If you want to cry in your beer about the good old days, go ahead. Just stay the hell away from the kids while you’re reminiscing; pretending that dumb business models might suddenly start working has crossed over from sentimentality to child abuse.
As I witnessed the rise of the digital sector – its obsession with fast growth, and its inevitable collision course with legacy media – incumbents were frozen in the quiet certitude that their role in society was in fact irreplaceable, and that under no circumstances they would be left to succumb to a distasteful Darwinian rule. This deep-rooted complacency is, for a large part, responsible for the current state of the media industry.
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.
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.
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:
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.
I believe the level of mathematics education that most journalism schools require (if any at all) is far too low.
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 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.
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 bunchofdebate 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.
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?
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.
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,…
A new way for data journalists to thwart newsroom IT: the Raspberry Pi
One of my old jokes is that newsroom IT puts the No in Innovation, so I’m always on the lookout for ways to get around them. And I’ve been playing around with a good one: The Raspberry Pi.
Unfamiliar with the Pi? The Model B Pi is a $35 computer that’s about the size of a deck of cards. It’s got an ethernet port, and you supply the hard drive in the form of an SD card, the keyboard, mouse and monitor. Now, for $35, you’re not getting a ton of horsepower, but for simple repetitive tasks it works great.
What kind of simple, repetitive tasks? Let’s pretend for a second that you wanted to set up a scraper that dumped data into a database every hour. Ideally, you’d have a server somewhere and you’d set up a task on it — I like using ‘nix’s cron for things like this — and off it would go, mindlessly gathering data for you and putting it into a database. You could then go about your life, stopping by from time to time to get that data and do whatever you’re going to do with it. So you ask newsroom IT for this and, of course, the answer is no. And no we won’t give you the money to run this in the cloud for a few bucks a month either.
Enter the Pi.
For $35, you can write your scripts, put them in a cron job and off it’ll go, gathering your data for you. No need for a server, no need for a server administrator, no need to make sure your work computer stays on and running the whole time, just some elbow grease to get the script running and an ethernet connection to the internet.
I’ve had my Pi running a repetitive task for two weeks now and it’s plugging along without issue, having gathered 50,000 records without me having to do anything. In a month, I’ll have a dataset worth analyzing, and it will only ever cost me $35. And I can use it for other things as well.
When we last left off, we had a script that would loop through a list of data and write a news lead out of it. All that the script did was look at two numbers and decide if the crime rate went up or down and then wrote an appropriate sentence. Something like this:
Lexington police reported more violent crime in 2010 compared to 2009, according to federal statistics.
But, sometimes, just one year isn’t enough. Sometimes a city gets on a roll, crime goes down for several years in a row, and that’s noteworthy enough to change the lead. So, lets do that. How?
Well, not to continue a trend here, but’s it’s really simple.
Here’s the code:
# determine the duration of the trend
if city > city > city: trend_length_clause = ", the second year in a row crime has increased" elif city < city < city: trend_length_clause = ", the second year in a row crime has declined" else: trend_length_clause = ""
What does that say? It’s simple greater than, less than logic. If 2010 (or city in our loop of data) is greater than 2009, which is greater than 2008, then crime has gone up two straight years. If you flip the sign, you get that crime has declined two straight years. So, if those conditions are true, then lets set a variable called trend_length_clause to some words that work in our lead. Then, add that to our lead generating code:
lead = "%s police reported %s violent crime in 2010 compared to 2009%s, according to federal statistics." % (clean_city, direction, trend_length_clause)
Our lead now says insert the city where the first %s is, the direction of the trend where the next %s is and finally jam that clause in. Since we set it to blank if crime didn’t go up or down for two consecutive years, jamming it in there will do nothing if those trends don’t exist. When you run the script, now you see leads like this:
Lincoln police reported more violent crime in 2010 compared to 2009, according to federal statistics.
Norfolk police reported more violent crime in 2010 compared to 2009, the second year in a row crime has increased, according to federal statistics.
That’s a little better. Still not award winning, but at least it varies it up based on the news.
Let’s call it a lead for now. We need a second paragraph, one that starts putting some numbers to this trend. So that’s what we’ll do in the next post. We’ll write a second paragraph that does some percent change math and spells out the data a little further.
