Planting the Next Crop of Newsroom Coders

It’s time to send your smart, curious, and dissatified friends and colleagues our way

(GerryDincher via Flickr)

We are exactly one month away from the August 16th deadline for applying for the 2015 Knight-Mozilla Fellowships, and this is the perfect time for you—the people actively wrangling data, building news apps, and designing interactives in newsrooms—to help chase amazing candidates toward the Fellowship application. We’ve assembled a one-stop shop of your arguments for joining development teams in news organizations, along with some of our former Fellows’ experiences and exhortations to future candidates.

Do you know someone who loves to code and would flourish in a newsroom? Please send them our way. And if you’re having trouble convincing them, please send them here or forward a few of these links along to help them see the light.

It’s the Culture

Aaron Williams, of the Center for Investigative Reporting, says developers should apply because newsroom development culture is more varied, less trolly, and way more fun. He also has the best blog header design on the planet, so check that out. NPR’s Brian Boyer digs into the culture differences and what they mean for a developer’s career:

Every day, I get to work with some of the smartest folks I’ve ever met, each a savant for some interesting and important subject. One week I get to learn about science, or the law, the next is business, or politics.

And, bonus, they’re all squeaky wheels – the kinds of people who cause a fuss in all-staff meetings. Challenging your superiors doesn’t always go so well in corporate America. But speaking truth to power is a journalist’s job. In the newsroom, I feel like I’ve found my people.

Plus, every story is a chance to try something new. We rarely work on a project for longer than a couple months. And when we’re done, we update our kit with what we’ve learned. Even at the most agile tech shops, you eventually get stuck with some legacy crap for a year. We get to reboot every week. And as a result, I’ve never seen a software team learn this fast.


Ship, ship, ship!

Also along culture lines, Sisi Wei, Jeremy B. Merrill, Stephen Suen, Lena Groeger, and Mike Tigas at ProPublica put together a GIF-centric blockbuster list of the top 10 reasons you should work in a newsroom, including my favorite, “You’ll be on a quick development cycle, and publish code on a regular basis.”

Lastly, the AP’s Michelle Minkoff breaks down the practical meaning of newsroom code culture in a stellar 10-point list worth reading in full, including points about a culture of intense curiosity:

No detail is too small to merit a second (or hundredth) glance. When you get excited over an intricate problem you solved, you’ll have people to share it with. And you’ll hear interesting stories from them. Asking continual whys in pair programming is not just acceptable, but encouraged. There’s a special mix of having independence in your idea. Learning technical and editorial knowledge from others is key here. You don’t need to do it alone, or with people just like you. You need resources in myriad areas, who are ready and willing to contribute.

…and a note about the inclusiveness of news organizations, where “the judgment is reserved for the work. Your gender, race, even experience level is not as important as the quality of your intellectual work.”

Civic-Minded Code, In and Out of the Newsroom

2013 Fellow Mike Tigas, now at ProPublica, reminds potential applicants that it’s not just about journalism–it’s about making things better for more people, in all kinds of ways.

the community of civic-minded programmers and data people is huge now. It’s not just journalists anymore—there are people who want to help improve government, health, education, help make history more accessible, and on and on, outside of the guise of news media. There are communities of people who want to work together to do great things for the world, and these formerly-disparate communities are starting to mingle and work together in interesting. I’ve had the opportunity to visit the MIT Center for Civic Media a couple times and been blown away at the variety and scope of projects there—from free speech to gender to robots to accountability in developing nations. I’ve met the excellent people at the New York Public Library Labs team and had a chance to hack on historic geodata alongside geo developers that created the state of the art.

And if you’re already in the civic hacking scene, 2013 Fellow Friedrich Lindberg explains why the newsroom is where you should hone your craft:

… the best place to learn how to engineer great civic applications is in a newsroom. Working to create narratives that feed into a news cycle, address a wide audience and tell a clear story is an amazing challenge for any technologist. Being involved in journalistic projects as a fellow puts you in the center of a three-way interaction between reporters, the data at the core of your story and the technologies used in its presentation.…During the past few months, I’ve met people from all across the globe and learned about their ideas and work. This is a great time to be involved in this discussion, and the fellowship will put you right at the center of it.

From the other side of the journalist-coder aisle, Tasneem Raja of Mother Jones explains why she made the switch from straight reporting to the dark side as a hacker-journalist. Likewise, former Fellow Sonya Song (now at Harvard’s Berkman Center) explains why the Knight-Mozilla Fellowship (and newsroom coding in general) is a fantastic experience for graduate students.

