Press on the cutting edge

June 13, 1997

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 being strafed with possibilities, choices, and ever-changing technologies.

According to News Information: The Organisation of Press Cuttings in the Libraries of Newspapers and Broadcasting Services (1965), the information strategy for the news library 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 marshal the efforts to create an overall information strategy? What are the elements of a plan which must be considered?

Traditionally, collection development and resource allocation has been the job of the librarian. News librarians should be surveying the newsroom to determine needs. This assessment will also reveal overlapping needs. The assessment of needs can help prioritise the allocation of budget towards certain types of resources.

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. One of the traditional roles of the librarian is information evaluation. Clearly, this role will grow. In the information age, the information professional will be the key player in evaluating and selecting resources.

In the past, some of the concerns about information access and who had it revolved around cost. Now, concerns are more around quality and credibility of researching. "Precision journalism" guru Phil Meyer warns of "data cowboys with their loaded disc drives shooting off their toes." All news researchers have 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 and what they need to know. It's easier to justify hardware/software investments than it is to get money to upgrade the wetware - people. In some newsrooms there is a commitment to training, but in most the idea is "we buy and you figure it out". It is critical to consider training needs. Use the database vendor who will train or has an excellent telephone support service. In too many newsrooms resources are unused, or, worse, used poorly and dangerously.

The news librarian's role will include conducting complicated research, coaching end-users 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 its merging with the newsroom's functions that will be different.

Nora Paul is library director at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Florida. On July 4 she will give a media libraries seminar at the NetMedia 97 conference organised by the department of journalism, City University, London. For details and registration see The THES's parent company News International is a sponsor of NetMedia 97.

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