1. Software bots will never be able to write the most compelling stories, because telling a story is an inherently human act that requires real humanity to do well. There is no algorithm for humanity.
2. It is trivially simple for a software bot to write mundane, data-based (as opposed to databased) stories that fill a lot of news sections these days. For boring, grind it out, have-to-do-it-but-no-one-wants-to stories, a bored developer can bang out a bot that’ll write a decently nuanced story on that topic using ultra-basic programming logic in a day.
How trivially simple? How ultra basic?
Let’s write a software bot that can write the annual “Crime is up/crime is down” story from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports release. It’s a simple story to write and very little changes from year to year, other than a few numbers and a couple of quotes.
To do this, I’m going to use Python and a simple list of data I got from the UCR’s data tool.
First, I need a list of data to iterate over. For this example, I’m actually using a Python list. Most of the time, you’d have an array of objects from a database or a row of data from a csv. It really doesn’t matter, but here’s what I’m starting with.
As you can see, it’s a list of cities in Nebraska with the violent crime rates for the three most recent years (in this case, 2008, 2009 and 2010).
The most common form of story a journalist can write is called the inverted pyramid — most important thing first, second most second, third most third, and so on. So, lets use that common structure to write our story. So what is the most important thing? I’d say it’s the trend. Is crime up or down? That would make our lead something in the form of “(city) police reported (more/less/same) violent crime in 2010 than 2009, according to federal statistics.”
So, how do we write that in code? Well, like anything, there’s a lot of ways to do it. I’m sure companies that do this for a living are using much, much more sophisticated methods, but it doesn’t require it. Take a look:
#first, import the string library that we'll need later and loop through our list of cities
for city in cities:
#clean up the city name
clean_city = city.replace(" Police Dept", "")
#Lets get rid of that City business in a couple of names
clean_city = clean_city.replace(" City", "")
#determine the year over year trend
if city > city:
direction = "more"
elif city < city:
direction = "less"
direction = "the same"
#write the lead
lead = "%s police reported %s violent crime in 2010 compared to 2009, according to federal statistics." % (clean_city, direction)
What do you get? Something like this:
Beatrice police reported less violent crime in 2010 compared to 2009, according to federal statistics.
Bellevue police reported more violent crime in 2010 compared to 2009, according to federal statistics.
Columbus police reported more violent crime in 2010 compared to 2009, according to federal statistics.
Award winning? Hardly. Gripping narrative? No way. But, with a national dataset, I just wrote a lead for every city in America. And it would take less than a second to do so.
Well, you might be asking, how hard is it to keep going? Well, let’s do that in the next post. Let’s change the lead based on a longer term trend. If you’re interested in the code, it’s here.
“If you think about Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, the key thing about these new innovations is that they weren’t started in heavily resourced labs but out on the fringes. The reason that happened was because the internet is an open-sourced way of information sharing. It lowered the cost of innovation to nearly zero - just ramen and sweat. It pushed innovation from big innovators to the edges: student start-ups, etc. The whole explosion of the internet was led by small groups of people, which in turn meant that the whole nature of innovation changed as costs went down.”—Joi Ito, head of MIT’s Media Lab, speaking truths news organizations still haven’t learned.
This is a blog post I wrote for Scoopcamp, a future of media conference in Hamburg. I’ve become fascinated by a scrapped military project called the Future Force Warrior and how it could be applied to the networked, mobile and robotically aided reporter of the very near future.
“Nothing is more striking in the way in which men judge newspaper criticism, than the difference it makes, whose ox is gored. Whether condemnation is too severe, or whether the limits between public and private character have been overstepped in any particular comment on a man in public life, is apt to be decided by most men under the influence of party predilection. A low view of ones opponents, personally as well as politically, seems an almost inevitable result of active participation in, or strong interest in, party politics. It grows up imperceptibly, and often becomes incapable of eradication, and is a strong stimulus, and sometimes a powerful protection, for newspaper attacks on reputation.”—B. L. Godhin, Scribner’s magazine, July, 1890. A fascinating little read from 122 years ago in light of the ruckus going on right now over fact checking in media.
This idea, in a slightly different form, did well in the first News Challenge. Here is is again retooled a bit. The more I think about it, the more we should all be uncomfortable with the government being the sole source of data journalism.
