UNL CoJMC students: Two data/programming/future courses for the fall

If you’re a UNL CoJMC student looking for courses in the fall, here’s two I’m teaching you should take a look at:

JOUR407: Investigative and Computer-Assisted Reporting: This class is all about data journalism — emphasis on both parts of that phrase. I’ll show you how to incorporate data and data analysis into your stories, regardless of format. You’ll learn techniques that will help you break a dataset down and interview it like a source. We’ll get our hands dirty with data and we’ll turn those into stories. We’ll add some data visualization to the toolbox as well. The not-close-to-complete syllabus is here

JOUR491: Intro to Storybots: More and more, publishers are using software bots to write stories. They cover baseball games and earthquakes. The dirty secret is that basic bots are not hard to write. It takes basic programming knowledge and basic journalism knowledge. Combine the two and you can write thousands of stories in a matter of seconds. In this class, we’ll learn how to make our own storybots, we’ll ponder the nature what it means to be human and where this is all going in journalism. Want a taste? Read this. I’ve put the very first sketches of the class online here.

A 5-step NICAR recovery plan

First time at NICAR this year? Awesome. Welcome. This was my 15th conference. I started in 1997 in Nashville. I was a senior in college, desperate to find a job, and NICAR was an amazing and formative experience for me. I made friends, learned a lot and found a kind of nerdy spiritual home. NICAR has become like a weird nomadic family for me. It’s my tribe. A really nerdy, wonderful tribe.

But I can remember being in your shoes after my first NICAR. You’re bone tired, but JACKED UP. Excited, but uneasy. There’s so much to learn. So many people doing so many amazing things with tools you’ve never heard of before, or using tools you have heard of in ways you never dreamed possible. It’s really easy to be intimidated by it all.

Don’t be.

The truth is, everyone at NICAR has either been where you are or are exactly where you are right now. I’m even there with you. So much to do. So much to learn.

Don’t let this time go to waste. Don’t let this energy fade away. Don’t be intimidated by the enormity of it all. Here’s 5 steps to avoid the post NICAR crash and burn.

1. Find a specific story or project you want to work on that will require a technology you want to learn to get it done.

The absolute worst thing you can do is go to work on Monday without an idea or plan to use what you saw, learned or got interested in. It is shockingly easy to go back to work, fall right back into your routine, go right back to the stuff you were working on before the conference and before you know it, it’s a month later and you’ve forgotten half of what got you interested in the first place.

The solution is to walk into the office with an idea and a plan to get it done. You’ve probably got a list of ideas right now. That’s great. Write them down, create a spreadsheet or a to-do list on your phone or whatever. Pick one idea on your list and post the rest of it somewhere you’ll see it regularly. Focus on one, get it done, then move on.

And start working on it right away. If you can walk in and start working hour one minute one on Monday, great. If you’ve got to find time in the day, brown bag your lunch and start then. Can’t get the time at the office? Work on it at home. But don’t wait. You’ll be shocked how fast this time will go and it’s vitally important. Waiting is the worst thing you can do.

2. Pick one thing. One. You can’t learn all the NICAR in one project.

My annual problem with NICAR is I leave with a stack of ideas and technologies I want to try RIGHT NOW. And that’s on top of the three or four side projects I want to work on all the time.

It’s tempting to want to try and inhale new things and just jam them into your skull. But it’s impossible. In fact it’s harmful to your progress. Pick one thing. One. One technology, one technique, one task, and do it. Just that one.

If you want to use Excel to look at your city’s budget, do that. Just that. Those amazing pivot tables and NodeXL social network graphs you saw will be there when you’re ready. If you want to write a scraper in Python to get data you can use for a story, do that. Just that. The news app that puts it on the web will come later. The point here is to focus.

Pick one problem, solve it.

3. Your first project is going to suck. Do it anyway.

This is just generally true, but one of the real intimidation factors for me at NICAR was that the class I took was taught by a Pulitzer Prize winner who did this otherworldly story and how the hell am I supposed to do that?

You’re not. Not yet anyway. The Taj Mahal was not built by someone who had never built an ugly shack before.

My first projects were for my campus newspaper and probably bored student readers right into a nap (which in college is known as reader service). But I still did them. Each one taught me something. How to do this with Excel, how to incorporate numbers into a story without boring people, etc. The awards came later, but never would have happened without those first stories.

Same goes for news applications. There’s a whole website dedicated to showcasing everyone’s first news app. Mine is especially atrocious. Hey, it was 2001, what can I say? We could barely spell internet back then.

