June 28, 2013
OpenNews: Halftime Report [WARNING: effusiveness ahead]

Today marks the halfway point in my ten-month OpenNews fellowship with the BBC Visual Journalism team in London. With five months behind me and five more to go, it’s a good time to take stock. What have I done?  What have been the highlights and surprises?

A great community

The first half has been an incredible experience.  I’ve worked on dozens of exciting projects, attended great events all over the US and Europe, and learned enough to fill volumes.  BBC Broadcasting House is a pretty special place to come to work in the morning.  But the biggest highlight, by far, has been the people.

Besides my great colleagues at the BBC, I’ve met so many incredible people at events like NICAR, the Mozilla Festival, and this week’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference.  I always leave these events with my head spinning from so many fascinating conversations, and in between the in-person meetings, the conversation keeps going at the online water cooler.  Not only is this little universe full of scary smart people doing interesting work, but they’re all incredibly generous with their time and expertise, answering questions, offering feedback, sharing hard-won wisdom. The community really is everything.

The most pleasant surprise of all has been my seven fellow fellows.  When I went through the application process, I didn’t give any thought to what other people might be chosen, or what sort of relationship I’d have with them.  Getting the chance to meet, learn from, and work with this amazingly talented crew has been such a treat.  The same goes for the 2012 fellows and our fearless leaders, Dan Sinker and Erika Owens.

Bridging the divide

One of my favorite projects has been the series of Learning Lunches I kicked off here at the BBC. Once a week I sit down with team members over lunch and try to demystify a different tech topic. My theory is that, while the world is full of tutorials to teach you how to code something, it’s lacking in resources to give a non-developer better context about how technical considerations intersect with editorial and design decisions. If, say, you’re a graphic designer working on news apps, maybe you don’t want to go Full JavaScript, but you do want to know more about how the web sausage is made, and how your beautiful Illustrator mockup may or may not survive intact. You want to understand what is easy, what is hard, and what the tradeoffs are.

So far we’ve covered things like making maps for the web, scraping, how a web server works, performance issues, and Excel vs. databases. Every week ends up being a great, wide-ranging discussion about how different roles think about these things, conflicting priorities, and blind spots. The dirty secret? I learn way more than I teach. Leading these talks has given me all kinds of insight into how editorial and design roles tend to think about certain problems, and where the opportunities for smarter tools and processes really lie. I’m looking forward to continuing these for the rest of the year, and hoping I can even convince some designers and reporters to take the reins and lead some lunches of their own.

Some other things I’ve done so far

Midterm report card

Back in January, I set out some of my goals for the year. For those keeping score at home, my grades look something like this:

Write something. C-
I’ve posted a few things on this blog and elsewhere, so I haven’t been a total deadbeat. But there are lots of other topics I’ve meant to write about, and projects I’ve meant to document. I hope to be better about this in the second half.

Teach Something. B+
Between blog posts, speaking engagements, and the Learning Lunches, I’ve done all right in this department.

Understand the dynamics of a large news organization. C
I have to grade myself on a curve here. I could work at the BBC for 30 years and still only understand a tiny fraction of its institutional logic, but considering that I had absolutely no concept of how a major newsroom worked when I started, I’ve come a long way.

Build something together with the rest of the 2013 fellows. F
Total failure. Fortunately, we’ve talked about this, and plans are in the works to team up in the second half as a news development Megazord and do something awesome.

Learn the state of the art. B
I’ve gotten a chance to spend quality time with a lot of new technologies this year. My JavaScript sucks a lot less than it used to. I’m breaking my PHP habit and moving more completely over to Python. D3 is still magic, but an understandable kind. I’m much more comfortable at the command line than I used to be. I’ve mastered a lot of tools and techniques and tested the waters on many more. I even went full neckbeard and switched to Ubuntu Desktop.

Give in to Twitter. B+
I get it now. Consider me converted.

Figure out how to explain OpenNews to my grandmother. D
I think she understands that it involves news, at least.

What’s next?

I’ve got a long list of project ideas for the second half of the year, and I hope to do a better job of showing my work by writing about it, speaking about it, and putting a lot more code on GitHub. I also want to create something that will outlive me at the BBC, whether that’s a set of tools, a process, or even just a useful idea. At the same time, I’ll be continuing with more Learning Lunches and crisscrossing the globe to attend lots of other great events. The challenge is going to be fitting it all into just five short months.

Coming soon on this blog: what I’ve learned about news development so far, and a deeper dive into lessons from our Learning Lunches.

12:21pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zu2sptoP0U_i
Filed under: opennews 
  1. veltman posted this