Reading the paper this morning, I was interested to read two stories. The first was about the University of Nebraska Board of Regents approving at 3.75 percent tuition increase. The second was about those same regents moving forward with cutting the number of credit hours to graduate. The two stories were separate, and in print were in different sections.
Why am I interested in this? Because of the logic bomb contained within them that you’ll find if you just do the math.
In the tuition increase story, you learn that the increase will add $94 to $116 to a students bill every semester.
In the degree requirements story, you learn that cutting degree requirements is “aimed at saving students and their families money.” In fact, cutting the required number of credit hours from 125 to 120 will save students $1,000 to $1,500 in tuition and fees in total.
Wait a second, those are two different time periods. One looks at per semester, the other looks at total cost. What happens when we put them on the same scale?
If a student takes the traditional 8 semesters to graduate, that means the tuition increase will add $752 to $928 to the student’s total bill.
In other words, because of these two things combined, the real savings to students is $248 to $572.
Which raises a question not being asked: Why raise tuition if you’re trying to cut costs? Or, on the flip side, why cut credit hours to save money if you aren’t going to save any?
I’ve got an opportunity to build a hacker/maker space + drone lab in a journalism college. I’ve been asked to come up with requirements for the room. Square footage, furniture, gear, storage, you name it.
Does your university have a hacker space? What does it look like? Are there pictures of it online? Got a URL?
Here’s what I’m thinking, broadly. Not going to get all this, but you don’t get if you don’t ask:
Countertop space for working on drones or Arduino projects.
Locking storage for the same.
Couches? Long desks and chairs (like this)? Something different (like this)? Combinations? Need seating space for hacker/software projects.
Projector for screen sharing or demos.
Internet enabled TV on the wall.
Whiteboards. Whiteboards everywhere!
If possible, high ceilings and a netted cage for indoor multi-copter testing (example)
Here’s a Storify of tweets I got asking this question on Twitter.
If you were teaching a course in data visualization...
… what would you include? I’m developing a course in data viz over the summer and am in the brainstorming phase now. Here’s what I’ve got. What would you do?
A written narrative is not always the best way to convey information. Sometimes, you have to see the data in order to see the meaning in it. With more data available than any other time in our history, being able to visualize data is becoming a vital communication skill. This course will cover a wide array of subjects related to gathering, analyzing, processing and visualizing data. Students will learn how to gather, clean and analyze data that already exists and will work with gathering their own data with cutting edge equipment. The class will also work on a real-world project.
Visual communication theory
Types of data visualizations — when to use, how to read, how they can mislead
Basic data science — data types and structures
Basic data management — importing, cleaning
Basic data analysis — grouping, counting, sorting, summing
Data vis 1 — using Excel charts
Data vis 2 — using Google Fusion Tables
Data vis 3 — using the web as a canvas for data vis (basic HTML/CSS)
Gathering your own data with UAVs and remote sensors
Visualizing data in real-time or near real time
How the basic of telling a story — a headline/title, a lead, context, content — apply to data visualizations
Basic math (via @RobinJP)
What not to visualize (via @knowtheory)
We just finished selecting the 51 proposals that will go to the next round of the Knight News Challenge on networks. (You can see 50 of them listed below; one was a closed entry we don’t have permission from the applicant to share.)
Maybe I like the sermon so much because I’m in the choir, but if you care about journalism education, read this. Highlights:
"Journalism schools are realizing that the old tracks don’t really work for students the way the journalism landscape works now," Hernandez says.
And if there’s one point on which those interviewed for this story agree, it’s that mastery of data and computational journalism is the most valuable tool students can take with them into the job market.
"If there’s one area that’s super complicated and requires having a good deal of training, it is database work," says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Cooper. "If I see someone with that on their résumé, I’m going to weigh that highly."
Noted: My sensor networks News Challenge app has a better chance of getting into Harvard than winning the grant. But, as famed philosopher and poet William Adama once said, sometimes you’ve got to roll the hard six.
Toward a solution to the more tech in J-school problem
First, lets state some general conditions and agree to them:
There is a generally agreed upon need for tomorrow’s journalists — no matter what area of the craft they intend to go into — to have more technological skill and experience than their past counterparts.
There is not a generally agreed upon way to accomplish this increase in technological skill within a j-school curriculum.
