Getting a Job in Journalism Code

At NICAR, quite the crowd greeted Sisi and Jeremy for their Q&A about finding a job. (Ted Han)

How-to Work Getting a Job in Journalism Code

Two recent grads want to calm your job search fears

Job hunting is scary enough as it is. But it’s worse trying to enter a field filled with buzzwords like “mobile-first development” and bar near-brawls over “static and dynamic sites.” And imagine you’re doing it for the first time, since you’re barely old enough to buy a beer before that brawl.

We want to help students (and journalism schools help direct their students) get into this field of data and programming and journalism, but just as importantly, we want this article to serve as a guide for less-traditional entrants who never studied journalism or computer science. It’s people like this who make up a sizeable minority—at least—of news programmers and data reporters.

Recently, we hosted a Q&A session at NICAR 2014 for students and recent grads on how to get a job, and any other related pre- or early-career questions they might have. We’re sharing the questions and answers here, as well as some of the best guidance we were given while looking for jobs or internships. Our advice runs the gamut from tips on how to interpret job listings to how to fight the nagging doubt that you don’t have real skills.

Conquer Your Mind

Imposter Syndrome is real and pernicious. And recognizing intellectually that you’re skilled (and you probably are) isn’t always enough to conquer it. The best you can do is take away the ammunition your brain might use to make you fear that “Today [Is] The Day They Find Out You’re A Fraud.”

Q: Am I a real programmer? I spend most of my time Googling error messages.
Yes. That’s what most of us do. Eventually, you’ll learn to recognize common error messages and learn habits to avoid them. You will then graduate to being frustrated by more obscure error messages or weird language features and Googling those all day instead. Getting better at searching means learning to be more specific in what you’re looking for; at Knight Lab, Suyeon Son describes how she got better at Googling for answers.

Q: Am I a real journalist? Phone calls are scary and I have to steel myself before each one.
Yes. It is kind of scary. You’ll get the hang of it, but for many of us that nagging fear never really goes away.

Q: Whenever I see someone write code, it’s like they’ve got everything memorized. Do I have to memorize everything?
You do not need to memorize everything. Programmers know what to write next (like exact phrasing of CSS or Javascript functions) because of repetition, familiarity, and having looked it up time and time again. Trying to intentionally memorize programming language syntax is probably less productive than learning to Google what you need and passively memorizing the things you have to look up repeatedly.

Q: Do real programmers copy and paste code from the internet?
They might not admit it, but everyone does it. In fact, one key to being a good programmer is knowing not to reinvent the wheel. Using libraries is a cleaner way than copy-paste, but when you’re on a deadline… whatever works and godspeed.

Even if you’re writing only little bits of code to glue together snippets you found by Googling, you’re a real programmer. As Noah Veltman put it, the world isn’t divided into Muggles and coders. If you’re writing code, you’re a coder.

Q: I feel like there’s way too much to learn and no way I could learn it all. What do I do?
Here’s a secret, everyone feels this way. It’s because technology is changing and there’s always new things to learn. For Sisi, it always goes in the same rollercoaster cycle of:

  1. Yes! That worked! I learned something this feels awesome.
  2. THERE IS SO MUCH TO LEARN.
  3. Repeat.

Get a Job

You’ve conquered your mind demons and you’ve met some cool folks at the conference, but now it’s October and it’s time to apply for a summer internship. (Or it’s anytime and you’re applying for a real job.) There are some nuts-and-bolts of that process that are specific to journalism.

Q: Does applying through the front door work in journalism?
We can’t speak for all of journalism, but our experience is this: If your work is good, the answer is yes. It’s worked for both of us. If you’re applying for a summer internship, be aware that deadlines are sometimes as early as October.

Q: Do I need to have a website?
Holy moly yes. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it needs to exist. Heck, Sisi’s website redirects to an about.me site. But the website’s secret goal is to funnel people to your portfolio, which should also be online.

Q: What blogs/listservs/sites should I read?
This one, for starters! The NICAR-L listserv doesn’t have the world’s highest signal-to-noise ratio, but it’s a great source for tips and story ideas.

Q: This job listing says I need to know Python and ArcGIS and Responsive Web Design and videography and D3.js and R and FOIA and Ruby on Rails and statistics and WordPress. Should I still apply?
Yes. C’mon, literally no one knows all of those things and the people doing the hiring know it. The list of skills is their wish list, not their bare minimum requirements. Do not be discouraged from applying simply because you only know 4 out of the 12 things listed.

Rather than someone who has a minimal understanding of a wide variety of tools, an employer will appreciate someone who really knows their stuff in one area—regardless of whether that’s videography, public records or scaling databases. But keep learning. Because, after basic journalism (and, if applicable, programming) skills, what hiring managers really want to see is you demonstrating your ability to learn new tools.

For example, when Sisi was hired at ProPublica, she didn’t have any experience with Ruby,
ProPublica’s primary programming language or Rails, the framework they use for news apps. She did, however, already know how to program and had demonstrated skill in HTML, CSS and JavaScript. ProPublica hired her anyway and Sisi picked up Ruby and Rails during her first few months on the job.

Q: Successful journalists all have journalism degrees, right?
Nope! Lots do (like Sisi), but lots don’t (like Jeremy). The data journalism world is growing so quickly that there’s room for everybody.

Q: Successful developer/journalists all have computer science degrees, right?
Nope! They all have philosophy degrees (like Sisi and Jeremy). Okay, not really. In fact, when Sisi was a college senior and considering getting a masters in computer science, a good number of people in the industry advised against it. Instead, they told her that she’d learn more from working in the field.

