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Data Delvers: Ben Welsh & Ken Schwencke, LA Times

Using data as part of a package that drives user interest needs a strong team, and cross-collaboration between reporters, editors and web developers.  At the Los Angeles Times, two key people who work to bring it all together are Web dev duo Ben Welsh and Ken Schwencke.  It’s their job to enhance and enrich the various reporting and projects done by reporters and make sure it’s interesting and accessible to you on the Web.  That may mean creating an interface to display a video package, bringing you the faces behind the numbers of local homicides, allowing you to combine your own comments with a database about your neighborhood, or whatever else they can come up with.  It’s innovation with the freedom of a smaller organization, happening with the support of LAT management.  Combine the reach of the LA Times with creativity and flexibility, and the sky’s the limit.

I had many questions for Welsh and Schwenke — the men behind these applications. And thankfully, they were happy to chat.

This profile of Welsh and Schwencke is a part of my continuing series I’m calling “Data Delvers,” where I pass on summaries, quotes and audio clips from conversations with journalists using technology to find, analyze and convey data-driven stories and/or projects to the modern audience.

Journalist to programmer

Ben Welsh came to the Los Angeles Times through data analysis, learning about the field through NICAR at Missouri, and practicing it at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington.  His first real foray into journalism was working with Chicago’s Carol Marin and Don Moseley while he was a student at DePaul University.  He’s a mostly self-taught programmer, and has many great ideas about how we can use data to enhance journalism.  He openly admits Web development was relatively new for him when he started at the Los Angeles Times.

He first learned about Web development as a way to practice journalism when he heard about from Derek Willis and Aron Pilhofer, now both at the New York Times.  Welsh said he felt they spoke to him because they were connected to the Center for Public Integrity, where he worked, and were speaking at NICAR, the organization where he first learned data analysis skills.

“I was positioned very close to them, where I could get the message clearly,” said Welsh.  “I didn’t have to go seek out the message, the message was nearby.  So I said to myself, ‘Well, that seems pretty cool.'”

Audio: Web development isn’t where Welsh pictured himself.Web dev isn’t where Welsh pictured himself.

But thinking something is cool doesn’t mean you know how to do it.  Welsh had been teaching himself Web development on weekends.  And the first project, California’s War Dead, at the Los Angeles Times was a true adventure.  “At that point, I didn’t even really know how Apache worked,” Welsh said, “and we just faked it until we made it. ‘Yeah, we can hit the deadline.  Yeah, we can get the Web site up.’ And version one wasn’t perfect, but we shipped it, and it got out, it went okay, it didn’t crash too bad, and I learned a lot.”

From programmer to journalist

Ken Schwencke thought he was going into computer programming when he entered the University of Florida.  But he shifted to journalism upon realizing that the math requirements were “soul-crushing.”  That was where he met Mindy McAdams, a journalism professor who he said opened up his eyes to the possibilities of combining the two fields.  He was interning at the Times before he officially graduated, taking classes from a distance.  His internship was extended, and eventually converted into a full-time job.

Journalist + Developer = Journalist/Developer

Welsh explained his job as the combination of two fields.  “The technical work is pretty much identical to the typical web developer, but the approach to the data, and the presentation of it, requires the same artistic and analytical skills as being a reporter,” he said.

Projects range from ways to allow users to explore databases to housing visual projects, often Flash or video, requiring intense resources outside of the paper’s CMS structure. Ideas for projects fall into three general categories, although these aren’t the only ways ideas are generated.

  • Paper to Web.  The paper is working on a story, and an editor wants to blow it up on the Web.  Example: Mexico Under Siege
  • Not possible on paper, dream comes alive on Web.  Someone has an idea for something so dynamic and non-linear it demands the Web.  Example: Doug Smith wanted to do something with mapping neighborhoods, and allowing readers to contribute.  Mapping L.A.
  • Editor gives general categories.  Former Web editor Meredith Artley would tell Welsh and Schwencke — whom she called the “geek squad,” she wanted to see pieces in certain general categories.  It was up to them to come up with ideas for the specifics.