There is not a generally agreed upon list of tech skills that journalism students should/must have before graduating to become a journalist today.
There is a … tension … in newsrooms and faculties over the balance between focusing on reporting/storytelling/fundamental skills and on new technologies for storytelling. Whether you believe this tension is well founded or a not-mutually-exclusive waste of time, it exists and must be acknowledged.
There are a finite number of classes a student can take in any major and the list of skills and tech that have come up at various discussions and conferences vastly outstrips this class hour limit.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It started with me thinking about what is the technological/computer science answer to Doing More With Less. Ah yes, Doing More With Less, the trite bullshit line publishers trot out after axing half the staff. It is bullshit, but there’s also a legit question there. How could you do more with less, because guess what? There’s less. A lot less. Ignoring that is angrily yelling at clouds. Pointless.
In academia, the do more with less argument isn’t necessarily about less. It’s about an absolute limit. There are only so many credit hours a student can take in their major. In that limit you have to teach, you know, Journalism. Reporting, writing, editing, design, photography, videography, “the basics.” You don’t hear from people anymore arguing that these classes shouldn’t include more tech. For example, traditional print reporting classes are using digital recorders and cameras on smart phones and video cameras and live tweeting to cover stories. J-schools, by and large, have made that adjustment, from what I hear from my colleagues around the country. The classroom reporting classes are trying to mimic the professional experience, and that has meant more tech.
The question, then, is how do you get some of these other emerging ideas into the curriculum? Where does programming fit in? Or mobile design? What about completely out-there ideas that should be getting a test run in a university setting before going out into the broader industry? Like drones? Or sensor networks? Or machine learning? Or algorithm-written stories? How do you fit those into a curriculum many believe is busy enough teaching “the basics”? How do you deal with a not-insignificant number of people who don’t believe any of this should be in the curriculum at all?
My thinking lately?
Just don’t. Forget the curriculum. Forget classes. Do something outside of class. Create an opportunity that doesn’t have credit hours attached that has value and fire away.
What do I mean by this?
If you’ve been paying attention around these parts lately, you’ll know that I’ve started a Drone Journalism Lab and have just entered the Knight News Challenge with an idea of building sensor networks for news. I get asked regularly, are you going to teach a class in drones or sensors?
Couple of reasons for that. First and foremost, I want to be clear that both are just tools. A smartphone is a really great tool for storytelling that opens all kinds of ethical questions about their use. Would you teach a class in smartphones? No, you wouldn’t. That’d be silly. So using a drone to report a story is … slightly more complicated … but similar to using a smartphone to report a story. It’s a tool to tell a story. It’s not a completely new form of story. Might drones end up in other classes? Yep. Count on it. Sensors? Yep, count on it. Are they their own classes? I don’t think so. I can make an argument for them being their own class, but for now I’m saying no.
So what are they?
Every campus has student media where students take what they learned in class and apply it to doing more journalism. They get more experience. In sports, they’re called repetitions or reps. The more reps you get, the better you get, the more you can do. Students need reps. But J-school isn’t the only place for this. Other disciplines have students who work in labs as lab techs or research assistants. They get paid, they get experience, they get reps.
So what if we did this for journalism too?
I called it the Drone Journalism Lab for a reason. It’s going to be a lab. Where students work. And through grants and undergraduate research programs, they’ll get paid to do so. They’ll get hands on experience with a very interesting technology, get to take part in the research and they’ll get to put it on their resumes. And given the number of news organizations that have asked me about it, they’ll have no trouble finding a job if this all goes according to plan. Number of classes required? Zero.
The Knight News Challenge app? A good portion of the funds requested is to pay students to work on the project. Again, hands on, in the lab, taking part, without course credit on the line. No need for a curriculum committee meeting. No need to fret about what basic skill is going to get short shrift because we’re talking about sensors.
I’ve talked about starting a hacker space here in the college where students could hang out and build stuff. A kind of proto-incubator stage space where students build things they can then take and build a business around. At the time I was thinking about web stuff or Kinect hacks or things like that. But now I’m thinking it could be a whole universe of things. And again, not things in the curriculum.
I have no idea if this is a solution or not, but it seems to solve a lot of problems. It creates some problems — space, funding, resources to name a few, plus how do you measure this for faculty time commitments? I’m sure it causes more problems than that. I just haven’t thought of them yet.
