NICAR When You’re Not New Anymore

Mentoring, collaborating and other ways to give back at NICAR

Time to start taking the lead. (ralfor)

This year, we asked four people who had never attended NICAR before—or were attending in a new capacity this year—to write up what they learned and experienced. —eds.

After only three sessions on the first day of NICAR, I texted one of my co-workers from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to emphatically tell her, “I’ve found my people.”

Three years ago, when I attended the conference for the first time in Baltimore as a recent university graduate, I remember feeling excited about stepping into data journalism, nervous about networking, and overwhelmed by some of the sessions. Since then, I’ve met journalists kind enough to offer career advice, introduce me to other journalists, and just be good listeners—which was especially helpful when I transitioned from my work as a reporter to being a front-end developer.

I’ll admit there are days when I still feel like a beginner when it comes to coding and working with data, but since joining the Post-Dispatch roughly six months ago and feeling that I’ve found my footing, I’ve felt more of a responsibility to give back.

NICAR 2017: Mentoring, Finding a Mentor

This year, I was fortunate enough to be one of nearly forty journalists who received a travel scholarship from OpenNews to travel to NICAR in Jacksonville, Florida. This year’s trip would not have been possible without their generous support. This time around, I signed up to be a mentor in the “Jobs and career straight-talk: For (and by) young’uns only” session, where we rotated from group to group to share some of our experiences and field questions from students.

On the flip side, I signed up to take part in the conference’s mentorship program, which I was unaware of until this year. Scanning the room full of packed tables, I was amazed by how many journalists had volunteered to be mentors. And for those who are on the fence about signing up, it is definitely worth your time. I was partnered with Cody Winchester, a developer at the Austin American-Statesman. It ended up being a perfect match. Over breakfast, we talked about our experiences working with code, migrating databases to Django, and how to improve workflow with git branches and event tracking.

The most valuable part of attending conferences for me are the friendships that keep me wanting to come back again and again.

What I Brought Home

Returning to work after conferences like NICAR can feel exhausting, especially after three days spent scribbling notes and soaking in all the information from the sessions. For me, my main goal after the conference was to try to put things into action—and here are just a few things I managed to accomplish in the two weeks after NICAR ended:

  • One of the sessions I really enjoyed at the conference was “The Present and Future of Bots” with John Keefe from Quartz. Soon after I returned to the newsroom, the Post-Dispatch launched its first chatbot for our annual list of best restaurants in the city. During this process, I’ve learned a lot about Chatfuel from talking with folks from the Los Angeles Times about how they approached building theirs.

  • Recently, the Post-Dispatch collaborated with Tom Cardoso of the Globe and Mail to introduce their open-source chart building tool into our newsroom. More recently, we’ve offered to help other newsrooms like the Buffalo News, who are looking at adopting the tool, by sharing the process we took to train our reporters, editors and designers.

  • We also hosted the inaugural meetup for the Online News Association’s St. Louis group. I loved seeing how many journalists came out to our first event and we hope the meetup becomes a place for journalists to flock every month to network over pizza and drinks, listen to some speakers and learn some new skills.

  • One of my co-workers, Josh Renaud, who also codes interactive projects for the Post-Dispatch, and I were invited to give a talk at a journalism conference for high school students held at St. Louis University about how we got our starts in the field and the two very different paths we took to become developers. Working with students has always been an incredibly rewarding experience, and seeing the amount of women in the session who were interested in coding was really encouraging. I was blown away by how students were working with data, thinking about how to make interactive charts and coding in Python.

Final Thoughts

When I think about how much I’ve grown as journalist (and how much I’m still growing as a developer), it’s due in large part to journalists who have been willing to share their knowledge with others — that has made all the difference. And to the community that welcomed me with open arms, this is my way of giving back.



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