The deadline’s the thing!

Welsh points out that for all the intricacies of using programming for analysis, presentation and deployment, it’s essential to remember that you’re in a deadline environment.  Expectations are reasonable, and others trust the team’s assessment of how long something will take.  But like any job in journalism, it needs to get out on time.

Long projects are given long deadlines, but sometimes applications go along with breaking news, and must be done that day.  “Hazy deadlines are common,” said Welsh.  “But at the same time, so is an, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to get something done before tomorrow’s paper’ attitude.  It can often come on and you just get all hands on deck to get something done quickly. “

When that happens, you’ve just got to get it done, Welsh said.  Even so, there have to be limits, especially when you understand how long something takes, and others may not.  “in the long term, you can’t be the person who always says yes, because you’ll kill yourself,” said Welsh.

It’s not a side project anymore

For a lot of journalists who go into programming, they get their practice creating side projects.  But the traffic one gets at a personal site is vastly different from the traffic your sever endures when you’re featured on the latimes.com home page.  “Before, when I was building apps largely on my own time, if my data wasn’t perfect it was usually good enough,” said Schewencke.  “Now the bar is much higher. I also now need to worry about things like scalability — am I hitting the database an unnecessary number of times? Will my app be able to handle traffic from the top spot on the front page, or will it cause our servers to melt down?”

Benefit of a small team

Because it’s pretty much just Welsh and Schwencke, communicating is fairly simple.  “We sit right next to each other, so collaboration is as easy as me yelling until he takes his headphones off,” said Schwencke.  They use GitHub to manage different versions of their applications, and usually don’t work on the same project at the same time.  That means if Welsh is deep into a program, and something new comes up, it’s usually Schwencke’s responsibility. Or vice versa.

The peril of meetings

Both Welsh and Schwencke mentioned that one of their favorite parts about the job is being able to try out interesting new ideas with smart and dedicated people.  The flip side is that sort of work requires a lot of organization, and a lot of meetings.  “As most organizations do, sometimes we can fall prey to designing by committee, or getting sucked into a lot of meetings…The conversations and feedback can be really fruitful, but sometimes it makes me want to stab myself in the face with the nearest pen. Small price to pay to do something I love for a large audience.”

Extended transcripts

For more on Schwencke and Welsh’s stories, and their experiences at the Los Angeles Times, keep reading. Selected responses from my email with Schwencke, and below that, my phone conversation with Welsh, are below.

Ken Schwenke’s email responses

How did your experience in programming grow?  Did you take formal classes, learn everything on the job? Any people/books/Web sites that were particularly helpful?

I started programming when I was young — the end of middle school maybe? Certainly by my freshman year of high school. I remember riding my bike down the street to a now-closed book store to pick up such gems as C For Dummies. I had an old computer at home that wasn’t hooked up to the Internet, so I would go upstairs and carefully key in examples and try to figure out how the hell things like linked lists and pointers worked. There’s still a stack full of books ranging from assembly programming to Programming Windows to C algorithms sitting at my house in Florida. I aced AP Computer Science in high school and then switched to journalism in college largely because I thought the math requirements for computer science were soul-crushing — and hell, I was a pretty good writer.

As for helpful books and sites….when I got back into programming (this time with an eye towards Web and data stuff — credit Mindy McAdams for getting me back on track), I voraciously read everything on programming.reddit.com and eventually news.ycombinator.com. I originally started back up in Perl (I’d tinkered with it before I stopped programming, and I knew it was good for scraping and mangling text) and found Programming Perl to be a really useful book, though I know people think Perl is passe now.

What was your general path to the LA Times after you finished school?

