Five Years in News Nerd Careers (Part II)
A state-of-the-community roundtable to celebrate Source’s five-year anniversary
Source has been kicking for half a decade, and it’s all because of the work—the project documentation, educational deep dives, and culture writeups—that our community contributes. So to mark our anniversary, we asked a few Source and SRCCON contributors to talk about what it’s been like these last few years, what’s been changing, and what they’re focused on next. You can also read Part One with Emma Carew Grovum, Tiff Fehr, Tyler Fisher, Mago Torres, and Lam Thuy Vo.
Five Years of
We asked what the last five years have been like at work—including titles and employers, but also the more subjective parts of the experience.
Aaron Williams (The Washington Post)
Interactive journalism, much like technology and the web, has evolved rapidly in this last half decade. Around 2012, there was this emphasis in bringing coders to journalism, which led to titles like “news applications developer” and “data developer.” One of the largest changes I’ve seen is a move from these hybrid journalism and developers to something closer to “reporter” or “editor.” For example, I started my career as a web producer at the Los Angeles Times and then went on to the Center for Investigative Reporting as a news applications developer. After two years at CIR, I moved to the San Francisco Chronicle as its first (!!!) interactive editor (which is a title I choose after denying the title of data visualization editor). Finally, I’ve spent almost the last two years at the Washington Post as a “graphics reporter.”
I’m doing the same work I’ve done throughout my career, but this is the closest I’ve ever been to a “reporter” title since working professionally in data journalism. This shows the normalization of our work and a shift from the technical skills we use to do the journalism to simply the journalism itself. It’s such a welcome change.
On top of that, I think our craft moved away from heavy, databased-backed interactive stories to simpler, visuals-driven reporting that doesn’t expect the reader to “find” themselves in the story by filtering a database table. Instead, we’re opting to tell a reader exactly what they need to know either by inferring something about them (e.g. their location via the browser geolocation API) or based on their input like their date of birth. I think we’ve come to realize that readers are sophisticated enough to interact with the web but still don’t want to spend the time browsing a dataset that they have little knowledge about. To sum it up, we’ve found the best ways to tell straightforward journalism stories while leveraging the best parts of the web.
Geoff Hing (NPR)
In the last five years, I’ve worked as a contract developer for a foundation-funded storytelling project, for OpenElections, for the Chicago Tribune, as a freelancer and recipient of a handful of fellowships, and at NPR. I feel like such a generalist, so the nature of my work doesn’t feel like it’s changed remarkably in the last five years—it’s still a collection of a wide variety of tasks ranging from dealing with the messiness of government data to the messiness of news organizations’ digital strategies.
On a larger scale, two things feel persistent over the last five years. The first is the sense of loss that many have felt as they’ve lost colleagues to layoffs, or burnout, or to opportunities that just made more sense in their lives. The second is the persistence with which many working in journalism, and in particular journalism that uses code, have built networks of support. Over the last five years, I have witnessed so many people being generous with their time, skills, and any opportunities that they have to offer.
Gabriela Rodríguez Berón (freelance)
I did the Open News Fellowship at La Nation in 2014 and after that I continued working with data and civic tech projects. In 2015 I started working with the Coral Project in their two project on building tools for community in journalism.
Kaeti Hinck (The Washington Post)
Five years ago, I was the director of technology for MinnPost, a nonprofit media organization in Minnesota, where I led product and technology efforts as well as our small data/news apps team (we were still trying to figure out what to call this sort of work). With our modest team, we built and open sourced a number of accountability focused projects over the years. MinnPost was also one of the first digital only, nonprofit newsrooms, and we spent a lot of time figuring out membership models and tools, testing and iterating on our digital products, and adjusting our products based on what our audience needed.
After MinnPost, I moved to the Institute for Nonprofit News where I was design director and focused on designing products, tools, and apps for nonprofit newsrooms across the country—trying to solve common issues at scale. Now, at the Washington Post, I’m managing a team that does visual storytelling. We sit at this intersection of editorial, code, product, and design.
Matt Waite (University of Nebraska College of Journalism and Mass Communications)
It feels like every year there’s some new thing we have to add to the list of things journalists “must” know now. Five years ago, we were having the “Should J Schools Teach Programming?” argument. Now it’s fake news/verification. Data journalism was somewhere in between. I enjoy a challenge, but some days it feels like sprinting only to fall behind.
