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Why I code in the newsroom

17 Jul 2013

Read this and then go apply for the 2014 Open News Fellowship!

For those of us coming from a software background, let’s make a distinction around what is developing in the newsroom. Developing in the newsrooms is not working on the infrastructure behind a news website; it means making the news with code, such as data visualization, analysis, interaction design, and much more. This line gets blurry sometimes, of course, but the idea is important.

A bit of history

I am a bit different than most of my colleagues in this industry, though not unique, in that my background is in programming, and I have only recently come to the news industry. Many of my peers are often reporters who get into coding, which is amazing. And even some folks now are dual majoring in computer science and journalism.

Most of my pre-news life was web development for non-profits with the Drupal content management system. These were good prerequisites for my current life, as being in the non-profit world was driven by my desire to ensure what I worked on was helping the world in some way, and Drupal provided an amazing experience into a large, vibrant open source community.

The last bit of experience that would open my eyes to wonders of coding in the newsroom was my fellowship at Code for America. This time offered me experiences into the civic world through technology and government, as well as allowed me to experiment with many other web technologies and just overall spread my wings and open my eyes a bit. It was also a couple of the other fellows/interns that pointed out the amazing things that were happening in the news industry regarding technology.

After the fellowship, I was moving back to Minneapolis, and through some serious serendipity, I landed an awesome job at MinnPost, a small, non-profit news organization focused on reporting Minnesota news.

What’s all the hype?

So, why did I even try to get a job at a newsroom, and after about a year on the job, why am I still doing it? In short, it is so much fun and so much awesome. Here are some reasons:

It is important

I have never been a heavy reader of any news journals, but I have always realized that reporters and news organizations (often) play an important role in our culture, socially, economically, and politically. At a non-profit paper that has a focus on politics, the idea of providing a social good is maybe a bit more prominent than other papers.

Open source (output)

One of the biggest things that drew me to the newsroom was seeing some of the amazing code that folks were producing in newsrooms and putting up on Github. Newsroom share their code (well, the good ones do, and the rest will follow). Some like the New York Times produce libraries that are now used by news and non-news developers around the world. At MinnPost, we put almost all our code on Github, not because it is going to necessarily be reusable for other organizations, but because it allows for us to be transparent and easily manage the code. Open source is very important to me.

Open source (input)

An important reason as to why folks have started coding in the newsroom more is because open source code and the people producing it is huge and more and more accessible. News organizations don’t have the resources to make a library like jQuery, put given that open source code has become so important, news organizations can now leverage the amazing work of so many other people.

Interesting

Reporters, even ones that have a specific beat, usually need to be able to dive into a topic and become an expert quickly. This is so true for the news developers as well. Often this is getting to know some data set in and out. It makes for exciting and interesting projects where you get to learn a lot.

It’s new

The journalism field is changing a lot right now, and the idea of having developers in the newsroom is actually fairly new, so its a pretty wide open space where job descriptions and titles are not really well defined.

“Small” projects

Depending on the news organizations, most newsroom coding projects are relatively small in scope, ranging from a few hours to a few months, or rare cases of a year. For those of us that have a short attention span and like to work on different things, this is bliss.

People use it

I have previously worked on things that don’t really get used, either because they were bad ideas, or just that the audience is very small. In the newsroom, many people will see your work, and you’ll get lots of feedback and recognition.

Deadlines

This may not seem like a good reason on the surface, but it actually is pretty awesome in my opinion. Deadlines offer constraints which foster creativity and force humbleness. The work needs to get out quickly, and it’s alright if it is not perfect (though it needs to be accurate).

Experiment

Even with deadlines, there is still a need to impress readers and push the boundaries of the work that developers do in the newsroom. This promotes (and rewards) experimentation, which for a coder like me is beyond fun.

No support

Though in the newsroom your audience may be a little more general than in other places, it only really has to work once. Maybe you have to fiddle with some things here and there to ensure it keeps running, but new features and support are not really that necessary (on most projects).

To reiterate

It’s a whole lot of fun!!!

I’m not the only one that feels this way

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