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What’s it like looking for a programmer-journalist job?

Posted by on Jul 30, 2011 in Blog, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking in the last week, as I worked through the final steps of an interview process with the Associated Press.  The job hunt has been a long one, and there are some points that I think are worth considering.

I’m still fairly early in my career.  I hear that programmer-journalists are needed, having this combo of skills is valuable.  But it’s harder than you think to find an organization that a) has a persistent opening and b) understands what a programmer journalist can do.  Add to this that the positions that do exist want oodles and oodles of experience, and the pool is small.  Of course, this is because it’s a new field.  And I believe in matches in friendships, romantic relationships and jobs.  No point in chasing after the guy who doesn’t want you, because why do you want him if he doesn’t recognize your great qualities?  No use in chasing if the timing just isn’t right.  Have enough confidence to know the match will come.

My friend and fellow news nerd Heather Billings has been asking some similar questions on Twitter recently.  Questions like “What percentage are you programmer, and what percentage journalist? What should the mix be?”.  Making statements like “I’ve come to identify with the term “programmer-journalist.” I want to give neither of those segments up.”  I completely relate to the latter.

So, there was a lot of buzz around this programmer-journalist jobs spreadsheet that surfaced.  I now own line 9!!!  The frustrating part is that so many of these jobs are asking for varied technical skills, but the “journalism” part is that you work in a newsroom.  That is, you can be the newsroom and use the technical skills without doing journalism, without being a journalist.  And we need more journalists practicing journalism with coding skills.

You see, there is this thing called the Internet.  I’m typing on it right now, and it’s how you’re reading this post.  And while words are great, and I love them to death, there’s all this other stuff we could be doing — new ways to tell stories.  And we can use tools to do it, and that’s great.  But there’s another level.  When you get frustrated that a tool doesn’t have a feature, if you don’t know programming, you make a request to someone.  You lose control.  I’m a control freak, so my idea has always been that when I hit that breaking point, I’d just change it myself.  I’ll use Google Maps, but if I don’t like that ugly white info bubble, I will write a function to make the info display in a pretty side panel.  Extrapolate that out, and you get the ProPublica guys making their own timeline, etc.

So, when we’re asked to use our programming skills to add a new commenting system, redesign an overall site, it’s not what I’m looking for.  No one makes you choose between being a reporter and a writer — you use the writing as a way to express your reporting.  Why is that not more commonly acceptable for those of us who code?  Heather, I don’t spend a percentage of my day in journalism and a percentage in programming — I spend most of my day in programming in order to practice journalism. I do other things, too, write documentation, pitch ideas, go to meetings, but always, always, always in the service of the journalism.

That being said, of course I’m willing to spend time on some things I might not consider journalism to enable the journalistic piece.  Just the other day at PBS, I had to fix the server because it got boinked — that’s a technical term. Just like if you shoot your own stories, you’re responsible for making sure your videocamera works.  Fine.  But, if you are a video journalist, and you spend all day fixing video cameras, something’s a little off.

I’m really happy to have found a place that a) wants me and b)respects what I’m trying to do: practice data journalism through coding skills. Major extra credit: They have a lot of people much smarter than me who are interested in my development, so I get to keep learning.

Because it’s so tough to find such a place, I offer some thoughts on what I’d tell someone in my position.

1. Trust yourself.  The places that do get it are what I would characterize as reaches.  It takes a certain amount of gumption to even go to careers.ap.org and submit an application.  Answering a short answer question on why you’re the best candidate is harder.  Not the place to write that I’ve only been out of school two years. Not the place to say I’m faking it till I make it.  Take a leap above your comfort level.

2. Connect with the community.  I’ve known Shazna and Jonathan for a while.  Not talking to them every day, but I follow them, and they follow me.  Twitter is useful for job hunting far beyond those of us pursuing social media positions. But I didn’t do this because I was hunting for a job.  I did it because they interested me, years ago.  I didn’t feel I was ready for this level of responsibility at first, then there was no opening, then there was an opening and I was interning at the LAT, then I was looking and there was no opening, you get the point. And the bonus: When there is an opening, you can be more sure your application will be seen.  They may even let you know they have an opening.

3. Meet with everyone you can in person. Shazna and I got together for a chat early one morning while she was at AAJA and I was out in LA. Couldn’t believe there was serious interest back then, because I doubted myself.  But come on, given the choice between sleeping in and meeting with the head of AP Interactive, which would you choose?

4. Blog, blog, blog! I first heard from Shazna back during my independent study, when she wrote to me and said she was glad to see me blogging about the data journalism ideas, and said they were working on doing more with it.  And they have!  It’s one thing to realize you have readers, it’s another to realize that people with real hiring power are noticing.

5. Pay it forward.  A few different people I interviewed with at the AP expressed an interest in training I’ve done at the LAT, conferences and through my Poynter writing.  This isn’t part of my current job per se, and I’ve always done it because 1) everyone else does it for me and 2) it’s fun! and 3)why not? and 4)we must be the change we wish to see in the world.  Pay it forward publicly and people notice.  Plus, it’s just the right thing to do, if you have knowledge and others don’t.

6. Ask a lot of questions.  Don’t feel compelled to take a position that isn’t the right fit, if that’s at all possible.  Taking a job to take a job may be necessary, but ideally, you’ll be there for a while. It would have been easy to say, “Hey, it’s the AP, what’s there to question?”  But then I wouldn’t be a reporter.  If people at the AP had been less patient with my queries, it would have shown they’re not really interested in me as a person. Yet, they showed tremendous patience, which is a good sign. Also, though, be respectful of the time of those you’re speaking to.  Don’t ask questions that you don’t need to know the answer to in order to make a decision. Be efficient in everything, to demonstrate that you are someone who makes deadlines.

I’m not saying this always works.  And everyone’s interests are different.  But this is an important decision, and it’s hard. And we could do better at creating openings that make the most of the complicated skillset I traffic in.  Let’s work on that together.

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