Brian Boyer (Spirited Media)
- Chicago Tribune, News Applications Editor
- NPR, Senior Editor, News Applications -> Supervising Senior Editor, Visuals
- Freelance consultant (a.k.a. fuckit, I quit my job)
- Spirited Media, VP Product and People
Five years ago I was just getting started at NPR, my second full-time job in the news industry. We began as a news apps team, working with data and making graphics and fancy websites, similar to what we were doing on my previous team at Chicago Tribune. A year later, news apps merged with the multimedia team, forming a photo-video-graphics-design-data supergroup. It was a hoot. We made great, audience-centric work and happened to win a bunch of awards along the way. Then life got in the way and it was time for me to leave. I wandered for a year or so, taking care of more important things than work, and picking up consulting work here and there. Now, I’m back in the game at Spirited Media. I lead product design and development, and also a variety of “people stuff”—employee on- and off-boarding, goal setting, recruiting, knowledge management, etc. Basically, improving how we work together, something that we’re generally pretty bad at in the news industry. It’s nice to be in a role where this is actually my job, not just something I pester other folks about. But it’s also really difficult.
We asked how the field has changed since 2012, and how “the field” is defined now.
Data and interactive-driven journalism felt very niche in 2012. It also felt very white and male. I think the standardization and overall awareness of this kind of work has led to a more diverse group of journalists doing it. We still have plenty of work to do, but I’ve noticed more women and people of color working in this field, which is so, so great.
In 2012, it also felt like fewer than 10 universities had classes dedicated to web development or statistics for journalism. I’ve seen a huge push for these kinds of classes over the last 5 years, and luckily, it’s not just in the elite/private universities across the country. I do hope this trend continues as I think data journalism is one of the best ways to report, but also one of the best ways to be hired in the current economy.
As far as our approaches in the field, I think we’ve learned that it’s not about the tools you use to do the journalism, but rather, what kind of journalism you produce. It doesn’t really matter whether you prefer Excel, Python, node.js or SPSS. What matters is the story you publish. I think we’ve matured beyond tools and are pushing ourselves to tell better stories; stories that matter; stories with impact.
I feel less confident in speaking about whether things have fundamentally changed in the field and more about dynamics which feel more visible to me. One dynamic that feels more visible is the way people who no longer work in newsrooms continue to give code, experience, and expertise back to the community of people using code to tell stories and share news and information. It’s encouraging to see that people still feel that journalism is still a crucial site for them to direct their knowledge and energy, even if it’s no longer their day job.
I think there’s also more visibility for people of color working with code in journalism. What probably started as messaging threads between scattered handfuls of people feel like they’ve become more connected and more open to people who had been further from networks of support. I feel like people are speaking more openly about their experiences and identities and thinking about how they intersect with their work.
Finally, there seems to be a steady stream of people who want to do this kind of work. There are so many talented young journalists who are just killing it. Sadly, there don’t seem to be as many newsroom jobs being created as there are people who could do amazing things in those positions. Recently, Andrea Hart, one of the co-founders of City Bureau, a news organization that is creating a practice of journalism that is emergent and connective, asked, “In your work, what does it mean to operate from a place of abundance vs. scarcity?” This question really resonated with me because it feels so fundamental both to my work and “the work.” A big part of this, for me, is being excited and energized by the powerful work of others rather than viewing it in terms of competition, or something on which to capitalize, either personally or within organizations. Operating from a place of abundance is also being happy for people when they thrive in an opportunity, even when opportunities can feel scarce. Fortunately, I see this modeled by so many of my colleagues.
Gabriela Rodríguez Berón
I’m amazed by how the open source world has slowly taken space inside the journalism world. There is a lot more sharing about tech and data in journalism than there was before, and a lot of talk about community engagement.
I’m sure this is not true across the board, but in many news organizations, I have seen our work become less siloed. Visual, digital, data-driven, code-informed journalism has become more integrated into the way we think about our work. User-driven design and product development have asserted their importance (whether we heed the call or not). The “field,” such as it is, has expanded and grown less homogenous. There is (a lot) more work to be done.
See #1. The expectations being placed on journalism schools—programming, data, digital, social, entrepreneurship, verification all waxed and waned on the scene in various ways since 2012—are getting substantial. Particularly with a finite number of credit hours in the major.
We’re better at showing our work, to our audience and our colleagues at other organizations. We’re still not very good at building teams that represent our audience, though we’re getting better. We’re better at user experience—design-how-it-works is putting up a strong fight against design-how-it-looks. Mobile has pushed us away from CPU-grinding baubles, though we still chase shiny stuff way too much. We still struggle under bosses who don’t know shit about managing us. We lack focus because our organizations lack focus.
Keeping the Record
We asked how everyone documented their (and their team’s) work now, and how their documentation processes have changed over time.
I think our documentation process has stayed consistent since 2012. Social media is still the best place to promote our journalism and GitHub still feels like the best place to build it. Organizations like OpenNews have given us a much-needed platform to share this work among ourselves. For a long time, it felt like you had to know about specific individuals (with a blog) doing this work to learn about best practices or be a member of the NICAR-L listserv (and that’s if you really like email, which I don’t.) Now, we have platforms like Source, conferences like SRCCON and communities like the News Nerdery Slack group that allow us to share a ton of information in a centralized space. I think this is great for newcomers who want to learn, but maybe don’t know where to start. I feel like it’s never been easier to document how we do our work and share it with the larger community.
