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Wrapping up ONA13: Learning to own who I am

Posted by on Oct 27, 2013 in Blog | One Comment

Last week, I didn’t sleep much. I mean, that’s every week, but I slept *less* then. After several near all-nighters preparing for epic workshops for the Online News Association’s annual conference in Atlanta, and then going to said conference, talking to all of you constantly and furthering my sleep debt, I’ve spent yesterday and today sleeping the mornings and early afternoons away in glorious style. I regret nothing. This is my story of most journalism conferences. But this one, this one was different.

This past week was the first conference where I attended after moving to a data-specific team at work, where I now have the privilege of reporting to Troy Thibodeaux. If you don’t know him, and you read this blog, I’ll just say that hoping he would follow in the footsteps of past mentors was underselling it bigtime. He keeps me on track, has solutions to my coding and other issues, really cares about what I’m trying to do, and manages to be supportive and treat me as someone who has knowledge and a valuable perspective to offer. So, partially thanks to Troy, my data teammates, my overall Interactive teammates, my colleagues at AP Washington, and you know, everyone, I finally (finally!) see myself as less of an intern and newbie nipping at everyone else’s heels, and a real programmer-journalist. It’s taken forever for me to say this, but wait for it: I deserve to be where I am. I have something to contribute. Yes, I have a long way to go, but I will not belittle what I already have accomplished, and it is not negligible. Hanging out with all the smart folks at ONA only convinced me of this more.

I value ONA for how it broadens my specialty — maybe I spend too much time in the coder world, and it’s interesting to see how it applies more broadly. I have pushed for years for “MOAR DATA”, and more data we got. Sessions after sessions introducing folks to what I call “The Mission”, the belief that data journalism can assist all reporters, whether it’s finding info, understanding how info is processed, displaying it, analyzing it or myriad things.

As usual, I didn’t make it to many sessions, but was thrilled to peek in on friends of mine presenting for the first or second time at a national conference. It’s gratifying to see our and future generations be taken seriously in the industry, no longer mere beginners. That’s not to say we don’t have something to learn, but we can contribute. And I quite enjoyed Nate Silver’s keynote, which rang especially true given the online stats class I’m taking these days.

I did find a lot of the data sessions light, but upon reflection, I’m okay with that. Part of me wished they would go deeper, but part of me thinks that’s what NICAR is for. I’m thinking maybe that’s how it should be, a useful entry point that’s applicable to the group it serves. Perhaps ONA is how various parts of the industry fit together. In that case, I’d like to see data folk on panels with video or social folk — looking at how the different specialties can combine to create the most powerful digital journalism possible. Just an idea. Major step forward with the programming this year, though. Awesome.

Of course, there was a swath of sessions geared toward different experience and technical levels, which made the conference great. And it wouldn’t be a journalism conference if yours truly weren’t giving at least one of those sessions, right? (I gave two. Because I’m me.)

ProPublica’s Scott Klein and I did a variation on my often-given Web scraping without programming theme, but we tried to focus more not just on tools, but concepts of the Web and how this tech knowledge would help you as a reporter to better find info, without programming skills (although if you want programming skills, I am totally an advocate for that, I’m just not saying you have to do it). Our tipsheet can be found here.

I adored that session, and couldn’t walk much of anywhere without hearing positive feedback from folks about how helpful it was, so thanks! That’s why I do it, and it means so much to me if it’s useful and/or enjoyable. If you went, or are just looking at the tipsheet, please let Scott (@kleinmatic on Twitter) and I know if you have any questions/concerns/constructive criticism.

But I was even more nervous about taking the stage for three hours on a Thursday afternoon, and showing off some charting and visualization walk-throughs. We covered the custom viz library Raphel, the out-of-box charting library amCharts, which I use at work, and finally, extending amCharts using Raphael, which shows how code gives you MOAR POWER. This is all also known as “Michelle tries to share hard things she’s learned in the last year or so”.

This was a live recording of some of the content for my For Journalism course, which I have been remiss in recording (there were some health issues, so I kind of have an excuse). I was preparing up until the last session on a couch in the lobby (sorry if I brushed you off if you wanted to chat while I was nervously reviewing). But! I made it through the whole thing, with some time to spare, my voice didn’t die. We started with a full room, and by the end of three hours, it dwindled to two people, plus our For Journalism organizer Dave Stanton. I hear in education that to really test your students you need to ask at least one question on a test that your best student can’t answer correctly. Similar goal here. I always worry sessions don’t get in depth enough, so we did here. I heard that a lot of folks who left, left because of the long time commitment, not because they got scared by the content, so that’s good. And I think we served some folks really well. I’m even more excited about the reach of the videos, since all that is screencasted. Now I have ideas for more elements for the course, and I think the FJ project will help broaden my reach.

Dave commented to me that part of his hope for FJ is that it will help folks like myself, Jeremy Bowers and other teachers in the course to scale our pay-it-forward mission. That would be nice. I spend a lot of time answering emails, giving talks, etc.. I totally enjoy it, and don’t want to stop, but it would probably be more efficient if there were a more mass way to get the message across. I was especially impressed by my FJ co-teachers at the conference. I learned a lot about command line version control watching part of Jeremy’s Git class, and got a great intro to cybersecrurity through part of Mike Tigas’ class on that topic. I was quite impressed by Dave’s organizing, making sure the tech was in place, introducing us, offering refreshments to keep us going, etc. We were in a room on the bottom level at the end of the hallway, and Dave was consistently there and devoted. It’s a pleasure to have someone like him keeping me focused in the FJ mission. Working on more videos for that class as my weekends allow. It’s happening.

Code samples from my FJ workshop are here.

That’s probably enough detail. Oh, if that wasn’t enough, AP won a topical reporting Online Journalism Award (see the work here) — congrats to the team, esp. my interactive colleague Nathan Griffiths! You want more? There was an un-un-conference Nathan and I held on getting info about PDFs and into a searchable database, and there were parties and karaoke and lots of fervent late-night future of journalism talks, and “I follow you on Twitter!” moments and an after-after party that led to leaving the hotel lobby on Sunday morning at 5am and it was all so fun. Great reconnecting, great pay-it-forwarding. ONA, it was truly a pleasure, as ever.

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A letter to my 15-year-old self, celebrating life’s lessons » »