Five Years in News Nerd Careers
A state-of-the-community roundtable to celebrate Source’s 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.
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.
Lam Thuy Vo (BuzzFeed)
Right now, I’m a reporter who works on the breaking news team at BuzzFeed and who sets her own agenda and pitches stories around the news. How I tell the stories is up to me (with input from my editor) and involves every media imaginable. At BuzzFeed I’ve made my fair share of GIFs, shot and edited videos, have been on a live show made for Twitter, created static and interactive graphics (and templates for them), and have contributed to a zine for our Open Lab showcase.
I have a whip-smart editor who practically lives on the internet and who understands and edits my work without getting too distracted by the flashiness of tech. He also understands that I am capable of coming up with stories and reporting them out. This was not always the case. At so many other organizations I’ve had to establish my editorial capabilities beyond my technical skills. I’d have to do work on the side for passion projects and on the clock to buy me the goodwill of editors to allow me to work on my own stories. Whether it’s the times that have changed, the environment or the breadth of my portfolio, I don’t know. All I know is I have to fight less for anyone to support me editorially.
It also seems like the coding ecosystem has become more differentiated and allows people to fit into multiple roles. Now there is room for editorial designers who don’t need to or want to report, there are people who are highly specialized (map makers, 3D modeling, animation artists) who enjoy collaborations with reporters, and technological generalists who are full-stack developers, data sleuths and pitch their own work.
Five jobs in five years! Below is an exhaustive list, but here’s something I’ve been able to observe over time:
- Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News | New York (2017 - present)
- Open Lab Fellow for BuzzFeed | San Francisco (2016 - 2017)
- Data Journalist for The Wall Street Journal | New York, NY (2015—2016)
- Interactive Editor for Al Jazeera America | New York, NY (2013—2015)
- Multimedia producer / reporter for NPR’s Planet Money | New York, NY (2012—2013)
TLDR is here: http://lamivo.com/resume.html
Tyler Fisher (Politico)
- 2017-Present: Senior News Applications Developer, POLITICO Interactive News
- 2014–2017: News Apps Developer, NPR Visuals
- 2012–2014: Undergraduate Fellow, Northwestern University Knight Lab
It’s funny to celebrate Source’s fifth anniversary by thinking about my last five years, because I haven’t been in the industry much longer than Source has been around. So my last five years have been my only five years. I can’t compare what’s happened to the past because I wasn’t a part of it.
But even in these five years, I’ve noticed a standardization of the work we do as we collectively learn about what works on the web. We’ve learned that everything you make must work on mobile, that information should be presented in a way that requires the least amount of interactivity possible, that scrolling is Good (but scrolljacking is Bad). All of this standardization comes from shared learnings and practice, which is great, and Source has played a huge role in that. But I hope we don’t lose sight of the experimental nature of our work. We should keep pushing and inventing new visual patterns.
Personally, my first five years in this community have given me purpose. I’ve felt like I’m not only creating and contributing to important journalism, but also that I’m helping change journalism from within for the better. As the news cycle intensifies and our audiences want more information from us than ever, the skills we have in collecting and collating information are more important than ever. I never really think about doing anything else.
Tiff Fehr (The New York Times)
I’ve been at the Times and on its Interactive News desk just over five years, so this part of my career path is nice and tidy. I’ve grown from a junior member of the team into a lead engineer and editor on our desk. The Times has reworked its career paths within those years, and of course Interactive News has changed its leadership, structure, and editorial focus a few times, too. The work itself has felt like a rollercoaster built continually uphill—loops and turns and drops but never backward on itself or back to the start. I love the fact that it has been a constant and intense challenge.
Emma Carew Grovum (Daily Beast)
Five years ago, I was the digital editor for a cooking magazine based in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I had yet to begin considering my work in digital news as being “part of technology.” Today, I’m a product manager working at a national news site based in New York City. Over the past five years, I’ve been a consultant, a data journalist, a social media editor, a homepage editor, a newsletters editor, a project manager, an assistant managing editor, and I’ve overseen two replatforming processes for two newsrooms. I’ve been on small teams, big teams, led teams, and worked solo. About three years ago, I realized that I wanted to work with one foot in each world: product and editorial, and began working on projects that would help me gain experience working with designers and developers.
Mago Torres (JSK Fellow)
My work has been a little bit eclectic. From 2012 to the beginning of 2015 I was a tenured professor in Mexico City. When I moved to the US I first worked as a researcher for the Panama Papers investigation. Then I worked as Research director at GIJN, and during the first part of 2017 I worked as a freelance researcher for investigative journalism. I’m now a JSK (Knight) Fellow at Stanford.