But if you believe J-school needs more tech, and you accept the reality that universities aren’t going to allow us to double the number of credit hours required to get a degree, then these kinds of outside-the-curriculum ideas are part of the future.
I’ve been bouncing around ideas lately about physical computing, real-time data visualization and what is the technological answer to the bulls*** management line of “doing more with less.” And, out of that idea soup, came this:
Using Python to access tweets from the command line
Here at the Harvard of the Plains, I teach a class in digital product development I like to call Programming as an Act of Journalism. Lots of people ask me about it and I’m always a bit cagey about it because, to be frank, I’m still kind of making it up as I go. My course goals could actually fill an entire degree, so I spend a lot of time pushing and pulling against my wants and needs for the class. But the basic outline is I take College of Journalism students who know nothing about code and product development and we build a prototype of a product they invent in 16 weeks. And the first eight weeks of hands-on classes are spent doing intro to programming type work.
I’ve started developing lessons I call Small Wins for the class so they can see stuff working on the screen. Here’s the first: a lesson in using Python to access the Twitter API. It’s the follow up class to basic Python (variables, strings, integers, functions and lists). The goal is to talk about using libraries, introduce programmatic thinking and data structure and, well, see some stuff happen in front of their eyes.
In the class, I have students install a virtual machine and put Ubuntu Linux on that. Why? Lots of reasons, but the main ones are that I want to expose students to a new environment while at the same time keeping it compartmentalized so they don’t fear “messing up their computer” by working in the terminal. So this walkthrough assumes you’re using Ubuntu.
1. Install pip, a package management library for Python.
2. Install python-twitter, a Python wrapper around the Twitter API that makes accessing the API breathtakingly simple (really!).
$ sudo pip install python-twitter
Create an instance of the Twitter API class, which creates an object with several methods that we’re going to be using. Think of it like buying a Swiss Army knife. You get the knife and a whole bunch of tools that go with it. You just have to unfold them to use them.
>>> import twitter
>>> api = twitter.Api()
5. Pick a Twitter user to gather their tweets. For this example, we’ll use Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome). Then we’ll use one of our tools in the Twitter API class — GetUserTimeline, which does what you think it does.
6. Congrats. You now have Stephen Colbert’s latest tweets. Stand in appreciation of what all the python-twitter library has done for you. It created an http request, sent that request to the properly formatted API URL, ingested the response, converted the structured JSON file it returned into a Python dictionary and returned it to you as an object for you to use. What’s that? You’re not excited? You want to see them? Okay, fine.
>>> for tweet in statuses:
... print tweet
Yikes. What is that? It’s all the data that comes with each tweet. Take a look at it all. Background colors, times, dates, all kinds of stuff. Well, that won’t do. Maybe we just want to see the text of the tweet. If you look at the output, you’ll see a pattern in the output. You’ll see things like “protected”: false and “screen_name”: “StephenAtHome”. Those are called key/value pairs. The key is the name of the attribute — like an ID or the text of the tweet — and the value is what it sounds like it is.
7. In our case, we want to see the text of the tweet. To do that, you have to address the key. In Python, we do that with dot notation. What does that mean? It means you can pick the key in an object and display it by adding a dot after your object and then the key name. So like this: nameofobject DOT name of key
>>> for tweet in statuses:
... print tweet.text
— Looking at the keys, what would you have to do to see if each tweet was favorited?
8. Okay, one users tweets are nice, but what if I want to see tweets about a subject, not a person? For that, we’ll use a different function in the python-twitter library, GetSearch:
A completely arbitrary list of takeaways from two unconferences
This past weekend, I attended Spark Camp: Data, an unconference in Austin focused on using data to tell stories, whatever they may be. A month before, I was at News Foo, an unconference at Arizona State University that brings technologists and journalists together to talk about … whatever they want to talk about regarding the future of news. Both conferences included a lot of chatter about journalism schools and what they should be doing. People I talked to were all fascinated to hear I teach programming and data at a journalism school.
At both, listening to this discussion going on, I came away with some random thoughts about journalism school curricula, programmer-journalists and the future. Here they are in a completely unnecessary and arbitrary list.
