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Why I develop in the newsroom

Posted by on Jul 17, 2013 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I believe in the message, and describing that message in the best medium possible. What is the message? It can be many things, but developing in the newsroom affords us the opportunity for the message to be describing what’s going on in the world, things that truly affect us as human beings.

As for the medium, I dislike being tied to one specific form of describing information. I enjoy writing, but text is finite. Photography extends it further, as does videography. But if one wants to truly create one’s own story form, writing computer code allows this to happen.

I don’t develop in the newsroom just because I like solving logical puzzles. I could do that lots of places. Coding makes the most sense to me when I do it with intent, a purpose. Journalism has a very obvious, visceral, impactful purpose.

There aren’t enough folks who can write code in newsrooms — one of the few areas in our industry where the demand still vastly exceeds the supply. I know, because I see my to-do list every day. I know because I hear from editors in the industry looking for that combination.

But let’s say you know how to code. There are lots of places you can go to develop things. Here are my top ten reasons why bringing those programming skills to the newsroom is the most fun, fulfilling and productive way I can imagine spending one’s days.

1. Be the quirky one.
My experience is largely IN newsrooms, but it always seemed to me that if you work in a tech shop, you are one of MANY who works in that tech shop. Your tech skills, no matter how hard you worked to acquire them, are not in the minority. In a newsroom, using tech skills with editorial intent is still new. Personality traits that make you a good programmer may be unusual among your colleagues. Jargon and processes you are used to may be especially new. Introducing agile philosophies to those who’ve never seen it before is a really special feeling. You won’t be a cog in a machine, you’ll be more like the piece of the machine with the shiny new part. You’ll be valued.

2. Be the quirky one in a world of quirky ones.
Journalists are some of the most interesting personalities I know — people who literally learn, and impart that knowledge to others, for a living. The subject matter is always shifting, and never boring, so the people aren’t boring. Your colleagues will provide fascinating conversation, and stretch your mind. They’ll embrace your eccentricities if you embrace theirs. Life is more fun this way.

3. Make us more efficient.
Because we don’t have as many coders in the newsroom as we need, there are a lot of repetitive workflow tasks being done over and over. Some have to do with searching the same website repetitively for example, a quick scraper can save hours. You may even help find news insights by collecting information in a structured way, which others won’t find. Whether it’s for making it easier to publish stories, or for organizing editorial data, or digging into newsroom archives, interesting and fun projects can be found by automating things people have to do right now.

The merits of doing programming with editorial intent are best explained by my AP Washington colleague Jack Gillum:

“Developing code has simply made my journalism better and more accurate. Of course, old-fashioned source reporting is important, especially when I covered campaign finance during the 2012 election. But having the ability to add computational journalism to the mix usually meant richer story threads. My flavor of newsroom developing – taking disparate data sets and finding new ways to analyze them – is more on the back end, but it can fill in reporting gaps and get past the he-said-she-said punditry.”

4. Develop new ideas for presentation, and bring them to life.
Take in what’s being done in journalism now. Imagine it in a different way. Any and every story form is doable with code. The question isn’t what you can work on, or what you can do, but how to prioritize what to work on. You’ll be making some really interesting stuff, because powerful brains will work together to imagine it, then your tech skills will help you build it. Make sure the design is clean, and that you don’t just build something fun that’s hard to use. But you’ll have the tools to do some extremely creative work.

5. Develop insights others cannot, or as I like to put it, break news through code.
Use programming skills to collect and compile information. Work with reporters who specialize in beats, or specific topic areas, to enhance your work. They have what we call “domain knowledge” and have the knowledge and connections to provide you with incredibly rich source material. They also can serve as great user testers, telling you if your app makes sense to a non-programmer.

6. Have the capacity to make change.
Because programming skills are not common to everyone right now, people who have them have an expertise, and that opinion is highly valued. To make change, I’m realizing more and more, one has to do and make, not just talk. Never forget how convincing a quick working demo is. Coding knowledge means sometimes it takes 15 minutes or less to make a clickable thing.

“I spent a long time in the IT industry before moving to journalism – frankly, building news apps is way more interesting than programming firewalls and managing email or directory servers,” AP colleague Nathan Griffiths wrote in an email to me. “Plus there are opportunities to break new ground here – both in terms of code & content – that I think can be difficult to find in more established development environments.”

7. Have impact, both inside and outside of the newsroom.
Your work is distributed across a vast network among your colleagues, and more importantly, to the public we serve. You’ll help expose an industry to new, forward-thinking ideas. You’ll truly be able to search for the best way to tell a story, because your list of potential story forms is no longer a multiple-choice test, but an exercise in filling in the blanks with whatever works best. The question then, becomes not “How is it possible to tell the story?” but “What do we want to invest in the story?”

8. Work with extremely passionate and brilliant colleagues, coders and non-coders, inside your organization.
Journalists love learning and sharing. While, yes, there is a certain extent of sitting quietly and writing at one’s desk, there’s also a lot of fervent collaboration. No detail is too small to merit a second (or hundredth) glance. When you get excited over an intricate problem you solved, you’ll have people to share it with. And you’ll hear interesting stories from them. Asking continual whys in pair programming is not just acceptable, but encouraged. There’s a special mix of having independence in your idea. Learning technical and editorial knowledge from others is key here. You don’t need to do it alone, or with people just like you. You need resources in myriad areas, who are ready and willing to contribute.

9. Connect with an amazingly supportive data journalism community, where you can reap the rewards of learning and teaching.
Your resources don’t stop within your organization. The burgeoning group of journalists specializing in data analysis, presentation and technology competes on stories, not on tech. An especially powerful group is the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting, known as NICAR. My friends there made me believe I could code, helped (and help) me learn the skills, got me the connections to get all the jobs I’ve had, and have even been hired as my colleagues. Also, if you come in with tech skills, no matter your level, there are probably questions you’ll be able to answer, and you’ll have the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from helping others. Assisting others in the community also has the plus of cementing your own knowledge, I’ve found.

10. Be judged on the merit and execution of your ideas, not other factors. Join the inner ring.
Too often in this world, we are judged for external characteristics. But after spending nearly four years in this world, the judgment is reserved for the work. Your gender, race, even experience level is not as important as the quality of your intellectual work.

“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 craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. ” –Author and essayist C.S. Lewis in a lecture at King’s College in the University of London in 1944 (Full text of lecture).

Lewis is describing what he calls the Inner Ring, and part of why I urge you to join us is to join our Inner Ring. It’s a special mental place to be, and makes each day one of joy and fulfillment. It’s not just a job, it’s a state of being. Someday, I hope these skills are applicable to everyone, and the group that does this isn’t an “inner” anything. But to reach that day, we need more people. If you have the slightest interest in bringing your coding to journalism, journalism to code, or jumping into both fields head first, we await you with open arms, and are ready to support you.

If you think this sounds interesting, and have some coding skills to apply to the world of journalism and newsrooms, apply to the Knight-Mozilla fellowship, which you can find more info about here.

Questions about what living in this intersection is like? You can always find me online, most easily via @michelleminkoff on Twitter.

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