From my personal experience, the last five years have been a process of doing—learning in journalism and doing and learning with others. And to be permanently open to do it. To apply with rigor the highest quality standards of journalism, and to be flexible to explore new reporting tools. I believe these translate to improving the methodologies used for news coverage, the quality of the news, and the impact journalism has. Last but not least, the last five years have been a very interesting time to see the move from a few looking to collaborate with others to a deeper commitment to do it—for all the different reasons: learning and seeing the impact of collaborations, adding efforts and resources, reaching a bigger audience, and the list can go on. I think this is one of the best lessons/transformations.
We asked how the field has changed since 2012, and how “the field” is defined now.
Lam Thuy Vo
I feel as if each organization has carved out its particular role in the larger news developer universe. While they all overlap somehow, there are some shops that are known for specific types of editorial approaches: ProPublica makes giant, previously unpublished data sets available; the Washington Post and the New York Times produce high-quality data visualizations at a rapid pace; NPR is a treasure trove of open-sourced templates; and Vox and FiveThirtyEight are fostering data journalists who tell nerdy stories in visual ways.
From my vantage point, the field has grown dramatically since 2012. A look at NICAR attendance numbers should tell you that. Along with that growth has been a valiant and important push to diversify the field. That work is ongoing and requires the entire community to fight for inclusivity at all levels—better hiring practices, more humane team processes, explicit spaces for diverse voices to be heard.
While I think the root of the work—using technology to improve our journalism—hasn’t changed too much, I think the range of applications we have found has exponentially grown. News organizations have gotten into not just investigative and reactionary data journalism, but also predictive journalism. We forecast election results and NBA championship odds now. We’ve found greater affinities with data science, statistics, computer science, and digital humanities. There’s been growing pains as we’ve moved towards that work. What are the ethical boundaries of predictive journalism?
It seems my immersion in the Times coincided with the start of OpenNews (one of my first news nerds outside my team was one Erin Kissane, introduced to me by teammate Jake Harris!). My previous job in news was relatively out-of-touch—I didn’t know about ONA, IRE, the Pulitzers were for distant print publications, etc. My Times colleagues had a fluency with editorial workflow, fellow news organizations, and career paths utterly new to me. I have caught up, I think. But I still feel somewhat blindered from seeing “the field”—my two news workplaces were extremes. I don’t know the middle as much as I would like.
The technical ability of the field has grown quite a bit. We get into our CMSes and apps more easily now, reflecting trust from other technologists for our professionalism and project execution. That demonstrated ability has led to swift evolution of our presentation and visualization skills, even as the web and devices endlessly change.
The histories of people in the field have expanded, too. Many now train with it in mind, rather than happen into it amid other career plans (a code-curious journalist or a news-junkie technologist). That’s wonderful and helps professionalize and circumscribe the field better. And it helps us better explain ourselves to our news orgs. I hope the technical chops, STEM-adjacent skills, and professionalism only continue to grow. I hope we also hit an inflection point where we reinvest our fundamental journalistic skills, too, because the tech side can get lopsided.
Emma Carew Grovum
Overall, the field is bigger and broader. There are more job titles than there used to be that are all still considered “journalist.” Developers are journalists. People who do social media are journalists. People who create graphics and data visualizations are journalists. I’d like to think that over the past five years, we’ve seen an explosion of new voices contributing to shaping the news business. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen newsrooms catch up as quickly as I would have hoped. The people viewed as the industry’s top thought leaders are still straight, white, middle-aged men who don’t always seeing the forest for the trees, and most of the nation’s top newsrooms are led by a similarly narrow demographic.
I would say that two of the things I appreciate most in these changing times are interdisciplinarity and collaboration. And I think about this both inside newsrooms (or specific teams), between news organizations, and between news organizations/independent journalists and organizations that are not in journalism. I think we have seen an increasing transformation in these aspects. I’m a journalism fan and deeply believe in it, but I am also aware of the precariousness of the working conditions that affect both young and experienced journalists. I think these move the balance all the time, and we are all pushed to be more creative to keep doing the journalism we believe in.
I don’t think I would feel comfortable defining “the field,” it is too wide and, at the same time, too abstract, especially if I think about the other countries where journalists have come up with very interesting ideas to challenge the context where they work.
Keeping the Record
We asked how everyone documented their (and their team’s) work now, and how their documentation processes have changed over time.
Lam Thuy Vo
I try to write behind-the-scenes posts, put my code out on GitHub for people to use and to teach (especially complete beginners. Everything I’ve ever taught can be found here: lamivo.com/tips.html).
From an organizational standpoint, BuzzFeed’s data team does a wonderful job of documenting every part of their data process in a way that allows others to replicate our analyses. A lot of the technologies and editorial guidelines are even online, like our own CSS framework Solid or our ethics guide.