But if you’re worried about living up to the standards of the people who taught your class, stop. Your first project will suck. You’ll look back on it later and cringe. And at a NICAR down the road, I’ll buy you a beer and we can argue about who has the more awful first project. And 50 people around us will join in. Everyone’s first project sucks. Do it anyway.

4. Don’t quit until it’s done.

I get this question all the time: “I’m a journalist. I want to learn how to program. Tell me how.” I have suggestions and websites and learning materials I can tell them about, but the most important thing I tell them is this: Don’t quit until it’s done.

When your brain hurts because you’re really stretching to learn something new, don’t quit. When you’re straight up frustrated because it’s not working and you don’t know why, don’t quit. When you’re tired of it, or you’re thinking “maybe this wasn’t for me”, don’t quit. Keep going. Push through that. You don’t get to say “this wasn’t for me” or “I just didn’t like it” until it’s done. If you finish whatever you set out to accomplish, and you see it in the world, and at that moment you decide to never do this again, fine. That’s your call. But I’ll bet you cash money seeing what you made in the world will hit you like a drug, and you’ll want to do it again. And next time, it’ll go faster, and it’ll be better, and you’ll want to do it again.

Learning something new is about not quitting when your mind and body and soul tell you to quit. Don’t quit. Be stubborn. The idea of quitting, of letting it beat you, should be offensive to you. Get mad. Better yet, get even. Finish it. Don’t quit.

5. Remember: You are not alone.

I said at the beginning two things I want you to remember: NICAR is a weird, nomadic family. And welcome to it.

People have been saying for decades that NICAR feels different — and it is different — because of the culture of the conference. I can talk for hours about what that culture is and why it’s the way it is, but it boils down to this: It’s a giving culture.

Every one of the speakers? Volunteer. All of the hands-on teachers? Same. Did you talk to someone in the hall? Grab a speaker after to ask them a question? They almost certainly stayed right there and answered your question, right? I can remember time after time of Big Name Journalists From Big Name News Organizations dropping everything and showing me how to do something. I can count scores of times where they gave me a business card and said call me if you run into trouble. That generosity amazed me. Inspired me. Made me want to do the same.

That culture extends outside of the conference. The NICAR-L listserv has been helping people every day for 20 years now. Get on it. Not comfortable with that? Email the teacher of your hands-on class. You’ll be amazed at how generous they are. Meet someone at the conference? Email them.

Ask for help, and help will be there. I promise. It’s part of being in the tribe. You do not have to do this yourself.

But here’s the deal: Remember all the help you got. Because someday someone is going to come to you in that same moment. Help them. That too is being part of the tribe.

A small step toward solving the “our curriculum is too full” problem

One of the arguments used to push back against adding new things into journalism school curricula is “Our curriculum is too full! We can’t possibly add anything more! What are we going to do? Stop teaching writing? Or editing?”

First, the argument is silly — no one said anyone was going to stop teaching writing or reporting or whatever “fundamental” skill is most beloved by the combatant. 

Second, it’s not an either or problem.

Put another way, you can view a crowded curriculum as a challenge or a lament. Too many view it as a lament and throw their hands up.

I’ve started picking away at this problem — viewing it as the challenge that it is — by focusing on a specific class: beginning reporting.

Let’s start with a set of statements:

  1. I believe that all reporting classes need to beef up the amount of data journalism contained in them. Data is everywhere, and thus it’s part of modern journalism, and thus it should be in every reporting class.
  2. I believe the level of mathematics education that most journalism schools require (if any at all) is far too low.
  3. I believe the inside-joke “journalists are bad at math ha ha” has to stop.

Given that, the place to start is beginning reporting. Why there? Because if you expose math and data to beginning reporters, they will not know any better than to think that math and data are part of the job. Because guess what? Math and data are part of the job.

The argument that I get against adding data to a beginning reporting class is that it can’t be done because we need to spend as much time as possible teaching them how to write and how to report. Learn how to interview people. Learn how to write an effective lead. Learn how to write using AP Style. Learn how to find the news. Learn how to come up with good story ideas. And many of them don’t get enough of all that in beginning reporting. 

And, to be fair, they have a point. Until you write a few thousand leads, they’re hard to do and even harder to do well. For students who don’t read news, finding the news in something is difficult. It takes repetition.

But what if we combined some skills training and showed how one leads to another which leads to another? 

What if we combined the basic math-for-reporters section we teach with how to do those exact same problems with a spreadsheet, and then used that spreadsheet with real data to find real stories? Math + Data = Story ideas. 