I think documentation is really important, but lately, I’ve been thinking about all the knowledge that gets passed down within teams as a kind of oral history. I’m trying to resist the compulsion to formalize this information in more concrete formats, because I think there’s a critical but somewhat intangible value in not just the sharing of information but how it is shared.
It has changed depending on the team and the organization. At MinnPost, we wrote behind-the-scenes blogs and open sourced most of our projects on GitHub. At INN, we had an exhaustive documentation effort of our code, processes, and open source tools. At the Post, we open source some of our larger databases and make an effort to document and share how we analyze data. We also try to contribute to Source as often as possible.
Grades. Hasn’t changed. This is the squarest peg in the round hole for me.
What the Future Is
We asked how far into the future people were able to think about work right now, and what they were thinking about.
I’m always looking ahead. Right now, I’m focused on sharpening the “reporter” part of the title and trying to become better at sourcing, writing and reporting. I think our industry has shown that all of us can report and write when given the platform and can find stories that would otherwise go unreported. One of my largest concerns is the ongoing platform war between the open web and places like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. We almost always have done our work with free and open tools, so it’s unclear how this work will scale should more and more readers seek our work on private platforms. But, I find that readers still appreciate innovative journalism and will seek it out whether it’s an AMP page, a Facebook instant article, or a traditional webpage. More than anything, it comes back to the storytelling and I’m optimistic that we as data, graphics, interactive reporters will continue getting better at that regardless of how readers find our work.
I think about the next few months—whether I’ll get a job I’ve applied for or whether it will even continue to exist. I also think about the possibility of the end of journalism. This end seems both tangible in terms of an industry that no longer values my particular skills, certainly just as writers are laid off in pivots to video, so can coders. It also doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine a larger collapse, where the nature of media and attention shift in a way that the institution of journalism as I’ve understood it so far in my lifetime doesn’t exist anymore. Trying to imagine this feels useful because it makes me think about what the practice of journalism looks like in the absence of infrastructure and support.
In a shorter and less dystopian span, I want to learn more about media theory and cognitive psychology. I’m less interested in how these can be leveraged to monetize audiences and more in just having a better understanding of how I, and people in general, think about, desire, and react to information.
Gabriela Rodríguez Berón
There is a lot more thought that needs to happen about archiving the news of today.
I’m always trying to balance the immediate and the long term, which is not easy. We’re in a challenging news climate right now, one that makes it hard to think beyond day-to-day coverage. Which means it’s more essential than ever that we’re thinking long term about our work: Why we do it, what we want to accomplish, and what our values are.
Depends. In many ways I’m trying to make the curriculum changes we should have made five years ago. In other ways, I’m trying to look five years down the road. Anyone who says they can look that far into the future of media is lying to you, so I’m trying to look for durable trends that are going to be a part of society for a long time (think machine learning vs Snapchat).
Brian is an independent consultant. Previously, he was the vice president of product and people at Spirited Media, the visuals editor at NPR, founded the news applications team at the Chicago Tribune, and was a happy intern at ProPublica. He was one of the first programmers to receive a Knight-funded scholarship to study journalism at Northwestern University.
Kaeti Hinck is an editor at The Washington Post, where she leads an award-winning visual journalism team and explores the intersection of technology, design, and narrative. Before joining the Post in 2016, she worked as design director of the Institute of Nonprofit News. At INN, she helped design and build open source products to support independent publishers. For more than a decade she has been exploring the power of visual communication and technology in newsrooms. Outside of work, you’ll likely find her reading under a blanket, searching for the perfect breakfast sandwich, and spending as much time in the woods as possible.
Geoff is a Chicago-based freelance news applications developer and reporter. His reporting interests include criminal justice and immigration.
Gabriela Rodríguez Berón grew up in Uruguay before moving to the US and has been a software engineer for almost 20 years. Gaba founded DATA, an open data non-profit in South America, was heavily involved at the Coral Project, building tools and guides to improve community spaces around journalism online. She is a member of the board of directors at Stumptown Syndicate, a non-profit that supports resilient, inclusive tech communities in Portland, Oregon, and facilitates the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, Spain. Gaba is a feminist, activist, and mom to two kids.
Matt Waite is a professor of practice in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab. Since he joined the faculty in 2011, he and his students have used drones to report news in six countries on three continents. From 2007-2011, he was a programmer/journalist for the St. Petersburg Times where he developed the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact.
Aaron Williams is a data journalist, analyst, and visualization expert tackling inequity in data and design at scale. He’s currently a senior visualization engineer in Netflix’s Data Science and Engineering group and previously spent a decade as a data and graphics reporter—most recently at the Washington Post.