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Why we do what we do: Pursuing the sparkle

Posted by on Mar 5, 2010 in Blog, theory | One Comment

“If you truly love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

That was the main theme of the faculty speaker at my high school graduation back at Palatine High School in 2004.  It personified my pursuit of knowledge, and of a career, up until that point, and I’ve thought about those words each day in the almost six — six? — years since then.  As I wrap up my time at Medill, I’ve been thinking about endings, and even more about new beginnings.

And I also wonder: How does my relatively recent complete shift of a journalism career fit into all this?  (If you’ve missed the philosophical journey, I’ve transitioned from writer to writer w/some tech interests to writer dabbling in tech to now this: a journalist who’s learning to tell stories through code and data.  Crazy!)

I’ve always been close with teachers and professors throughout my life.  Maybe it’s because my mom was a teacher for so many years.  But I think the real reason is I’m drawn to those with a passion that completely engulfs them.  I’ve seen it in teachers from fourth grade through college, but I’d like to focus on three role models at Medill.  They have had a tremendous impact on my career.  By exploring their commonality, there’s a lesson we aspiring journalists can take from them.  I don’t mean to leave anyone out, this passion is common among the Medill faculty.  But these are three examples.

Case 1: Donna Leff. Editor extraordinaire.  A woman who defends her beliefs with passion, and defends to the death your right to express yourself.  She’s a walking AP Stylebook, and will listen carefully to any and all of what you have to say, explaining every change if you request it.  She edits with a furrowed brow, making sure each phrase flows just right.  And once she’s got it, there’s a certain quality to her smile.  And you know editing is what she’s made to do.  She’s got that sparkle in her eyes.

Case 2: Matt Mansfield. Designer extraordinaire.  Completely engaged in all aspects of the journalism community.  Eager to share his vast experience, especially from the years he spent at the San Jose Mercury News.  Willing to invest 200 percent time with you on projects.  He looks over the entire visual picture with incredible detail, deciding whether an image should go a pixel higher or lower.  And once he’s got it, there’s that same quality to his smile.  And you know design is what he’s made to do.  He’s got that sparkle in his eyes.

Case 3: Derek Willis. Data programmer extraordinaire.  Discusses how we can apply data to most any beat, and how we can use it to organize our own newsrooms.  One day in class, he manages to get from GROUP BY in SQL to geocoding a list of addresses in Python.  Writing an impromptu program as he talks, an error is returned, and he looks intently at the code.  Minutes later, he’s got it and there’s that same quality to his smile.  And you know data-driven programming is what he’s made to do.  He’s got that sparkle in his eyes.

High school teachers said I had the glimmer of a sparkle.  I’ve been close, but for so long, hadn’t found *it* yet.  I loved writing, but there was something more.  Design was fascinating, but it just didn’t come that naturally to me.  Using SQL for data was natural, and that was almost it, but there was another piece to the puzzle.

It was only when coding my first app, writing about that experience, and now working on the final leg of my Flash visualization that I understood I’m about data-driven applications used for Web development.  At least for a while, this is what I do.  It is who I am.

I never thought I could call myself a programmer-journalist.  And I’m at the very beginning of that journey.  It somehow sounds better if I say “aspiring programmer-journalist.”  It just always seemed so far away, a near impossibility.  Even Rich Gordon, my independent study adviser, and I were saying we didn’t think I could interview 20 Data Delvers, write two Django apps, and complete the independent study syllabus all in a quarter.  But here we are, well, we will be as of Tuesday.

Now, as I polish my Django app/Flash viz for the final project of my independent study, I see a faint reflection off of my laptop screen.  Staring back at me, it’s plain as day.

I’ve got that sparkle in my eyes.

So, to all of us budding journalists, here’s my wish — it’s not about “saving journalism,” and it’s not about my non-existent genius solution for how we’re going to monetize the Web (yet!).  We don’t all have to write newspaper articles, and we don’t all have to code.  But our commonality will be this: We must find for ourselves what editing is for Donna, and design is for Matt, and data is for Derek — we must find that something about journalism.

Once we discover it, we’ll know.  Because we’ll see it.  The sparkle in our eyes.

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