The number of things Journalism is asking its journalism schools to teach could fill three degrees plus a couple of minors. Business, law, economics, entrepreneurship, computer science, data science, and also all the journalism fundamentals. We have no idea what The Future is, other than that it’s wildly different from the past, so we’re tossing everything into What Journalism Schools Should Be Teaching and the list is starting to look a little silly. Especially when you consider we have 40 credit hours to work with.
I view this as a challenge, not a lament.
You are number 114 on the list of people who have asked me if I have any students who are budding journalist-developers ready to start busting out apps in your shop. You are also deep on the list of people telling me you’re looking for people and having a hard time finding them. There’s 10 fish in this pond right now and everyone has a line in the water.
The number of students I have seen who are budding journalist-developers ready to start busting out apps in your shop: 0. Why? Comes down to passion. I haven’t seen that student take what we talked about in class and run off on their own. It seems they’re still waiting for something. I don’t know what that is.
Where are these future journalist-developers who will Save Us All? What can we do to find them? I don’t know. I think more about it every day.
I think the problem with finding these students starts with reward structures. Students are told from even before they walk on campus that being a journalist means Being a Good Writer, Being a Good Editor, Being a Good Photographer. No one is telling them they could be an application developer, or a data journalist, or a media entrepreneur. Or if they have heard it, that voice is getting drowned out by traditionalists. A disturbing amount of time, the traditionalists drowning those students out are other students. Until we can attach a reward to this — until it cracks the consciousness of students that there are jobs in this path — I think we’ll continue to struggle.
I still believe you can teach journalists to be programmers and people like that will be vital to the Future of Journalism, but I’m also starting to think more and more about what a journalism minor for a computer-science major would look like.
A potential archetype of a journalist-developer student? That kid who messed around with programming in high school and loved it while having a blast on the student paper. But they came to college and thought they had to get a CS or similar degree because that’s what They told them. You know They. They tell people a lot of crap. I’m looking for that techie carrying regret in their heart for not pursuing journalism. I can unburden that regret. And get you a job.
The pipeline of techie/journo students to internships to jobs is a problem that is going to be with us for a while. There’s not enough students right now. Plain and simple. And I worry that because of this supply problem, the internships and jobs will go away. And just when that happens, we’ll solve the supply problem and have the reverse.
Problems I would love to have to talk about: What is the career path for a developer in a newsroom? There isn’t one right now. Who will be the first to hire a developer as an assistant managing editor or above? I ache for the day we have to discuss this instead of the scarcity of talent. I long for the day when we have to debate turning over editorial strategy to someone who came into the newsroom to build apps. That will be a great day.
A whole herd of people are learning to program this year through free weekly lessons via email from Code Year. Some, like me, are interested in new lessons and approaches. Some people are starting from scratch. I have a word of advice to you, one I need to follow myself, as you get started on your Code Year.
Turn off Tweetdeck. Shut down IM. Turn off your email notifier. No one has liked your status in the last minute, so don’t check. Unplug.
Why? Because you’ll learn nothing in 20-30 second bursts between distractions. Learning to code, like many things in life, requires you to focus for extended periods of time. It requires to you really burrow in on details. This is probably a level of detail you may not be accustomed to. It’s probably concepts you aren’t familiar with. You need uninterrupted time to focus on the task at hand.
In short, you aren’t as good at multitasking as you think you are. So don’t do it. Unplug, focus, and really learn something.
Want an experiment in how distracted you are? Get into the environment you intend to work on your Code Year exercises in. Turn on the stuff you normally have on. I’ve got Spotify, an IM client and Tweetdeck on myself right now, plus my Google notifier and my phone handy. Turn all the stuff on that you’d normally have running.
Now read this. It’s a fantastic essay on how important solitude is to proper thinking. See how long you can go before you’re distracted.
Me? Two paragraphs. It took me over an hour to read that one essay because oops, got an email and now someone @ replied me on Twitter and awwww, cute baby on Facebook and here’s a text about getting dinner tonight. And on and on and on and on.
It was shocking to me how my social/work habits had ruined my ability to concentrate on a thing and read it. Really read it. At times, the urge to check email was physical. I could feel myself getting uncomfortable because what if I did get an email? What if? Well, I better check.
And so I’m making a change. At points in my day now, when I need to focus on something, I’m opting into a total digital blackout. Goodbye email notifier. So long Twitter. Shhhhh now Spotify. It’s thinking time. They’ll be there in an hour. And I’m not an on-call brain surgeon, so no one is going to die if I don’t get that text.
