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Heading to PBS: Dreams do come true

Warning: This will be long, and sappy, and sentimental, and all things cliche. But, hopefully, it’s still uplifting and interesting.

My “summer” internship at the LA Times is almost over. It’s lasted from April until now, and I could stay longer. I swore you’d have to drag me out of “dream internship” kicking and screaming, as I clung to the massive walls of the still-impressive building. I will never forget the chance I was given at the LAT, and the boost it gave my career. But it’s time to move on.

I’m delighted to report that I’m joining PBS as a Data Producer for the organization’s website. Specifically, this will be a new news and public affairs component of the site. Yes, I’ll work for the national headquarters. Yes, that’s in Washington. We’re going to start something brand spanking new, capitalizing on the engaging, riveting, in-depth style PBS is known for, and translating that to the Web. I’ll get to serve as a generalist, with a specialty. Exercise my entrepreneurial spirit, but within the structure of a strong organization.

We’ll push the data visualization and application side of things, but I’ll also get to use the plethora of skills I’ve picked up along the way outside of data journalism. We’ll go on an adventure together. There’s so much I can’t be specific about, because it’s all new. But I do promise to not only keep you updated, but pick your brains for advice on what you want to see from the digital side of public television.

That being said, my hope is that we can say a few things for certain: We’re not going to be doing the same old journalism the same old way. We WILL push the boundaries of storytelling. We WILL help people stay informed and engaged with the news. We WILL help people make sense of the world, and we will do it with concrete facts. We WILL remember we do this for the users, the public. We WILL combine the best qualities of data journalism, online journalism and public television.

This transition is made easier by the fact that I have high hopes for bosses who “get” the mission I’ve been yammering about for a year. It’s not just about data, but about integration. We’ll be a nimble enough team that we can learn from each other, and not be segmented. The folks already on board have significant experience in this world, whether it’s fellow TribCo alum Tom Davidson or St. Pete Times alum Christine Montgomery — Matt Waite’s boss during the launch of Politifact. They know what data apps are. That means we push harder. Not good enough for me to say, “Hey, you ever heard of data journalism?” Got to come up with something better, something fresh and new. We’ll push each other to create the best product we can. We only fail if we fail to try.

I’ll be moving to Washington DC, in a very few short weeks — planning to land there by the end of October. So excited! After all, about a year ago, I had the pleasure of being introduced to this sort of work. It all started with one class. I discovered more and more people like me, and the community made me better. You can learn a lot from engaging online, but I miss the real-world conversations we had a year ago. I love the people I’ve met in LA with all my heart, but I still can’t help but feel that Washington is my intellectual home.

I’m excited to return to PBS. Last summer, I served as a Web intern for Chicago Tonight at WTTW, Chicago’s PBS affiliate. It was one of the best summers of my life, and I learned so much about broadcast and the Web, and the relationship/integration between the two. But that’s also when the wheels started turning. I wished I knew more about how to get data on a map. I wished we could go more in-depth with Web packages. I wished we could use pure facts, data, not just for investigative pieces, but to enhance people’s knowledge on topics across beats. Now, I have enough knowledge to push further, and to accomplish so many things I just couldn’t a year ago. And I’ve long thought public television sites were a niche ripe for the picking.

And now’s as good a time as any to acknowledge that I wouldn’t be in this position without the mentorship of NICAR folks. You know who you are. And the greatest class I ever took after Medill is the classroom I’m in every day, the LA Times Data Desk. The data analysts show me the thought process, and intense checking, that goes into every data project. My boss, Dan Gaines, listens to new ideas and floats his own, always looking at you with an intensity that shows just how much he cares about journalism, and you as a person. But my greatest teachers have been Ben Welsh and Ken Schwencke. Fellow journalist-programmers, we geek out together and support each other. And no matter how messy my code, how many mistakes I made, how much I’m still in the rough, they make me better, and never with a harsh word. If I get stressed, I only need to look over at them to see it will all be okay. Leaving them will be the hardest part of all. But they’ve prepared me to get to this point, and I’ll find even more mentors and supporters. And guys, you know you’re just a GChat or a tweet away, even if a continent separates us.

On an even more personal note, this next step represents some sort of victory. Yes, I know it’s only the beginning. But at the same time, it was this sort of position that I’ve been working for all along. I didn’t learn programming so I could write some awesome loader, geek out about server loads, etc. It’s all fascinating, sure! But I did it, I do it every day, and I will always do it — for the journalism. It’s a tool, just like a photo journalist using a camera. That doesn’t make him or her a wedding photographer. They practice journalism through photographs.

We see so many posts in the journo-community, asking if journalists should learn programming, if programmers should learn journalism, what do we name people with this hybrid?

But, here’s the question I forgot to ask. Once you start getting all these skills, where can you go to use them? Some of my mentors received quite a few late-night emails, listened to quite a few rambles. Where is the place that understands my tech skills are deeper than uploading my story to a content management system? Where is the place that understands I could add features to your site, and do general tech/IT maintenance all day long, but I have these journalism skills. The tech skills help to tell the story. It’s not one or the other. I consider myself equal parts programmer and journalist, journalist and programmer.

I had a fascinating job search, and managed to never file a single application, without someone from an organization reaching out to me first. That’s not what they tell us will happen at Career Services! If you want to pursue this career change, there isn’t a better time. Still, finding the right organizational match is no easy task. And I can’t tell you how ecstatic I am to have found that match.

In a world where we decry the death of journalism on a daily basis, where we’re afraid we won’t get jobs, I say there IS hope if we hold out. If you believe in what we do, follow your interests and skills, you’ve got a better shot. We must always push onward. And I, well, I never believed that less than a year after graduating Medill, not only would someone pay me to do what I love, but I would get to do it at an organization that instilled my own love for education. It still seems like a dream that’s coming true. I never believed I’d get to a national organization this fast. I never believed I’d get to take my ideas outside of a blog, outside of an academic paper, outside of internship after internship. Doesn’t mean I’m right, I’m probably not. But if the ideas just stay incubated, and are never considered professionally, what good is that?

We don’t have time to waste. The moment is now. We can’t afford to wait, the industry’s already behind where it should be in 2010.

So, I promise anyone reading this, friends I’ve known since elementary school, my dear supportive parents, teachers from all levels of schooling, fellow journalists fighting the fight for truth and knowledge every day, I promise that I will give this everything I’ve got. I recognize the preciousness of this gift. And on behalf of young journos everywhere, PBS, thank you for believing in us, in our potential. Thank you for the opportunity to experiment on a national playground. We only move forward by trying something new.

There will be no resting on laurels, there will be no complacency. Thank you all for your help so far, and I know we’ll be calling on each other in the days, weeks and years to come.

But for now, journalism must push forward. Let’s get started.

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