It was a pretty direct route. I technically started interning at the Times before I graduated. I had a single credit left to handle in GIS before I could get my degree, and I hammered it out remotely with a professor of mine over the summer. Mindy knew the Times was looking for a programmer, so she told me and I contacted [latimes.com managing editor] Dan Gaines and went through the usual round of interviews with him and Ben. It was actually my first internship. Before that I had been working at UF’s school paper, the Alligator, in various roles (including ME/Online), but had never worked in a real newsroom until then.

What do you find to be the hardest part about the types of applications you build?

Making sure the data is correct and in-tact is key. Before, when I was building apps largely on my own time, if my data wasn’t perfect it was usually good enough. Now the bar is much higher. I also now need to worry about things like scalability — am I hitting the database an unnecessary number of times? Will my app be able to handle traffic from the top spot on the front page, or will it cause our servers to melt down?

What tools do you use to facilitate collaboration between yourself and Ben?  Some kind of versioning?

We use Git and GitHub for all of our version control and code. It’s great. We also deploy using a Fabric script, which automates updating the code on our live site. I never knew how much of a necessity automated deployment was, but trust me…I know now. We sit right next to each other, so collaboration is as easy as me yelling until he takes his headphones off.

How do you delegate/split the work between the two of you?

In Django, each app we write (for example, the Homicide Report is one app, Wardead is another, Mapping LA is another) is largely separate from the rest of the code base. Sometimes we pull in data from other apps (like displaying neighborhood boundaries in the Homicide Report), but we’re usually never working on the same app at the same time. Basically, if one of us is working on a big project when another project idea comes up, the other more-free one of us gets to handle it. It seems to work so far, and it definitely keeps us busy. But we’re always bouncing ideas off of each other and getting each others’ input.

What is it you enjoy the most about your job?  What frustrates you the most?

I really like the people I work with. Everyone is very intelligent and willing to try out new things, which is wonderful. It’s interesting work, I’m usually presented with new challenges every day and I get to try my hand at a lot of different things. I spent a few weeks delving into the OpenLayers codebase to re-write their clustering algorithm for the HR main map, and I even landed a small patch in the Django codebase.

As most organizations do, sometimes we can fall prey to designing by committee, or getting sucked into a lot of meetings. It’s (sometimes) a necessary evil. The conversations and feedback can be really fruitful, but sometimes it makes me want to stab myself in the face with the nearest pen. Small price to pay to do something I love for a large audience.

Do you prefer working on breaking news data-driven apps, or longer projects over time?

Since I’ve been here, I’ve yet to work on a breaking news type of app, although I’ve got one coming up soon that should be a lot of fun. There’s a definite difference between putting up something that’s a long-term resource like HR or Mapping LA and hitting a news hook with an app that explains something better than a text story can. So I’m excited to get to try my hand at it.

Extended transcript from Ben Welsh’s interview

Explain your position at the Times.

I’ve been here a little more than two years now, I started in December 2007, the title I was hired under is the position I still hold, which is Database Producer. We now do have a second person who I work with, his name is Ken Schwencke.  It’s essentially the same stuff that Derek [Willis] and Matt [Waite] and other people do, pretty much web development, except for news projects.  The technical work is pretty much identical to the typical web developer, but the approach to the data, and the presentation of it, requires the same artistic and analytical skills as being a reporter.  How you decide what to do, and how you do it, are shaped a lot by the traditions of newspapers.  But the technical work of actually achieving it is pretty much the same as most web developers who work with the same technology.