Beating the Fear (and Becoming a Better Coder)

(Noah Veltman)

When we talk about the Fellowship—and more broadly, about coding in newsrooms—we very frequently hear things like “my coding chops aren’t good enough.” I’ll summon 2013 Fellow Brian Abelson, now at the New York Times, to address that. In a blog post, Abelson describes the “deep sense of self doubt (and perhaps a little procastination)” that kept him from submitting his application until the last second (literally, the last one), and then describes the astonishing experiences he had after summoning the courage to apply and being accepted:

I’ve undergone a transformation that is no less than miraculous. In my five-plus months as a fellow I’ve dived deep into the technical and intellectual challenges of impact measurement, reading as much as I could find on the topic, experimenting with the creation of metrics for News Apps, speaking at conferences, and conversing with the brightest minds in the field. I have been continually humbled at the many people working on this problem for no other reason than they think it’s the right thing to do. I’ve also found support in the many innovators and brainiacs I work with at the New York Times and the seven incredible people I’ve shared this journey with.

2013 Fellow Noah Veltman, now at WNYC, confronts head-on the doubts and fears that keep too many wonderful candidates from applying:

The crazy thing is, I almost didn’t apply. I didn’t even think I was a candidate. I had never studied computer science, I just tinkered with code in my spare time because I had fun projects I wanted to try. I Googled for examples and wrote lots of really ugly code. But I never considered myself a developer. This fiction became increasingly ridiculous, as it went from “Well, sure, I know some HTML but I’m not a developer or anything” to “Well, sure, I know some JavaScript and I can use a webserver but I’m not a developer or anything” to “Well, sure, I know Python and PHP and some C and Java and I spend all day on the command line, but I’m not a developer or anything.”

And makes a plea to everyone—applicants and otherwise—feeling nervous about their coding skills:

People who are already doing great things with code are reluctant to teach others and share their work because they think it’s too basic or too sloppy to be useful to anyone else. It’s not true. Take your Code of Dorian Gray out of the attic. You have much more to teach us than you realize.

Once More with Feeling

The NYT’s Jeremy Bowers explains why developers should look beyond the lack of luxury lunchrooms in newsrooms and dig into what matters. Journalism, he says, offers something extra—a soul, a mission, a penchant for self-examination, and “stacks of interesting structured data aching to be investigated and summarized.”

Our reporters are staring down the federal government, tracking people who are otherwise invisible and watching the epidemics most people don’t even know about.

And we need your help.

Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times offers a rationale worth quoting at length:

…more and more each day, the government, special interests, and wealthy corporations are using data, as a tool, to tell stories tailored to advance their goals.

You may have heard them say things like: We must close dozens of public schools to improve education; Aggressively frisking people makes our city a better place; Or, a personal favorite of mine, a balloon-payment mortgage with no money down is the bank doing you a favor.

Our society needs independent voices that can understand, vet and&mdash if necessary—challenge the claims underpinning such stories, where powerful forces use facts and figures to justify their actions.

I’m proud to say, my colleagues in the media have often answered the call. But we need help. We need people with the skill to analyze the deluge of data swamping our society, and the courage to step up to a megaphone and share the truths the data tell.

Computer programmers, I believe you have it in you. You’re a curious, inventive, free-thinking lot. And there’s a way you can apply yourself that is more morally ambitious than a ridiculously violent video game or an empty money chase.

The NYT’s Derek Willis reiterates the meaning at the heart of the work

if you’re interested in contributing to our shared civic life, where we learn about the issues that define us and our future, there are few better places to be. We are not campaigners in the usual sense, but our mission is a better-informed and active citizenry, and newsrooms have a built-in platform for driving that effort. We do things that are not popular in the conventional sense but are necessary for a free society or shed light on an important issue. Newsrooms are about war and peace, laughter and pain and every aspect of our world.

And as an illustration, OpenNews’s own Ryan Pitts, formerly of the Spokane Spokesman Review and Census Reporter, wrote about a interactive he threw together when a snowstorm left many Spokane residents snowed in and vulnerable:

The page also gave volunteers a way to reach out to neighbors who needed help, logging messages so I could shut things down in case of abuse. There was one message in the inbox that morning. It was from a high school kid with the day off and a snowshovel. He lived near an “I need help” marker on the map from an elderly woman was snowed in, and he wanted her to know he’d be by that morning to dig her out.

I stared at that message for a good long while.

It still breaks my heart in all sorts of ways. I’m not so good at building things with my hands and I’m too spooked to change the oil in my own car, but this one time I made a thing on the internet that brought two human beings together, and it made both of their lives better.

I still chase after that feeling. I get to do that every day.

A post from last year by Fellow Stijn Debrouwere (now at the Tow Center) echoes these posts and issues the call:

I bet you have an idea.… Something you’ve wanted to do for years that could make the news industry a little bit smarter and more au courant. Or you’ve always wanted to do something meaningful with your coding chops, not write the next enterprise back office whatever. You know what you want to do but you’re not doing it. You want do something that matters but you’re not. Frustrating, yes?

There’s something you can do. Apply to become [an] OpenNews fellow. It’s the best decision I ever made, and it will be the best decision you’ve ever made too.

There’s no better time to apply than right now.



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