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An inside look at life at PBS News

Posted by on Feb 17, 2011 in Blog, pbsnews.org, programming, theory | No Comments

Our industry of “news application development” is still in its infancy.  As I’m given the freedom to reinvent how we do news apps over at PBS News, I’m relying heavily on staying plugged in to what’s going on elsewhere in the community.  What have people done so far?  How is it going?  What have they learned?  How does my experience differ from theirs?

Luckily, I count many of these colleagues among my friends, and we continually learn from each other.  But for a good roundup of what’s happening, Poynter’s Steve Myers wrote a fantastic roundup of the state of news apps.  I was eager to contribute to Myers’ survey of the field.

Yet in addition, in my push for openness and transparency, I wanted to share my responses with the community as well.

As you read, consider that just today someone reached this blog searching for “how to build journalism news apps”. Surprise, surprise, the answer’s not here — yet.

After you take a quick tour through my day-to-day experience at work, please reach out to me through the comments, email, Twitter, whatever and share what you would consider in this environment if you were starting from scratch to combine data, journalism and programming in 2011.  That could be topics, approaches, hints of what to avoid, ways to maintain a good tech-and-data-friendly culture. I’m hoping we’ve moved forward enough that there are different answers to these questions in 2011 than there were in 2008 or 2010.

We’ll be working to figure out what the future of data, journalism and technology might look like, adjusting our philosophy as we go, and taking feedback from the public both inside and outside of the journalistic community.  I’d love to hear your recommendations, thoughts or cautionary tales!

How is development structured at PBS?

We have more than 30 developers in house at PBS, working on education, general audience, and kids applications.  Django is our core development techology that serves as the backbone for the entire PBS.org website.  But that’s distinct from the group that works to power our upcoming PBSNews.org website.  I run my work off of a separate server, that’s specifically for data applications, and the main developers spun up a development environment for me.  That’s common practice for various PBS projects. But it’s my responsibility to not break it, and fix it if it does break.  So, I try to keep my database queries low – that’s on me.  But creating a program to back up the database, that’s on another team.

How does a data producer spend her time?

I spend 100 percent of my time on news-oriented Web projects. The development is literally a means to practice journalism.  Separating data project development from overall site development is something we’re still addressing.  So, for instance, embedding a document on a template — that’s on me.  Creating an index of all our documents that fits in our overall system is the responsibility of a supporting developer.

Because of how we’ve emerged from the tradition of computer-assisted reporting, posting data online is often a side project to an investigation, or some sort of online directory that doesn’t necessarily tell a newsy story.  That is, they often don’t stand on their own as editorial pieces beyond what I call a “pretty data ghetto,” extending a phrase coined by journalist Matt Waite. They lack substance unto themselves.

How are we approaching the idea of data pieces?

We’re pioneering the concept of DataStories, which combine the visual power of data visualizations with the structured organization traditionally associated with data applications, and add a layer of editorial contextualization to enable Web users to learn something new about their world that is most relevant to them.

I’m also thinking about how to make data projects easier and templated for PBS member stations and show producers, as well as other public media entities.

How does our team work together?

The PBS setup we’re creating is ideal. While I could do server administration from scratch, it would probably have more issues than the setup of someone who deals with dozens and dozens of servers. And developers working on content management system infrastructure will take care of the organization so I can focus on using my editorial and technical skills to find, collect, analyze and present data for news.

Our staff consists of producers with intense journalism experience who’ll be curating content from a variety of public media sources, but there’s strong daily collaboration between me and those producers, as well as our team leaders. I’m considered a member of the team with a specialty in data visualizations and data-driven applications. Those apps are considered as much a journalistic product as an article or a video, so I’m fully integrated into this team.

How do non data geeks react to working with a hacker journo?

There’s definitely a bit of mystique to what I’m doing, but that mystery is met with strong interest and enthusiasm, not trepidation or intimidation.  It’s a very new media savvy newsroom. HTML isn’t intimidating to my new media friendly colleagues, and if people haven’t worked much with data viz/apps before, they’ve certainly heard of them.

My newsroom colleagues know what interactives are capable of, but they rely on me to know the data journalism world inside and out, and to provide my thoughts. There is a solid understanding of the time data pieces take to build — we’re not going to do ten a day.  My opinions are taken very seriously, never dismissed. I’m given a wonderful amount of freedom to “do what it is I do best”, and am encouraged to innovate.

It’s unusual in my experience to see journalists who use programming to tell stories being so thoroughly integrated into a team. All of my colleagues bring immense experience, an educated perspective and creativity to the team, and that helps us all produce the best work possible.

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Why I really love NICAR (and the New York Times) » »