Buddying up with the news-nerd community
Here are a few places to ask for help that gets you past roadblocks in your work
Where do you turn with a question that’s stopping your data project in its tracks? If you don’t have a news-nerd colleague nearby, there’s a whole community out there happy to help. Here are three ways you can tap into networks of support, both right now and next week:
- Journalism-community Slacks
- Sessions at NICAR (including one just for asking questions!)
- A remote unconference for journalists all over.
Anytime: Reach out to a Slack community
Lots of journalism Slacks have dedicated places for you to ask for and find peer advice about everything from career moves to setting up collaborative projects. Here’s a great example: In the News Nerdery Slack’s #helpme channel, someone new to the data journalism community recently asked how to best organize an analysis with an eye toward transparency and easy sharing with colleagues.
People chimed in right way to confirm that Jupyter notebooks would be a good choice, and Geoff Hing, a data reporter with APM Reports, even followed up with a whole checklist of best practices that he’s developed over time (reposted here with permission):
While I find scripts are better for the ETL portion of a project, it seems like notebooks are easier to understand and fiddle with for people who are newer to programming. I don’t have a guide, but here are a few pointers:
- Start with a list of reporting questions. I usually make notebooks based on logical groups of questions and make each question a heading. Then, as I do analysis, I rewrite the questions as findings.
- Separate out your ETL notebooks and your analysis notebooks.
- Don’t make your analysis notebooks too long.
- Use both text cells and comments. I use comments to clarify what the code is doing when it’s not obvious from variable/function names. I use text cells to describe the motivation for the code cells, or the findings that they reveal.
- Refactor often. This means both pulling code used in multiple notebooks into a module, but also breaking up big notebooks into more coherent topics.
- Use assertions (or your language’s equivalent) that correspond to findings you share. That way, you’ll know if you update data and it changes a finding.
- Think about project layout. I feel like AP’s DataKit templates are an example of how to arrange your scripts, notebooks and data.
- Document everything about your process. Not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. If you’re short on time or tired, at the very least, leave some kind of message that indicates that you’ve skipped documenting a particular process or analysis (for now).
That’s an incredibly helpful list of practices, for people at all levels of experience in data journalism. (I’ve never made a habit out of using assertions that way. Such a great tip!) And Geoff’s one of many many many people in this community who’s happy to share what they know and help you move one of your projects forward.
If you don’t already know these communities, though, they can feel invisible! So here’s how to join:
- the Journalists of Color Slack, a community for people who are or identify as a person of color, and who work in journalism. “Do you identify as a journalist? Is your job something that helps to push journalism forward? Yeah? Sweet!” Fill out a short form here, and you’ll hear back from the admins. (Channels to jump into for help: #hack-house, #careers)
- the Lonely Coders Club, a community for journalists on small teams, who are often the only person in their newsroom working in data and code. If that’s you, you’re not alone in feeling alone. Sign up for a Slack invite. (Channels to jump into for help: #questions, #seeking-feedback)
- News Nerdery, a meta-community for news nerds who work in organizations of all sizes and in all places. News Nerdery has thousands of users and dozens of channels organized around different practices, projects, and places. Send the admins an email to sign up. (Channels to jump into for help: #helpme, or any project- or language-specific channel you see)
Next week: Ask a question at NICAR
In-person events are also great for talking through roadblocks in your work. At next week’s NICAR conference in New Orleans, OpenNews is teaming up with the Lonely Coders Club for a session designed just for you to ask questions.
At the Code Buddies session on Friday morning, March 6, from 9–10am, several groups of peer coaches will circle up to talk with you about projects you’re working on. If you’re stuck on a code problem, not sure what to do with your data, or just need someone to help figure out the next step for your story, this is an hour just for you.
Plus, being at NICAR means spending time with more than 1,000 journalists and developers whose goal is getting together to share how they approach reporting and data analysis. Take advantage of the hands-on workshops, the sessions, and the hallway conversations you can be having in-between. (And you can even sign up for the NICAR-L listserv to keep in touch and ask questions later.)
Next week: Join a remote unconference
Schedules, budgets, and travel can also make it hard to get to events like NICAR, so Heather Bryant of News Catalyst is organizing a remote unconference for journalists next week, too. (Heather put together a video meetup like this during ONA last year.)
Ryan Pitts is a developer and journalist in Spokane, WA. He’s the program lead for technology with OpenNews, a nonprofit organization that helps newsroom developers, designers, and data analysts collaborate on technology and support each other as a community. (OpenNews also publishes this website.) Ryan is a board member and developer at Census Reporter, and was the senior editor for digital media at The Spokesman-Review.