I spend all day sitting in front of a computer writing code that will, in most cases, power a public news Web site.  We don’t focus much on general CMS stuff that most developers at newspapers had formerly worked on.  It tends to be news applications that are not as tied to the central news engine of the content that gets shoveled through the newspaper everyday.  It’s things that are built for projects, whether they be multimedia- or data-focused, or things that are online only and displayed in a newish way. In our case, it’s a mix.  Just this last week, Ken did most of the work, we put out an update of our homicide blog, which in the past had been a TypePad-powered blog, but is now a Django-powered blog and database, so it has the look and feel so it’s more like a database, but also still has the blog features.  We do other projects that are strictly multimedia that require their own CMS, and careful mounting on the Web.  We’ve got our “Mexico Under Siege” project, which is very Flash-cented.  And we’ve done a couple of other Flash-centered multimedia things – “South L.A.,” “Alabama Homeboys,” and “Obama 100 Days,” where the centerpiece of the presentation is a Flash application with video or slideshows and other rich media that I can take no credit for.  The Web developer’s job is to get it all wired up on the Web in a way that’s nicer than our internal CMS can allow, but also have some of the features that we want, like user comments. It ranges from developing these data apps to multimedia apps, and there’s points in between.

You partner up with different people across the newsroom depending on which kind of thing you’re making.  There’s different modes here. One is, how do we take data analysis, investigative or research wise, that the old-school CAR team has done, and bring it alive on the Web.  “Mapping LA” might be an example of that.  Another is how do we take topics the paper already covers and turn them into these engines online, and that’s more like what we’ve done for the obituaries of soldiers – California’s War Dead where you take something the paper already does, and you sort of Web it up, and make it this new corner of the Web site.  And there’s the multimedia project, where you sort of help enable the very artistic Flash, video and multimedia people, and get their stuff online in a way that is a little bit more flexible than the internal CMS allows.

How much communication do you have with the rest of the newsroom?

Ken and I are our own team in the newsroom. We sit with the graphics department on the second floor, and we sit near Doug Smith’s CAR team, of three people who do research and data analysis in the old-school way, and we have a Metro editor we pair with a lot who sits there with us, too.  And the six or seven of us pretty much manage the whole production cycle. The servers that we host the projects on are Tribune servers, but we administer them, and we manage it all.  Besides making sure it’s plugged in and setting it up in the first place, we make sure everything is running and can handle the whole technical deal. Our interaction with other Web developers within the Tribune company is pretty small. We’re working to improve that, but the projects that we do are directed by the newsroom, and done entirely by the newsroom.  In the past, we haven’t always done that. With the Homicide Report, the generation before what just got released, was a partnership between Tribune Interactive and the people on editorial, but as our skills have increased, we’ve begun doing more and more ourselves.

Are you given assignments? Do you have a hand in proposing ideas for the various projects?

It varies.  In the “Mexico Under Siege” project, an order comes down from the managing editor of the whole paper, this was more than a year ago, in the fall of ’08, that in the next 12 months, this is going to be one of the big stories the paper covers.  We really want to blow it out.  On the print side, that means tons and tons of front-page stories, that means a lot of reporters, that means it’s probably going to be their Pulitzer entry, this is something they’re going to put their resources behind.  In this case, they said, “And we want to blow it up on the Web.”

So, it’s like you become yet another weapon in the paper’s arsenal when the people at the very top decide it’s “time to charge” on a certain story.  From the very top, there was an order that everyone needs to come up with something for this topic, and you guys are part of that effort.  In that case, the directive comes from the top, that this is the topic, and then the Web producers all go and conference with the editors on the project and the reporters and the photographers, and get a sense of what all the assets are, and what the theme of the presentation should be. And then we all go into a cave, and storm up what it’s going to be. In that case, I deserve, I think, very little credit. Besides building the nuts and bolts of a lot of the Web site, I think a lot of the creativity for how it works and how it looks belongs to other people who work on the Web project.  Of course, the content itself belongs to the reporters who provide all that.  That’s an example of one case, top down, where we’re going to do this.

A different example would be the “Mapping L.A.” project, which is where we mapped these neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and we had users submit their own maps.  That was an example where Doug Smith had, for decades, dreamed of doing something about mapping L.A. neighbors, but had never really made it happen.  But the stars aligned where we had the technology to do it, thanks to some of this new Web development, I had the time to do it, and we sold the concept. That’s where this interdepartmental team I work with sold the concept up the chain of command.  The “California War Dead” site is another case where that happened, the paper wanted to do something for Memorial Day, we knew there was an appetite for it, so it was pitched by our team.