Q: I studied journalism in school (or worked at the paper) and took a computer programming class? Is that enough to get a job?
Probably not. You should do some projects—and publish them, even at a campus paper or on your own blog—to show your ideas and initiative. It’s okay if your first few projects are terrible. Jeremy’s first project was quite bad. As was Sisi’s. Pretty much every news nerd’s first project was terrible; Tyler Fisher’s News Nerd Firsts tumblr compiles a bunch of them. Go read them for inspiration, reassurance and/or laughs.

As long as you can say what you learned from the project, no one will hold it against you. A few project ideas that would be a good place to start, Jeremy suggests, are visualizing faculty salaries and the student government budget and filing FOIAs to the local/campus police.

Q: What do people with hiring power actually care about?
As we’ve stressed already, your portfolio is going to be your best champion in getting hired. It’s much more important than your resume (though don’t skimp there, do things like list your skills), and it will often be the part of your application that hiring managers look at first and remember the best. Great references help, as will real internship or job experience, but we really can’t stress how much your portfolio trumps all of this.

Q: Okay, so how do I get started learning to code?
Learning how to code is all about taking is one step at a time and having a project in mind. Sisi actually wrote about this. Lisa Williams blogs about how to get started and puts up tutorials frequently. Lena Groeger wrote about how she learned to code in a year. There’s a lot you can read about this topic.

Q: Is there a consolidated place to check for job openings in this area?
Yes! NewsNerdJobs.com and Source Jobs are each great resources, as is following the organizational accounts of the teams you want to work for on Twitter. Or go the traditional route and check on an organization’s website.

Q: What other resources are there?
If you’re a student, it’s most likely that your school will have a career services department that can answer most of your questions about applying for and getting a job, how to act during an interview, how to shine up your resume, etc. Make use of them.

If you’re a recent grad, sometimes your alma mater’s career services are also available to you, make sure to check. Otherwise, if you ever need further advice about how to improve your skills in data journalism, make sure to check out the NICAR-L listserv, where discussions have ranged from the best books for self-teaching, to simply having job postings circulated around.

Some of the best advice Sisi has received is about how to properly take advantage of a conference to meet new people, and in turn learn about jobs.

Q: I see someone I admire, but I’m too intimidated to just approach them. What do I do?
There’s no getting around this one. Just buckle up and go talk to them (we’ll help you figure out what to talk about in the next section). Everyone at a conference knows that people there will want to meet new people.

Plus, as a conference president once told Sisi, getting approached at a conference is a huge ego boost. You might be intimidated, but just know that by the other person might actually just be delighted that you’ve come to ask them for advice. We all were young’uns once.

Q: But what do I say?
It seems daunting, but there are many things you can say. Here are a few tips:

  • Ask about the person’s projects.
    Know about the people you approach and talk to them about their projects. Everyone likes talking about themselves. Say, “Hi Jeremy Merrill, my name is Sisi Wei and I really loved ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs project. I read the article you wrote about it afterward — on how the data extraction took so many months. Did you foresee that coming at all in the beginning?”
  • Or their first news/data project.
  • Or the teams they’ve worked on.
  • Or the newsrooms they’ve been in.
  • Or anything they spoke about in the session you just attended.
  • But DO NOT fake doing your homework.
    Saying “I really admire your work” is generic and vague and raises the question, “Oh, which projects?” Be sincere and real. It will show and you’ll get a much better conversation and connection because of it.
  • The future of journalism
    Students get to think and talk about The Future of Journalism a lot more than those of us in the mines do. So that’s a good fallback—but talking about your experiences will get you remembered more than your punditry.
  • How to get your dream job
    Literally ask for career advice. Sisi has even cold emailed someone in the industry asking whether she should get a masters in computer science, and received an excellent answer. Just show in the email, or in person, that you’ve given the question a lot of thought, and make clear what you’re asking for advice on.
  • And always, “I loved your session. Can I have your business card?”
    Who says no to this? Usually speakers who forgot their business cards at home. But that only gives you leeway to ask for the best way to contact them if you have any questions.

Q: Do I need to have a business card? Should I ask people if they want them?
Some may disagree, but honestly as a student, giving your business card to someone who doesn’t ask for it is kinda like sending it down a black hole. No one will say, “No, I don’t want your business card” because they’re being polite. But they won’t look at it unless you tell them why they should.

It’s 2014 and the way people—especially journalists—find about other people is by Googling them. You’d be better served buying a domain name and setting up a portfolio site to showcase your work. It doesn’t have to be fancy or built with the latest web framework (Jeremy’s is a handful of PHP snippets written in 2009), but it’s a good opportunity to acquire some basic HTML and CSS skills.

Q: Okay, I’ve met some really great people, I’m back at home, now what?
First, make sure you keep track of everyone you met, and keep track of what you talked about. A great way to do this is by writing what you talk about on the back of their business card (which you should always ask for).

Then, right after the conference is over, email every single person you want to keep in touch with and thank them for talking to you. Write in your email who you are, what you spoke to them about (and that you enjoyed it or you’ve taken action from their great advice), and that you hope to keep in touch. Keep it short and sweet. You’ll set yourself apart. If you think you’ve created a good enough connection, you can even ask if they’d be all right with you sending along your clips once in awhile.

Finally, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness that was the conference, and you have so many things you want to learn and hundreds of new links marked as “to-read,” check out this handy guide from Matt Waite for how you can successfully deal with it.

About Jeremy B. Merrill

About Sisi Wei

comments powered by Disqus