Our team has been doing a good job internally of documenting our practices. The work is ongoing, but we have a Gitbook of our team policies that is publicly accessible. Anyone on the team can contribute. As far as our actual work, external documentation and open sourcing is still something we’re figuring out for ourselves.
That’s still very much a work in progress. Our approach has been ad-hoc, but aspirationally following the tenets of agile software development. We’ve tried all kinds of project-planning tools and invented a few of our own. We’ve sketched out commenting/documentation policies, or at least project time to retroactively invest in it. We believe in test-driven development and the good practices that flow from it, but deadline pressures often sabotage our better efforts.
Lately, our efforts to track our contributions and collaborations have been centered around GitHub’s usual shapes, like READMEs, wikis, and Project boards. We still face strong onboarding hurdles and do not do much to fit the varying degrees of technical expertise within the team, not to mention the broader newsroom. This is an area in which we need to improve, despite tensions with deadlines.
I used to be pretty informal, keeping notes in my notebook or going back to check emails to remind myself of some processes. I am not involved in a newsroom or a team now but what I see as very relevant is to document how I do certain things in a way that others can understand and reproduce. I’m a researcher, and I follow different roads all the time, but I think we all need to leave a path that can be followed—and even better: improved.
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.
Lam Thuy Vo
I’ve been an Adobe Flash developer in school, a videographer for a newspaper, a graphics editor writing front-end code for a TV station, and now do most of my reporting in Python for a website that reaches most of its audience through distributed platforms—nothing has been constant except that good content still matters and that it’s mostly about figuring out how all this technology serves the story best. People are willing to listen, watch, and sometimes even click/tap on stories if you know how to serve them good reporting in enticing ways. Knock on wood…
I’m on a brand new team at POLITICO, so I’m thinking about everything from how we’re growing our team in the near future to how we’re going to publish presidential election results in 2020. We’re working with a blank slate, so we have to invent every process, every tool, every practice. That has really given me the space to think about what an interactives team (or visuals team, or news apps team, or graphics team, or any team that makes Good Internet) should be in 2017 and beyond.
I don’t have a definite answer yet, but I know what I want to try. I think our teams should be at the forefront of not just inventing new story forms, but also inventing new ways of collecting the everyday reporting inside newsrooms. We’ve done a great job on that as an industry for big projects, but I want to affect the everyday product more. I want our teams to help define what newsrooms should look like and how newsrooms should work.
I think the safest look-ahead is to 2020 and the next U.S. presidential election. Before 2016’s election, I would have thought we could look further. But the role of journalism—and public trust in its role in democracy—is changing quickly now, and accelerating in a number of directions. Bedrock has been upended, and we’re fighting a much different kind of battle than I believed just a short time ago. Up to and including 2020, I hope our work strongly supports the integrity, veracity, and openness we need to demonstrate at this moment. Being relentlessly smart, professional, and earnest is key. Our community’s continued evolution (joys and pains) need to be in service of journalism’s bigger challenges.
Emma Carew Grovum
I can’t look more than a year down the road. Many of the job titles I’ve had in the past few years weren’t even on my radar a year or more in advance. Right now, I’m focused on learning all I can about my new role and expanding my view of the news organization beyond the confines of the newsroom.
I am doing a fellowship that gives me the amazing opportunity to reframe my ideas and skills in journalism. I’m taking this year to learn and to share. I think about what will come after that for me and how be part of the journalism community. Wherever I work, I want to give some fresh insights and bring a global perspective. The future of journalism is collaborative and global.
Emma Carew Grovum
Emma Carew Grovum is a journalist and technologist in New York City. As the founder of Kimbap Media, she coaches and consults with newsrooms on key strategy areas including leadership, product thinking, and diversity/equity/inclusion.
Tiff Fehr is an assistant editor and lead developer on the Interactive News desk at The New York Times. Previously she worked at msnbc.com (now NBCNews.com) and various Seattle-area mediocre startups.
Tyler Fisher is a senior news apps developer at POLITICO. Previously, he worked on the NPR Visuals Team and the Northwestern University Knight Lab.
Mago Torres is research project director for OpenNews and the News Nerd Survey. She was a 2018 JSK Journalism Fellow. She is a researcher and journalist. Previously researched for the Panama Papers investigation with the ICIJ, coordinated the journalism program at Universidad Iberoamericana and co-founded Periodistas de a Pie (“Grassroots Journalists”), a network of journalists in Mexico City.
Lam Thuy Vo
Lam Thuy Vo is a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News. You can follow her work on Twitter @lamthuyvo.