichols said. “I’d love to see the things that they’ve looked into.”

Nichols was a student in assistant professor Rob Wells’ data journalism class, which uses semester-long projects to teach students how to utilize numbers in their reporting while crafting socially-relevant investigative stories using the statistics gathered by the reporters.

The fall 2018 group looked into an issue that’s increased 225 percent nationwide since 2006, according to statistics from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

“We did a really comprehensive story on student loans, and we developed this project into something special,” Nichols said. “It did really well, and we were super proud of it. It picked up a lot of traction in Fayetteville. We were interviewed on KUAF.”

The students interviewed around 30 people and combined storytelling techniques with graphics and statistics to illustrate the issue, and they compiled their findings on an organized webpage that was also optimized for mobile devices. The project can be found online at

“The whole class created interactive data graphics, so it was like a new level of sophistication on what we were able to produce here at the school,” Wells said. “This is kind of what I’ve hoped would happen. I just knew it would take a little time. If you deal with a socially-important story, you tell it well, it’s going to get traction, and the thing that a lot of students don’t realize is their important role in our restructured media system.”

Denise Malan, a U of A grad and the senior training editor of Investigative Reporters and Editors, the group that sponsors the conference, said she would waive the costly attendance fee for a U of A School of Journalism and Strategic Media student. Still, this year’s event takes place in Newport Beach, California, so the expenses would normally still be too much to handle for an average college student.

Jon Schleuss, a data reporter for the Los Angeles Times who also graduated from the U of A, told Wells he wanted to sponsor a student’s airfare and hotel for a trip to the conference, and the opportunity was set for Nichols.

“Many years ago, Gerald Jordan (a longtime SJSM professor) told me the best thing I could do as an alum was to support the university’s current students,” Schluess said. “I’m happy to support one of our students attending a great conference that promotes investigative reporting and data analysis. The future of journalism will depend on people learning new skills and being able to tell innovative stories.”

Nichols isn’t yet sure of what she wants to pursue as a career once she graduates, though law school or journalism could be in the works. At NICAR, she’ll be around thousands of journalists at what’s also essentially an informal job fair where she’ll be “going to cocktail parties with her résumé, and people get hired if you have the skills,” Wells said.

Nichols said she’s hoping her NICAR experience will give her a better idea of if and how a data-oriented tract might be a part of her life in the future.

“Speaking is going to be fantastic, but there’re all sorts of panels and workshops just kind of in the data realm,” Nichols said. “I barely have my feet wet in the data journalism world, and it would be kind of cool to see where that might go, as well. It’s going to be exciting to explore all those avenues, do some networking and see what doors it opens up for me.”

The conference will run from March 7-10 at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel in Orange County, California.

Andrew Epperson

Graduate Assistant, School of Journalism and Strategic Media

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