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Journonerd Crisis: Where am I, and where am I going? (ONA Wrapup)

Posted by on Sep 28, 2011 in Blog, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Conferences. They’re a time to reflect, to break out of the bubble. The Online News Association conference always seems to fall at a weird time for me. Last year, a week after I started PBS. This year, a month after I started at the AP (the team literally branded my big blue hat with an AP pin. I get it, you own me. Couldn’t be happier about that, by the way.) Stranger still, this conference is one of the few times I will see my Interactive colleagues in person.

As many people know, I like to spend a lot of my free time “paying it forward”. It’s a mentality passed down to me by my mentors, others helped me, so I will help others. Also, teaching has proven to be a great way to cement my knowledge. I had the privilege of speaking about interactive charting, and even presented code on slides. Maybe it wasn’t the most brilliant presentation technique, maybe I scared the hell out of some people, and I know for a fact some people were inspired to do more coding because of it. My dear friend Heather Billings and I proposed an unconference to talk about how to learn Django (and programming.) We didn’t get enough votes to get in, but that didn’t actually phase us — we gave our session anyway in a hallway. People sat cross-legged on the carpet. It was so much like my coding adventure — ignore the people who say you can’t do it, buck the status quo.

I lost my voice holding office hour after office hour in the hallway, going over Django structure, Google Maps, how I got where I got so far, what tools I use for social media, people asked, and I answered. I found out what life was like in other orgs, many of which are now customers of my new organization. So, I ask what’s going on in your newsrooms, not just out of curiosity, but to see if there’s a way we can think about serving you better. It’s fun, and it’s geeky, and it’s dangerous.

Because, you see, it’s all too easy to think I know it all. I understand the concepts in the sessions, I pass on knowledge. People ask where I work, and I say “The Associated Press” and I get that look. You know the look. That impressed, you-did-something-right-and-you-look-really-young, something. That look of expectation, as if I must be on the cusp of..something. It’s addicting, and it’s all wrong.

Because, again, you see — I go back to my newsroom. I go through a code review, and I’m reminded of the reality, which I must remember every step of the way, I know nothing. In describing my job to someone, “I spend all day frantically trying to keep up with the mental pace of Jonathan [Stray] and Julian [Burgess].” I make big tools, I help reporters format data. Yet, I still don’t know one percent of one hundredth of what every reporter I work with knows, I still haven’t met 10 percent of the reporters in the bureau. There will always be more infrastructure, and there’s this delicate balance I walk. But I don’t know where the dividing line is, I don’t know my end goal. I’m expected to get to know everyone, and come up with ideas, and I’m expected to stay focused. I have big lofty ideals, and places I want journalism to be, and I don’t want to get there in a year, nor in a month, nor in a week. To quote Veruca Salt of Willy Wonka, I want it now!

I rely on excellent managers to gently guide me. Phrases like “Are you sure about that?” “Do you really think that’s how long it will take?” “While that’s one idea…” or “How can I help you do this better?” pepper my days.

When I spend too much time on development, I worry I’m not enough of a journalist. And vice versa. And mentor Jonathan will ask me, “Why does this identity matter so much?” and as is often the case, I don’t have the answer, to Jonathan’s Big Questions that make me think.

I know I’m not maintaining the status quo, but I know my knowledge isn’t where I wish I were. And people tell me they hired me on the basis of what I can do, what I will become. But how will I get there, to a place I can’t even imagine? Given every resource I could want, what if I don’t live up to the expectations I strive for?

I remember there will always be more code to learn, but that’s not enough. Someone in the bureau tells me the beauty of the journo-programmer is not the news experience they have, but the news mindset that makes him or her who he or she is. I must not get caught up in learning all the tools, must learn to prioritize and delegate. Must get better at sourcing my newsroom. Must change the way we tell our stories — looking at big and little pictures. Must gently push for cultural change. Must not get intimidated by where I am, must not get overwhelmed by where I want to be.

Because the world of ONA is beautiful, but pie in the sky. The world of actual journalism is an exercise in getting stuff done. The intersection of the two is where I try to live.

I’ve not been a believer in making tools, wanting to craft stories, not the infrastructure that tells them. I will, of course, do whatever I am asked, for that elusive paycheck. But after conversations at ONA, and with Jonathan, and other mentor Derek Willis, I have finally been convinced. Jonathan refers to infrastructure as helping to make ALL the interactives (I’m paraphrasing there). While in the long term, I seek to be careful, and integrate more with helping reporters tell stories in interactive ways, the infrastructure is how we get there. Not only do I understand that now, but I’m excited about how it will change what we do, and the coding skills will bring to bear. In sum, I only spent a whole day wondering if I was going down the wrong path.

TL;DR: I’m thankful I have mentors who are quick enough to help, and good enough at persuasion, that my existential crises last less than 24 hours. I say it at least once a day: love, love, love my job!

I’ve got something new to learn tomorrow!

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  • Anthony DeBarros

    This past January marked 25 years since I walked into the Poughkeepsie Journal newsroom as a wide-eyed, frightened-to-death newbie. If I’ve learned one thing since, it’s that every day counts — and that every day has something to teach me. It’s best to nibble on each day rather than try to make each day a smorgasbord. Because time does pass, and those days and nibbles add up. 

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  • http://twitter.com/shanmcf Shannon McFarland

    I ask myself if I’m heading in the right direction all the time! I’m always struggling to describe what I want to do, that I’m learning tools and code, political knowledge, and reporting experience that I want to use together eventually. Definitely difficult to find a balance in a world that needs us but might not have clear job descriptions yet.

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