There’s other cases where the Web editor we had for a long time, until recently, Meredith Artley, had this attitude where she was like, “Alright, geek squad, I don’t know exactly what you should do, but I know that there’s certain topic areas I want you to focus on. I want something about schools, I want something about crime.” She came up with a short list of two or three things she wanted apps on, or she wanted something innovative or different on for the Web site.  Then, it was kind of up to us to figure that out and try to wow her, or do the right thing. So the direction in that case was very vague.  Also, sometimes there’s a story coming down the pipeline, and they want a map, or a sortable list, or a sidebar toy, and we do those every once in a while, too.

What timeframe do you have for these various projects?

We’ve done a lot of things in one day, particularly little sidebars, it varies.  We’ve done apps in one day, we did this app for the Metrolink train crash. We had a commuter train crash out here about a year and a half ago, and it killed about 25 people. We got an app up within a day that had, when the news broke, a list of all the fatalities, and then these profile pages on all of them, where we had photos and data and comments. And that was an example where a big story happened, I pitched the idea, and we just ran.  So, that was a case where because it was big news, we just decided it was time to do something.

On larger projects, the deadline is always in the future and sort of vague, like any classic newspaper project, where the reporters are given some unspecified length of time to go get the story. Because the newspaper managers, especially at big papers like this one, are accustomed to thinking about projects in that way, they tend to apply the same thinking they have toward print projects toward Web projects.  Hazy deadlines are common.  But at the same time, so is, “Oh my God, we’ve got to get something done before tomorrow’s paper” attitude.  It can often come on and you just get all hands on deck to get something done quickly.  If you think about how assigning editors or print editors approach their job, it’s this variation between managing long-term things, and pushing superhard on short-term things.  The more you do them, the more you learn lessons and approach the Web thing a little different than you would a print thing, because they’re not the same.

Do you find the expectations from management to be reasonable?

Yeah. There is also the acknowledgment that the technical skills we are working with are things the print people don’t totally have a mastery of, so if you give them your honest appraisal of how much work you think it’s going to be, as long as you’ve been consistent about doing that accurately in the past, you have pretty good credibility.  Part of working at a newspaper is you’ve got to be able to deliver on deadline, and if you fail to distinguish yourself as a person who can deliver on deadline, you may lose some points in the print world, because that’s how print people judge each other, because that’s the way things have been run in that industry.  Especially early on, if you’re trying to establish the Web stuff we’re doing as something the paper should invest in and do, hitting deadlines is a good way to build your credibility.  But in the long term, you can’t be the person who always says yes, because you’ll kill yourself.

What has the audience response to your work been?  Do people participate in user-generated content-based (UGC) projects?

We haven’t been super creative about the UGC we do, although I think we do more than most data apps. The UGC we do is pretty limited to comment rolls. I think because we’ve done a lot of lists of casualties and fatalities in train crashes, now the Homicide Report, I think in those contexts you don’t have to police things as much, because I think the people who use the site have a sense of its gravity, and are less likely to engage in spam and flame wars, because who’s going to do that on a page for a dead soldier?  Because of the content of what we’ve done, I think we’ve had an easier and much better time with comments. The comments we get on War Dead are just unbelievable.

We always make a point of getting the post up within hours after the release comes out, because that night when everyone who knows the person is searching them on Google because word’s got out, we’re one of the top results. So you get very heartfelt comments from people who knew the soldiers, and for me personally, that’s one of the most rewarding things about the work in that sense, just because if you’ve made something that people feel so comfortable sharing their private and emotional information on, you feel like you must’ve done something right, even if you’re not sure exactly what it was. I know it’s very easy to trash user comments, and a lot of people like to, but frankly, I think I’ve had a very good experience with our applications. We’ve received things that have really added to the value of the site.

