Imagine for a minute that you’re a journalism student, about to launch into the “real world.” You dream of a way ot bring readers interactive experiences that make the most of the facts behind a story. You admire the kind of work they’re doing at the New York Times, ProPublica, Chicago Tribune, the St. Petersburg TImes. You see searchable databases, you see things you can click on, and a new way to tell stories. You dig in and you realize that the basic Web class you took in j-school doesn’t take you as far as you want to go. You realize you need to –gasp — program for journalism. But where can you go to gain the skills to create this type of work after your program in undergraduate or graduate school ends?
People say the best way to learn new skills is to just start doing them, but just starting to do it on minkoffcodingadventures.com isn’t quite enough for you. You want to get out there, but you want help. I have good news for you, there’s a place where you will build these projects, take ownership for them, but benefit from the support of a range of good folks. I’m sure there are others, too, but one of these places is in a building on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles — they call it the LA Times. I call it my first paid journalistic home.
The description for the application doesn’t come up if you type in “data journalism internship” on Google. But look here and you’ll see a position for a data application producer intern. (Say that ten times fast. When I was there they called it “Data/Web/Programming intern”. This is better.)
This is where I spent March to October of 2010. I created campaign contribution applications, a sidecar to an investigative project on redevelopment, and relaunched the website’s bestsellers presence. Plus, I got to pitch in on some smaller projects, and assist with the big guns of the LAT’s news apps awesomeness — projects like Crime L.A., a mapping application that automatically takes in crime feeds, presents the data and analyzes where the largest spikes are. Projects like the Homicide Report, that track the, well, homicides in the region.
There’s not really a typical schedule to the day. Occasional meetings, but primarily, you sit at your desk and do good work. It can, and should, take months to do an application right. Friday afternoon data meetings typically involve wine –very California.
If you want to go to the LA Times because it’s a big name, good for you. If you want to go for the city of Los Angeles, and California life, that’s another good reason. But if that’s all you care about, you’re missing the best part. That would be the team known as the Data Desk, that you get to collaborate with.
Want to learn about the intricacies of data analysis? Talk to the analysts. Want to get to know the reporters who file the entries that fill the Homicide Report blog with stories, and hear about what happened at the coroner’s office? They’re there. But your closest contacts will be Ben Welsh and Ken Schwencke (who I interviewed here before I even applied for the internship).
They’re Web developers, and journalists. Wait, do they do the backend work of structuring data in Django models, or the front-end work of creating robust templates to present that data? Both. You will, too, if you join them. They’re eager to help, take their work very seriously, and are always looking for ways to improve the projects of the Data Desk. They help you improve, answer your questions, rejoice in your successes, support you when you could have done better.
The data culture is already instilled at the LA Times. Management, reporters, analysts, developers, they all know what you can do, even when you don’t know what you can do. It’s just that there’s so much, more people are needed. You won’t be bored, you will be valued. And you won’t have to explain why this type of journalism is important, becuase for the most part, it’s just accepted. You can’t find that everywhere, which is why it’s worth treasuring when you can get it.
When I was looking into this internship, I was googling around to find a post like this, hear a bit about someone’s experience. Didn’t exist then, which is why I’m writing this. Now it exists. It’s hard to find because the Data Desk is only a few years old, and its other intern is Ken Schwencke, who works there permanently now. I went from the LA Times to PBS. The LAT can’t make your career, but gives you resources you can take advantage of. Approach it the right way, and you have a stronger possibility of achieving your dream. Only you know what that means.
So, after your time there, you’ll be as prepared as you can be to walk into another newsroom somewhere in the country, and bring the data and programming. It’ll help you bridge the gap between wishing you could do it, and just getting it done.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely, without a doubt.
If you’re interested, you should apply via this link, and reach out to Ben and Ken with questions (find them on Twitter at @palewire and @schwanksta.) And if you have questions about my experience there, I’d love to chat about it.