For all the talk about digital tools and a data reporting revolution in the news business, the hype doesn’t match the reality in most American newsrooms.

That’s what we heard when the Duke Reporters’ Lab set out to understand why so many news staffs have such a difficult time figuring out how to open these digital toolboxes — even when peers at other organizations have shown what even one data-savvy journalist on staff can accomplish.

The resulting report, published today, got its title from an answer we heard in an interview with Jim Farley, the recently retired news leader at WTOP-FM in Washington, D.C., one of the best-staffed and most successful radio news operations in the country.

“We’re live and local, 24/7, 365,” Farley told us. “The goat must be fed.”

It turns out the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — one of the news industry’s primary funders for digital tools and training — has been asking similar questions. From the point of view of Alberto Ibargüen, Knight’s president and CEO, “the biggest failure we’ve had has been precisely at the point of adoption.”

Based on our interviews with senior editors and producers in more than 20 newsrooms, the Reporters’ Lab found that:

  • Many U.S. newsrooms are not taking advantage of the emerging low-cost digital tools that enable journalists to report and present their work in innovative ways. Editors and producers cling to familiar methods and practices even when they know better, more engaging digital alternatives are available, often for free.
  • Journalism awards and well-attended conferences create a sense that the adoption of data reporting and digital tools is broader than it really is. But there is a still significant gap between the industry’s digital haves and have-nots — particularly between big national organizations, which have been most willing to try data reporting and digital tools, and smaller local ones, which haven’t.
  • Local news leaders often cite budget, time and people as their biggest constraints. But conversations with the editors and producers we spoke to also revealed deeper issues — part infrastructure, part culture. This includes a lack of technical understanding and ability and an unwillingness to break reporting habits that could create time and space to experiment.
  • The local newsrooms that have made smart use of digital tools have leaders who are willing to make difficult trade-offs in their coverage. They prioritize stories that reveal the meaning and implications of the news over an overwhelming focus on chasing incremental developments. They also think of the work they can do with digital tools as ways to tell untold stories — not “bells and whistles.”

Many of the news leaders we spoke to said they and their staffs struggle with the trade-offs this work requires of them — especially when it means cutting back on what were once core elements of their routine news coverage. “We have to be really careful picking our spots — what we’re going to do and not going to do,” said Marty Kaiser, editor and senior vice president of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where he has made data reporting and digital tools a priority.

The report was written by digital journalist Mark Stencel; Bill Adair, the Knight Chair for Computational Journalism at Duke; and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, a student researcher in the Reporters’ Lab.

The full report is available at GoatMustBeFed.com.