How is the general traffic? Are people using the applications?

Yes.  We have a general traffic level that we get, and then we tend to get very large spikes when we release something, or when something gets a lot of home page attention.  A few of the apps are doing increasingly well with search engine keywords, like it’ll be our goal to be the top search result for all the people we have in different databases.

How did you get started in programming and journalism?

My first journalism job was in Chicago.  I was a student at DePaul University, and I got a gig working as an intern for two great people there – Carol Marin and Don Moseley — who spent most of their careers as television journalists. I just worked as their footman/assistant.  For example, Carol was writing a project this week about Topic X. She wants you to research some information.  Or, we need to set up some interviews, or figure out who to interview, At the time, they were doing some long-form documentaries for CNN and elsewhere, so I would do some research and cutwork.  It was a great experience for me. Carol and Don are very warm people who are good teachers, but they are also excellent about what they do.  It was formative for me in that even though I was in college, and taking journalism classes, that was the moment when I realized, “Hey, I can do this!”  It’s not just something you heard about in class, but you actually do it.  You feel like it’s attainable, and something you like doing.

I graduated from college, and I didn’t really see a journalism job that was great, or maybe I just wasn’t pushy or assertive enough, or didn’t go knock on enough doors, or just didn’t make it happen, but I just didn’t see the opportunity.  So I decided to go to graduate school at the University of Missouri in Columbia.  With roughly the intention, but not totally the realization of what it would entail, I decided I wanted to work with IRE and NICAR while I was there.  I’d heard of computer-assisted reporting before, it sounded interesting. I was interested primarily as a method or a discipline for doing quality investigative reporting, which is what most interested me about journalism.  I had done a small amount of stuff like that with Carol and Don.  I remember we did a story about the city of Cicero and some expenses given to them by a contractor and I had to file a public records request, fight the city of Cicero to make sure they handed it over, and then do a rudimentary spreadsheet analysis of what they sent back, which ultimately resulted in a segment on WMAQ that Carol did.  That was an example where I was like, “Wow, you can do some really cool stuff if you know the tricks of the investigative trade.”

I went to Missouri, but I didn’t see the path I’ve ultimately taken to where I am right now.  I had a great time at Mizzou.  I had a great classmate there named Brian Hamman, now at the New York Times.  I remember seeing Brian and Chase [Davis] and seeing how invested they both were in the Web, even at that time, which would have been maybe five years ago now.  They were much more committed to the Web as a career path than I was.  I remember seeing that, and it was an eye-opening experience, seeing that there were people out there that looked at things that way.  Then, there was an opportunity that opened up to be a graduate assistant at NICAR, and I think Brian might have helped me get the gig. I worked on learning some basic SQL and computer programming to help NICAR do some farmed out investigative work for TV station X or whatever.  I remember doing that, and thinking it was really cool that you could work on a cool story and you could get the job to work on a cool story because you had the technical skills, where if you didn’t have the technical skills, good luck.  It was clear, even from the analysis world, that having the technical skills was your foot in the door.

To me, the combination of seeing people like Brian and Chase, and personally tasting how you would have this opportunity if you would just learn the skills, was a career-changing combination.  And then having the time to reflect on it, because you’re in graduate school.  You’re not busy working all the time like a lot of people had to do it.  I was lucky enough that I didn’t have to work a full-time job while doing graduate school, which is something I’m very grateful for.

After graduate school, I got a job doing that kind of analysis at the Center for Public Integrity in DC. And it was like, “Wow, you can even get a job.”  I worked there for about two years, and was hired by Daniel Lathrop. Agustin Armendariz was there, too. He’s now at California Watch.  And Helena Bengtsson was there, who’s now back home in Sweden at Swedish Public Television, and John Perry, who’s now the CAR guy at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  So, there was a period for about a year and a half where we were the data cave of nerds who did analysis for big projects there. We did one on congressional travel, on trips and junkets members take.  We did some projects on lobbying numbers, and telecom policy.  That was where I spent about two years doing computer programming, mostly SQL.  I had the opportunity to work on investigative projects, but also the opportunity to cut my teeth and learn a lot of computer programming along the way. I learned a lot of Perl from John Perry there, who’s a great, great guy, and was super generous with his expertise.  I had the opportunity to close the door, and read the manual, and figure a lot of stuff out.

