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“A journalist could do this!” – Reflections on Phil Meyer’s “Paper Route”

Posted by on Feb 12, 2012 in Blog, Uncategorized | One Comment

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Any of us coming to the field know this. I speak often, perhaps obsessively, about my mentors. But who inspired them? What was it like to be part of the field bringing the rigor of data analysis and social science, and the precision of emerging technology, to our journalistic craft?  When I say the name Phil Meyer, some in our community know him personally, some may have read his landmark book Precision Journalism, some may recognize the name as part of Investigative Reporters and Editors annual award contest. I mostly fall into the latter camp I’m afraid, but I’ve studied his work closely. I look back fondly on a phone conversation when I interviewed him in April 2010 for this blog’s Data Delvers series.

When I heard Meyer had written his memoirs, titled “Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism”, I instantly clicked the 1-Click purchase link on Amazon.  Days later, I ripped open the package, smiled at the cover photo of a very young Meyer reading the paper with his father, but didn’t have time to push further.  And on a delightful Saturday afternoon, after soaking up inspiration at the National Portrait Gallery, I sat down in the Kogod Courtyard attached to the museum (one of my favorite places to read in DC on a snowy day) to read a few chapters.

Two hours later, I had gobbled up all 338 pages, laughing out loud, nodding enthsiastically and remembering that Meyer was one of the first of “my people”, in days my parents had not yet married, let alone had a child.

The title of this post comes from a comment he makes while sitting in a social science class and realizing the application of data analysis work to journalism. But it applies to code, and mapping and interactivity and everything I do these days. Not that a coder should do it, but “A journalist could do this!” So, whenever I doubt, I’ll remember.

The book traces Meyer’s family history, going back several generations. As one might expect, it features letters from relatives in World War II, letters from him during college to his family back home. Because if anyone knows anything about providing primary source documentation for a story, verifying anecdotes with facts, it’d be Meyer.

I was inspired by realizing that he started his career in high school journalism, much like me, and not doing the type of work he has become known for.  That came later, but it was all part of a path, or a route, as the book’s title suggests.  He discovered data work as a Nieman Fellow in the 1960s.  Perhaps naively, I didn’t realize the history of Nieman went back to the ’60s. Meyer wrote that he was past the median age for Nieman fellow applicants at that point in his life, which is to say, he wasn’t in his 20s.  And it was then he discovered the tools of precision journalism.

All of which is to say that as much as I live in fear of not living up to what I can be, I’ve got lots of time to figure it out.  And the Big Impact that I hope to make, if it comes when I’m in my 30s, 40s, 50s — that’s okay.  Perhaps it’s presumptuous, but this book tells me that our paths are not so different, because Meyer’s story was not so unusual, in its parts.  Taking advantage of opportunities as they came his way, it seems…achievable.

I believe we’ll each take our own lessons from Meyer’s story, and I encourage you to pick up a copy and read it yourself.

I’ll leave with one more anecdote, though. Meyer quotes C.S. Lewis, and his thoughts on the “inner ring”, a notion of how we often seek to be part of some group we feel outside of.  But once we get in to that group, there is but another inner group.  But ultimately, Meyer quotes Lewis as saying, “If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsman, and other sound craftsman will know it.” (Read the full essay here.)

So what does this mean? Lewis, in 1944, in a lecture at King’s College of the University of London essentially said “You will find your people on the merit of your work.” It’s a quote that perfectly encapsulates how I feel about the data and Web dev community, at AP and far beyond.  Where I am respected for my craft, and my continual growth in my craft, and my age, gender, background, everything doesn’t matter, because the work speaks for itself. And I’ll respect you for the same. I want nothing more than to be a sound craftsman, well, craftsperson (it was 1944, I’ll forgive Lewis for the gender bias.).

And thanks to knowledge and inspiration from Meyer, and others he’s inspired, I have a chance at achieving that goal. Thank you, Phil.

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