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A letter to journo-programmers: Teach me, inspire me

Posted by on Nov 24, 2009 in Blog, education, programming, theory | 5 Comments

I am, for the second time in two days, going to bring up Derek Willis, member of the Interactive News Technology Group at the New York Times and one of my current professors. Corny as this sounds, that class has literally changed my life, as I have reaffirmed my desire to become one of that sadly rare breed of journalists with programming skills.  We call his class “Digital Frameworks for Reporting,” but less formally, it’s data class, CAR (Computer Assisted Reporting) class or techy class.  Each three-hour session is something I look forward to every Thursday evening.  And I’m not just saying that, as anyone in the newsroom will tell you. It’s a place where I am reassured that my philosophies have a place in the new journalism world.

I’ve spent far too long just calling myself an online, or interactive, journalist — and not knowing enough to specify exactly where I fit.  Data and programming journalistic gurus, there are students and young professionals out there depending on you to share your knowledge.  I didn’t even know that’s what I needed until Derek came to Chicago to speak to our class at Medill. From the first second, I was hooked, and knew that the intersection of journalism and technology is what I was about. Knowing I would get a quarter of that was one of the top reasons I came to Washington.

I was planning to write on this experience after the quarter ended, but this afternoon I saw this tweet from St. Petersburg Times senior news technologist, and Politifact developer, Matt Waite:”If you could take a class from a journalist/programmer, what would you want out of it? Tell me here on Twitter or here: http://bit.ly/5HGa1O.”

So, here’s an open letter to Matt — and any other programmer-journalists out there — on my recommendations for a j-school course.  I’d love to see more such courses crop up, and I think it’s something every journalist should be exposed to. Computers and journalism are about SO much more than repurposing print or broadcast content on the Web — the possibilities are endless!

First of all, because programmer-journalists are still a relatively rare breed, please recognize that your role as a mentor and supporter is just as important as the techniques and philosophies you teach us.

  1. Be open to our questions, whether about homework assignments, the best place to start learning Python, the best people to talk to and blogs to follow.  Extra credit if we can reach you through some sort of instant messaging system during normal work hours.
  2. It’s much appreciated if you’re willing to listen to our rants about the clash between old and new media. Even better if you’re interested in entering into a discussion, and can introduce us to other like-minded people in the field.
  3. I’d recommend starting a publicly available class site (Derek’s is here), where we can access resources related to class content, as well as extended material beyond the scope of the course. It’s better if others can access it, even those not in your class, hopefully that can foster even more conversation.  What that means is that even if you don’t cover Python in class, show me the best way to learn it if I’m so inclined.  And just having the link there may inspire someone.
  4. Bring in other professionals who you already exchange knowledge with.  They can contribute to the class, and we get to meet cool people.  Win-win!  Bonus points if you can work out a mandatory candy-bringing arrangement for special guests like we have in our class.  That’s a delicious win-win!


  1. Show me where to access government data sets, and what kind of stories I can find from them. That includes ways data can supplement more traditional stories, as well as ways I can find data-driven stories by “interviewing the information.”  Tell me why I would do it, and show me how to do it.  Teach me SQL, not Access, so I have the flexibility to completely manipulate data, and so I can start getting comfortable with thinking like a programmer.  And never tell me coding is scary, or act as if it’s beyond my comprehension or my job, treat it as just another tool.
  2. Teach me about the philosophy of openness — both in the sense of why it’s better to have data in a CSV format than PDF — and how we as journalists can make our reporting and presentation process transparent. Why should I even think about including a searchable database online with my story? And how do I get it up there?
  3. Tell me from your experience: What draws an audience to a data-driven site? Why do you think Politifact was such a success? How much were you thinking about audience when creating it? How do you create for an diverse audience, those incredibly familiar with computers and the online world, and those just delving into it? How do you make the project something everyone can be comfortable accessing?
  4. What kind of questions will programs allow me to ask in bulk that I couldn’t have asked before? What are the capabilities of different programming languages? Even if I can’t learn them all, show me what can be done so I can communicate effectively with those who do know those languages. Also, learning about the potential of different technologies will encourage me to learn them. I only started digging into Python after Derek mentioned doing things “programatically” a few bazillion times. Before that, I was content to know it existed, and pretty much leave it at that.
  5. Teach me about the most efficient ways to visualize information. Should an interactive graphic include everything in my database, just because it can? In other words, help me understand how news judgment works when faced with the possibilities of programming. I think this differs from traditional news judgment, since there are more options available to us.
  6. Show me the best way to present these ideas to traditional editors at news organizations. How do we convey that this isn’t just a flashy tool, not a distraction from journalism itself, but instead a way to extend our craft? Help us think outside the box, and help us to encourage others to do the same.We need many more programmer-journalists, and while I see academic programs that exist to help programmers gain journo skills (such as this one at my own Medill), I see so much less in the other direction. Please, expose us to the ideas and help us get started thinking about the possibilities. Help us acquire the skills that will help us better serve our communities. The ambition and drive is there, all we’re asking for is access to your brain that’s as open as we wish all data were.

Matt and other programmer-journalists: here’s the reverse question — What advice would you give to journalism students wanting to learn more about how we can best utilize programming?  What skills should we start with?  Who should we be paying close attention to?  I’ll be watching these classes from afar, thirsting for more.

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