Around 2006 or 2007, after I started getting comfortable with a lot of the basics of scripting and programming, that’s when Derek and Aron and these guys started really advocating within the NICAR world, which I now had been traveling in since graduate school, these guys started advocating that learning more and more Web development skills was a good idea.  Those guys, who had come up doing analysis with campaign finance and other stuff made the transition to being more Web developers.  I would give them all the credit as far as advocating that, and really helping people see that as a path. Because both Derek and Aron had worked for the Center for Public Integrity, where I had, and they were both active in NICAR, where I was a graduate student, they had a lot of credibility with me. As far as social networks go, I was positioned very close to them, where I could get the message clearly. I didn’t have to go seek out the message, the message was nearby.  So I said to myself, “Well, that seems pretty cool.”

I started teaching myself those skills, just on weekends.  I never really did a whole lot of Web development at the Center, but had been learning different things, when the L.A. Times called, and they knew they wanted somebody to do data stuff for their Web site, but they didn’t really know exactly what they wanted them to do, Caspio was still considered a good option at that time. They were print people.  They kind of knew that they wanted to do more things, and they wanted to do original Web development in the newsroom, but they didn’t know exactly what.  Somehow, I talked my way into the job, even though at that point, I had never really built a serious functioning Web site, particularly one that takes as much traffic as the L.A. Times does.  But I had the desire to try it, and was able to talk to them in the language of news to say that we could straddle this boundary together.

Then, I came to the LA Times and pretty quickly we worked with Doug Smith, who I would give a lot of credit to for trying to find ways to identify projects in the print world that we could latch on to, or take hostage, to try to turn into a Web effort. The first big opportunity we really had was we did some election data stuff with primaries and caucuses in ’08.  The first big opportunity was the War Dead piece in the end of that year, where we just said, “By the way, we’re going to build a Web site.”  We got the editor to sign off, and a little bit of money to put up some servers, and at that point, I didn’t even really know how Apache worked, and we just faked it until we made it. “Yeah, we can hit the deadline.  Yeah, we can get the Web site up.” And version one wasn’t perfect, but we shipped it, and it got out, it went okay, it didn’t crash too bad, and I learned a lot.

We’ve just gradually been doing more and more things like that, and now we have a second person doing development.  I’ve learned a lot about being a systems administrator in the last year and a half. Things I never would have thought I’d know in my entire life from journalism school.  I’m now pretty much spending most of my time doing Web development. A lot of times doing Web development for projects that have an investigative or data analysis bent to them, but really spending the majority of my time thinking about how it’s going to be presented to the public, in a publishing kind of sense.  I think that is a real fault line in the whole CAR community.  This distinction between presentation and analysis.  I’m someone who was doing analysis full-time, but who took the leap into doing a lot more presentation work.

It was a leap that was good for me, because it was a career opportunity for me, I was a young person, and I could make more money and work at a bigger media organization, and live in Los Angeles, which I would recommend to anyone.  For me, it came at a point in my career where it was very advantageous.  If you already have the great analysis job, it may not seem as personally advantageous to you.  That’s just doing the calculation of self-interest. There’s also the real objective of “Are we creating better news products that are in greater service to the public interest?”  I’ve crossed over in a sense.  Part of me is like, “Well, I feel really passionate about great investigative journalism, and I want to keep doing it.” But this other stuff is really challenging and fun and you get to do things that are still rewarding and good, too.  It’s a move that’s been mostly comfortable, but where you’re ultimately going to end up on that spectrum, I don’t know.

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