Well, I’ve started to do exactly that, and I’m hosting it on GitHub. It’s a work in progress, but the idea is to take basic math skills, show how you can do them on a spreadsheet, then take real data and do the same thing, but this time with an eye toward generating story ideas. I’d like this module to take a week of class time — with in-class and out-of-class learning. 

I have no idea when I’ll be done with it, but I intend to use it in my own beginning reporting class when it’s done. As always, pull requests, issues or criticisms are welcome. 

Some of the math is painfully basic, but I’ve found students who had no idea that mean and average were the same thing. They’d so completely fled from math that concepts like orders of operation were foreign to them. So laugh all you want at some of the topics covered, but I assure you, they’re rooted in experience. 

I have to believe that with a little creativity, the “our curriculum is too full” problem can be solved. I have to believe this because if it can’t, journalism education is screwed.

I appear to have struck a nerve here. And that has me wondering — what now? How do journalists get better at math? What can be done?

Unconference panel pitch I will someday make

I want to solve a journalism problem with a MakerBot. What is it?

I hate having a fantastic solution and no problem to solve. Being a solution in search of a problem sucks. I’m hoping to get students thinking about this in an open lab time I’m running. But seriously. I want a MakerBot. My gut says there’s a journalism problem to solve here. But I don’t know what it is yet. 

Yet.

The Minimum Viable Participant

In any software development project, you have a line in the sand called the Minimum Viable Product. It’s the point where you’ve got it working well enough and with enough features that the thing has a chance. Barely. It’s not a goal or a standard, it’s a marker of progress.

There’s been a bunch of debate about what journalism schools should be doing now to change curriculum in the face of disruption in the industry. It’s a good debate. I agree with some, have criticisms of others and view this whole “cram more into a degree” issue as a challenge not a lament. 

But I was thinking about this like a software product manager the other day. Really I was stealing a line from Brian Boyer. Who is our audience? What are their needs? And that got me thinking of what are we trying to produce. Is there a conceptual framework we can work toward? Build a curriculum around? 

Introducing the Minimum Viable Participant. 

The Minimum Viable Participant is the baseline for a student journalist to take part in the digital future. It’s the bare minimum of skills they will need to be a part of modern journalism, and what it will become in the future.

So what does the Minimum Viable Participant need to know? Well, this quickly turns into a Rorschach test for whatever particular flavor of digital media is your bag, but let’s take a stab at this. In no particular order, the Minimum Viable Participant in the digital future of media should…

  • Be able to tell stories.
  • Know how the internet works at a fundamental level.
  • Know how to learn new things without formal instruction.
  • Be able to capitalize on ideas and execute on them.

Is that list perfect? No. I’m already debating it in my head. But it is utterly agnostic on the how, which I think is important. Saying the Minimum Viable Participant must know JavaScript means your list is worthless when something comes along and replaces JavaScript. How we tell stories is changing all the time, so specifying how to tell them is giving directions to Obsoleteville. 

The Minimum Viable Participant needs to be curious, industrious and knowledgeable about how the online world works. They need to be these things so they can take advantage of it, or hack it, to get stuff done. They need to learn how to learn, especially in our modern times with MOOCs and free lessons and tutorial videos absolutely flooding the internet. I can’t tell you how many professionals have said we need to teach a class in how to search for the information you need. So, fine, let’s teach a class in how to learn. 

Having an eye on the product — Who are our users? What are their needs? — should be the main basis of all curricular developments (though it often isn’t, which is a subject for another time). So before we decide what classes to teach, what are the answers to those questions? What does the Minimum Viable Participant in the digital future look like?

This post I wrote about spinning up your own version of Chartbuilder should be called “I remember working in a Windows only newsroom and things suck for you so I wrote this to make it suck less.”

I took part in a mega-panel at AEJMC provocatively titled Why Your Students Must Be Programmers.

My take on it? I don’t care if your students are programmers or not. I want intellectually curious students who can toss aside preconceived notions of what they can and can’t do, burrow into some documentation and come out with what they need on the other side. Call it what you want — programming, digital literacy, hacking — it doesn’t matter to me. Working on the web means touching code. If that worries you to the point where you refuse to acknowledge it, I feel bad for you.

veltman:

I can pinpoint the exact moment when the awesome craziness of my OpenNews fellowship sank in. I was on my way home after my first day at BBC headquarters, looking around the subway car, and I realized that fully half of the passengers were reading BBC News on their phones. Whoa. Since then,…

Wrote this for Poynter mostly as an excuse to use NodeXL, which is pretty easy and pretty powerful.