We Started Our Own News Nerd Training, and You Can Too
Our Northwest News Nerds events mix hands-on technical training with space to talk about representation in the newsroom
It was the last day of a journalism conference in the summer of 2017, and I, Rachel, was heading home with fresh energy and inspiration.
I found myself thinking, “I wish every reporter could access something like this without having to pay $1,000.” That thought grew into an idea I pitched soon after to a few friends, all women data journalists based in the Pacific Northwest. What if we put on a mini-conference that mixed hands-on technical training with space to talk about being underrepresented in newsrooms?
At the time, none of us knew quite how much work that would entail, so everyone said yes. Two years later, Northwest News Nerds has run three data journalism conferences open to women and non-binary journalists in the Northwest.
We’ve kept costs low—$25 or less, which includes lunch, with discounts for students or freelancers—and we’ve trained dozens of journalists on Excel, basic Python, and mapping while providing a space for connection and conversation.
Why Run Your Own Training?
Small local news organizations are increasingly scaling back their budgets for professional development—that is, if they pay for journalists to travel to conferences at all. Sure, there are scholarships and grants available to send reporters to training, but these one-off opportunities aren’t going to fill all the gaps.
A proliferation of online courses and resources has helped, but for technical skills, there’s no good substitute for walking through exercises with knowledgeable peers in the room to help. We’ve benefitted from that training at events like NICAR, often splitting scholarships and crowding into Airbnbs to make it work, and we wanted to bring what we’ve learned to others.
Data journalism is increasingly in demand at all sorts of publications, but too often people hear the phrase and think only of monthslong investigative projects by national outlets powered by a dedicated developer or someone with a statistics degree. We wanted something aimed squarely at beat reporters in small and medium-sized newsrooms to show that data wasn’t just for the big kids with big budgets.
We also saw a need for more spaces for women, especially women of color, to speak candidly to each other about the challenges they face in newsrooms. We wanted to create a space that mixed learning with conversation, leaving participants feeling empowered, and we wanted to let people feel like they could try a new skill and mess up without worrying about how they looked to their peers.
What We Did
Our first event, held in Tacoma, Washington, was a mix of hands-on training sessions, discussion time over lunch, and talks about public records and good data sources. We had no idea if we could pull it off or if anyone would sign up, but about 20 people, including student journalists, joined us for the day.
To make it happen, we’d had four journalists—Vanessa Martínez, then at the Seattle Times, Kate Martin, then at the Tacoma News-Tribune, and the two of us—work for a few months putting together a schedule and lining up people to help. We made a website, came up with a shoestring budget, taught most sessions ourselves, and got small sponsorships of $100 to $300 from our respective newsrooms and the Western Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
We did a similar daylong event in Spokane, Washington in the spring of 2018, working with Dahlia Bazazz at the Seattle Times, and a third in Vancouver, Washington in mid–2019.
The format we’ve evolved is a one-day event mixing 60- to 90-minute hands-on sessions with shorter 30-minute talks. Sessions have two options: one track is basic Excel, designed for people with no data journalism experience, and the second is usually a mix of more advanced Excel and other programs like Python in Jupyter notebooks or Microsoft Access. Talks focus on the non-data pieces of data reporting: what a “data story” looks like, how to find data and negotiate for it, and where to ask for help when you run into roadblocks.
We found alternating between hands-on practical work and more theoretical work gives people’s brains a break and also allows people to ask broader questions about workflow and roadblocks, instead of just showing people how to make a pivot table and setting them loose.
We use lunch as a discussion space, most successfully at our latest event in Vancouver, where we brought in three local journalists of color to talk about their experiences in the industry and answer questions.
What We Learned and How You Can Do This
Leverage your connections. That’s part of what’s made Northwest News Nerds so successful. We all know journalists who are capable of doing incredible things. Have they all won Pulitzers? Not yet. But they’re capable and eager to offer their skills to their fellow journalists.
Share the work. We had one organizer based in the city or newsroom we were hosting each conference in. Our planning went best when we let that person focus on logistics— setting up the venue, figuring out lunch—and had other organizers do more teaching so the workload was split.
Don’t try to do too much. Our first event had some great sessions and people came away with new skills, but we also suffered from trying to recreate too many things we loved from bigger conferences: lightning talks, a pre-event gathering at a local bar, and a multi-day agenda. Stay focused, and start with something small: an hour-long workshop followed by some space to get to know each other is so helpful! You don’t need to pull off a mini-SRCCON to make something valuable.
Take advantage of the spaces you have. Two Northwest News Nerds events have been hosted in conference rooms at our buildings. A third was in free conference rooms available at the public library in Spokane. Conference hotels and universities are fun, to be sure. But rental fees can be expensive.
Ask for help. Having multiple organizers meant we could ask multiple newsrooms for sponsorship. That sometimes meant buying lunch or providing office supplies, and sometimes meant reimbursing one of us for mileage to travel across the state on a workday. We also asked our local SPJ chapters for funds. We spent less than $1,000 on our first events—split 5 ways, it’s not a big ask.
Make space for underrepresented communities. According to the most recent ASNE newsroom diversity survey, women are in the minority of daily print and online-only news organizations, making up 42.2 percent of the overall workforce. Women of color consistently represent single digit percentages of the workforce.
Seek feedback, formally and informally. We tweaked schedules based on what we saw worked and didn’t. We sent out a survey after our first events, but also checked in with attendees during and after more informally, and made notes of where pain points were. Our number one tip? Make sure the coffee is hot when people arrive, or else people are going to spend their breaks trying to go get it and come back late.
Steal our stuff. As we’ve evolved, we’ve put more training materials and outlines on our website, a la Investigative Reporters and Editors’ tipsheets hub. Most of it is half-stolen from NICAR sessions we’ve attended or other events we’ve gone to, adapted to suit our needs. We invite you to take it, remix it and do the same.
Elevating women of color at training opportunities isn’t going to fix the systemic barriers that exist in newsrooms, but it’s a start. We provided scholarships for two students of color to travel to Vancouver, Washington for our latest event. We covered lodging and gas. Our sponsors were local Society of Professional Journalists chapters, combined at less than $600.
As journalists who have had opportunities to learn new skills and make connections at events like NICAR and SRCCON, we have a responsibility to bring something home to our communities. We’re passionate about doing this work at a local level for local audiences, and part of that means sharing with our fellow journalists in the region.
For too many people, the travel, cost, and time associated with national conferences is unattainable. Even with scholarships and assistance, there will never be a table big enough to serve everyone who wants this type of training. Sometimes, you have to build your own table.
Rachel Alexander is the education reporter for Salem Reporter and the go-to data geek in the newsroom. She served on the Society of Professional Journalists Oregon board and the co-founder of Northwest News Nerds, a group dedicated to bringing low-cost workshops on data journalism to newsrooms around the Pacific Northwest.
Kaitlin Gillespie is the education reporter and self-declared data witch for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Washington. She is the president of the Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington Professional Chapter and co-founder of the Northwest News Nerds training organization.