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.
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.