November 18, 2013
What I’ve learned as an OpenNews fellow

In just over a week, my OpenNews Fellowship at BBC News will end in the traditional fashion, with Dan Sinker pushing me into the Atlantic Ocean on an ice floe.  It’s been an incredible ride, one of the best years of my life. I’ve pretty much run out of superlatives for it. Above all else, my fellowship has been a learning experience, a crash course in the frontiers of code in the newsroom.  So what have I learned?

You have to run your own race.
The sheer volume of inspiring work and great new ideas coming out of the news nerd community presents a challenge. Every day I see literally dozens of new tools, resources, and news apps worth my time. But the time isn’t there, and that used to drive me nuts. I would bookmark things to come back to later and the list would just grow and grow. It will overwhelm you if you let it.

I hear a variation of this problem echoed by journalists and students who are trying to get started learning to code.  There is just so much out there. Where do you even start?  How do you dip your toe into Class 5 rapids?

In this world, your plate will always be overflowing with opportunities to learn, and that’s exactly how it should be. Any domain worth mastering is impossible to master. News development is changing too fast for any one person to keep up, and it’s a hydra; everything you do ends up opening five new avenues to explore. You have to find a way to let go, to stop trying to take it all in or “keep up.” There will always be more cool stuff out there than you can read, learn, or use, and that’s OK.

Doing something different ≠ Experimenting
I often hear people in newsrooms talk about “experimenting” when all they really mean is just “changing things up.” Experiments are designed to test a hypothesis, emphasis on designed. You need to understand what exactly you’re trying to test, and then you need a plan for testing that specific question and assessing the results without getting faked out. It’s the difference between retrospective medical studies, which have so much noise in the data they rarely produce meaningful insights, and double-blind clinical trials, which are the gold standard of medical research for a reason.

When thinking about new ideas in the newsroom, put on your scientist hat. Turn your idle speculation about what will or won’t work into a testable hypothesis. Figure out what counts as success or failure ahead of time. Don’t just gather all the data you can get your hands on and see what you can find out later. You’ll wind up drunk on metrics without any useful conclusions. For a smarter take on this issue, read my colleague Stijn Debrouwere’s piece on cargo cult analytics.

The bubble is a big challenge.
One of the hardest parts of doing deep data projects and interactives is maintaining empathy about your audience. You spend dozens of hours with your data and it becomes your best friend. You guys go on long walks together. Maybe you rent a tandem bike if the weather’s nice. You end up cramming every possible angle into your story and adding lots of big, beautiful charts and widgets. Surely everyone will want to investigate the nooks and crannies of this fascinating topic as much as you did.

Cut to next morning, when your readers skim your story for 10 seconds on their tiny phones while they walk into the subway station for their morning commute. Whoops.

If you work in data journalism, you’re probably the sort of person that loves deeply exploring data. Meanwhile, for your readers, your story is just one of dozens they might come across during the brief cracks in their day.  It’s easy to forget this. Your journalist/coder peers will ooh and aah over inside baseball sorts of achievements. And it will be hard to kill your babies; you spent weeks on this stuff, and now you want to get it all on the page.

The end result is that we still produce lots of bloated stuff with a good story buried somewhere inside, gasping for oxygen.

My favorite formulation in response to this is what the ProPublica team calls the “near” and “far” view: making sure you give the big picture up front so someone who will only give you 10 seconds gets something out of it, then offering the opportunity to explore and personalize the story in greater depth for someone who will give you a full 10 minutes. Think of it as progressive enhancement for attention: some people will have tiny screens, some people will have cinema displays. You want to serve them all.

And while we’re on the subject: a data dump is not data journalism. Just throwing up a giant dataset online without adding context or conclusions is a capitulation, the equivalent of printing the notes from your steno pad in the morning paper. Once you have the data, your job is just getting started.

Conferenceitis is a serious medical condition.
Feeling lethargic? Eating too many finger sandwiches? Tweeting about airports a lot?

You may be suffering from conferenceitis. Talk to your doctor today.

Conferences can be fun, but it’s easy to go overboard. I certainly did this year. After you go to enough events, fielding the same questions over and over, not only are you not getting your other work done, but you aren’t even producing original thoughts anymore. You just end up quoting yourself. You accidentally develop a spiel instead of just having a conversation. That sucks.

There aren’t a lot of shortcuts to real wisdom; it comes one fumbling step in the dark at the time. My favorite events of the year have been the ones that skip the forest and stick to the trees, especially MozFest and NICAR. In both cases the sessions focusing on teaching something useful and applicable, not on grand principles or the Future of All Things. Beyond events like those, I plan to only conference in moderation from now on. So join my colleague Friedrich Lindenberg and me in 2014 for the launch of DeskCon, a new kind of unconference where we all sit at our desks and finally get some work done.

Data journalism offers new and exciting ways to screw up.
People tend to presume a certain authority and accuracy of computer-assisted reporting methods, but these methods are only as smart as their human practitioners. In reality, they offer a delightful bouquet of new ways to screw up, many of them subtle enough to avoid detection until they produce maximum embarrassment. Remember that time I left out every country starting with S? Or when half the points on my chart were wrong because of Daylight Savings Time? Or when I mistook a moving car for a housecat in a GPS trace? I sure do.

Data doesn’t just radiate truth and meaning on its own. It’s a volatile raw material, one you have to treat with great caution and care to glean any legitimate insight. The bad news? This takes a lot of hard work. The good news? Hey, maybe you won’t get replaced by a robot after all!

Things have a way of coming full circle.
It would be hard to overstate what a radical change this year was for me. I jumped into a totally new industry. I packed up and moved 5000 miles away to a strange island full of fried food and royal corgis. And yet I’m constantly surprised by the ways threads from my past lives keep showing up again. A big focus of this year has been about the value of open source; my first job after college was actually working at a PR firm representing open source companies and organizations, back when GitHub was just a twinkle in SourceForge’s eye. I find tech policy work from my past resurfacing in the newsroom through issues like censorship, online surveillance, open government, and internet standards. I even get to dust off my mothballed political science degree when it’s time to get wonky about election coverage.

When I talk to journalism students or recent grads, I hear a note of panic as they struggle to plot out their future career path and wonder how to connect the dots. This year has been a good reminder that you don’t get to connect the dots ahead of time. They only connect in retrospect, after lots of zig-zagging along the way. If you just seek out interesting work with interesting people and never stop learning, wonderful things will happen.

Community is everything.
The beating heart of all of this is the incredible news nerd community, a motley crew of journalists, coders, civic hackers, and all manner of hybrids that somehow manages to be both so tight-knit and yet so welcoming to all comers. It’s amazing to me how all of these people theoretically working for competitors can be so totally on the same team, giving freely of their time to share their work, collaborate across organizations, and help us all get better.  I’ve benefitted from the kindness and genius of my peers more times than I can count; I hope I’ve been able to give something back.  I’m very proud to be a part of OpenNews, building connective tissue to help grow this community even more.  I can’t wait to see what the future holds for it.

11:57am  |   URL:
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