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

Posted by on Feb 28, 2011 in Blog, Uncategorized | One Comment

While discussing the rambly nature of this blog, Heather Billings and I decided late at night it might be time to change the tagline to “A Data Ghetto of my Thoughts.”  I thought some here might appreciate this.

Today marks my triumphant, yet sad, return from the NICAR conference in Raleigh.  There was a frightening amount of tweeting, and I literally talked myself out of a voice.  I’m triumphant because I have so many ideas. (It was really pretty bad already….and you’ve got to feel a little bad for my editor, Joel, who listened to me yammer for an hour, all in whispers.  Virtual round of applause for him, please?)

I’m sad, because it turns out NICAR is kind of a fan club for this blog, and it was like a never-ending comments section. I really do consider you, my readers and fellow conference-goers, hundreds of my closest friends.  People love NICAR partially because of great panels (structured like lectures and q & a) and often the hands-on labs.  In all cases, experts in their fields will help you learn something and you can bask in their glory.  I understand the statistical analysis software R (the overused joke is it’s the hardest tool ever to Google) much better after watching NYT’s Amanda Cox fly through it.

Likewise, people love the NYT for so many reasons, but in my corner of the world, it’s got to do with the amazing work of the graphics, interactive, and computer-assisted reporting desks.  If you ask a journo who’s doing the best data viz work “NYT” is an automatic response.

In both these cases, I’m think we’re looking at it wrong.  The best parts of IRE and NYT are not their content, but the people who create the content they provide.  NYT isn’t doing its data app work perfectly, even with all those people. And IRE conferences stand to be improved as well.  No one’s perfect, and we shouldn’t say they are.  I’m working on posts that go deeper into both these issues.  No one’s perfect, and we’re not helping each other when we’re afraid to critique.  Sometimes, people mock me for all I write here, but I crave the feedback.  Aron Pilhofer says that’s part of me being a millenial.  My boss Tom Davidson inspires me to do it by saying smartest people aren’t necessarily the ones you hired.  It doesn’t matter the exact reason.

The point is the NYT and IRE share the same common strength — the people.

In order to push journalism forward, we need support.  As data geeks, we spend so much of our time by ourselves in our separate newsrooms.  At conferences, we come together — group therapy.  And it’s not just once or twice a year, but we can rely on each other.

But the real learning happens outside of the sessions.  And at the NYT, the best work being done isn’t what’s in the paper or on the Web, but what it’s doing to mentor the next generation.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you’ll know a wonderful human being named Derek Willis introduced me to this data world.  He who makes time to pass on knowledge no matter how busy.  He who introduces me to like-minded folks.  And I thought it was just Derek that was so wonderful.

But his boss Aron Pilhofer — “the” Aron — is just as kind.  He’s helped me with job decisions, think about what skills to try next, etc.  I tell him after his panel, that every time I hear him talk, I agree with everything he says, and he says the feeling is mutual. And I melt a little inside, because I’m not all that weird and alone, just weird.

And at this year’s conference, my personal graphic hero Amanda Cox — a woman who used tones to visualize difference between Olympics times, among countless other genius moves — unassumingly walks up to me, and says “Hey, Michelle, I really like your blog.” Me: Amanda Cox reads my blog!!!!!! *dies*

Ron Nixon, founder of the fantastic Ujima project at CPI — and that’s in addition his fantastic NYT projects work — says he’s a big fan of what I’m doing.

This is all nice, and a lot of name dropping.  But my pont is: People I admire, are aware of me as more than a colleague’s former student.  And I’m 24.  And new. And trying stuff. (Joel uses the word ‘disrupter’, which I think I will adopt — “Michelle ‘The Disrupter’ Minkoff”)

But the best part of all?  Saturday night, CAR guru Rob Gebaloff sits down next to me. 3 hours later, he’s helping me revamp my DataStories by brainstorming, finding, crunching and supplementing data sets. He’s giving me advice about starting something new.  He’s got the glimmer in his eyes. He is, in essence, my Derek for CAR as opposed to Derek being my Derek for Web dev and all things Congress. (That was a confusing sentence, but you get the point.) He tells me I’m “doing the Lord’s work” and in the morning sends a follow-up email about datasets he suggested the previous night.

The beauty about all these people is not that they work for the New York Times.  It’s that the New York Times attracts people who care about young folks who work hard and exhibit great drive.  They speak every sentence with an unmatched passion and intensity, striving toward a utopian perfectionism, their eyes sparkling with phenomonal devotion.  If Derek helped my love of the field be born, then Aron, Ron, Rob, Amanda, Jake [Harris], you’re all my aunts and uncles.

Some people dream of working at the New York Times.  If you want that for the byline and the name, I think you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, but kudos to you.

If you want it for the freedom of bringing data journalism to a new national organization of American public television and a forward-thinking new site — oh wait, that’s *my* dream job over at PBS.

If you dream of the NYT because their people could teach you so much, and you want to do work that makes the most of their collective knowledge, you don’t need to go there, you can just find them.

Take the freedom that you’ve got at your news org, stop romanticizing and get the knowledge of Derek, Rob and all the rest at confernences, via email and phone.

This is a long way of answering several people who ask if I would ever want to work at NYT, what I want to do after PBS.

Let’s be clear: I just got to PBS, there’s a lot I want to do here, and I have my dream job.  Don’t make the mistake of asking me about moving on.  Ask me how PBS will be changed in five years, and I’ll tell you about my dreams.

But Derek, Rob, Aron and I do work at the same place.  So does Jonathan Stray, Mark Ng, Heather Billings, Ben Welsh, Dan Lathrop, Chase Davis and hundreds of others.  If you’re reading this, you work here too.  We work for a state of mind, that makes the most of serious in-depth journalism, displayed in compelling, engaging ways.  We all work for the media that’s making the difference in the lives of all.

So I’m doing that job, specifically for PBS.  It’s a dream, a dream made easier with all of IRE as well as my public media colleagues as a source of intellectual and emotional support, and I couldn’t be more delighted.  I thank NICAR for reminding me of that support and making me more serious about my goals than ever before.

If you’ll excuse me, because my social life is truly spectacular, I have a date with American FactFinder.  Which means Rob probably gets an email pretty soon.

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