It’ll wait. It can all wait. It’s thinking time. Time to focus.
I’m teaching a data journalism/investigative reporting class for the first time this spring. I’ve got the class pretty well mapped out — I know what I’m going to teach — but I’m struggling with a course description. Here’s what I’ve got. Fellow data nerds, what say you?
Every day, more of our lives is becoming digital and more of that life is getting stored in a database somewhere. With a historic explosion of data about everything going on right now, reporters need the skills to analyze and understand data to then write the stories hidden in the information. Gone are the days when a reporter could grab a notebook and say “I suck at math.” If that’s what you aspire to, leave now. Don’t want to be that reporter? Welcome. Data journalism harnesses the tools of the data analyst and uses them to do investigative reporting. We’re going to get our hands dirty with spreadsheets, databases, maps, some basic stats and, time permitting, some stuff I’ll call “serious future s**t.” And in the end, we’ve got a project to produce. So buckle up and hold on.
It has been exciting to be both a witness to and a participant in the growing movement towards open web development in journalism. 2011 is one of those years that it’s amazing to sit back, here on one of its last days, and look back at just how much has been accomplished.
Thinking out loud: The management wisdom of Battlestar Galactica
I’m going to News Foo in Phoenix in a few weeks, and I’m thinking of proposing an Ignite talk there called the Management Wisdom of Battlestar Galactica. I’m a huge fan of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series that was on Syfy. Besides having lead a rag-tag fleet of the last humans left alive in a Cylon holocaust, I think Admiral William Adama would have been a pretty decent project manager. Here’s what I’ve come up with as project management wisdom from the Admiral and the show:
Sine Qua Non. Means “without which not” or the must-have thing that makes everything else possible. I’ve argued that a good news app focuses on one thing and does it really well and that if you can’t say what that one thing is clearly, you don’t have a project.
"It’s not enough to survive … One has to be worthy of survival." If you want to do something special, you have to commit to it. This is as much about project groups as it is projects. It can be summed up thusly: Clock punchers should GTFO.
"Then grab your gun and bring in the cat." If you believe in what you are doing, then come prepared to fight for it. Stand your ground. Make an argument. Fight to make your project better.
"Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore." There’s getting the job done and getting the job done right. Any corners you cut now will come back to you. Get it done, get it online, get people using it, iterate often, but know your technical debt will come due one day.
"Sometimes you have to roll a hard six." A hard six is two threes on a pair of six-sided dice in the game of craps. It’s one of the highest odds rolls in the game, but with higher risk comes higher reward. If you aren’t gambling big, why are you playing?
Thoughts? I kinda dig the SciFi movie explains Thing Not Related To Science Fiction genre of lightning talk. I’ve given a talk called The Matrix Explains the Current News Business several times and it works pretty well. Not sure about this one. Let me know if you have a thought.
My other idea? What can the Zen Buddhist concept of the Beginner’s Mind tell us about the future of journalism.
For more than 10 years, I’ve been offering up a bet to professionals at conferences: I’ll buy you a steak dinner if you can get some math concept past an editor and onto the air or in print. I have never once had to pay up. So I made that same bet in class this week, betting my students they couldn’t get Mode (as in Mean, Median and …) into print or on the air. To my everlasting shock and joy, here are two students legitimately using mode to describe Kim Kardashian’s boyfriends. On Top 40 radio. In Lincoln, Neb.
“What made it click for me was programming in anger. Programming because I needed to. Programming because I gave a damn about what I was writing and I wanted it done sooner rather than later.”—How do I learn to program? - (37signals)
The McCormick Foundation and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies are funding specialized reporting institutes in 2012 and are taking applications now. I saw this and had an idea for one, but I’m not convinced it’s fully baked. Help me out by adding your suggestions in the comments below.
The idea (the short version):
Reporting for News Apps: Getting, Cleaning, Vetting, Analyzing and Visualizing Data to Tell Stories on the Web.
The slightly longer version:
Done right, news applications require a combination of skills, from investigative reporting to data literacy to information design principles to programming. A reporter working on a news app could face open records challenges, dirty data, questions about validity and accuracy, the formation of analytical approaches and the need to know when geographic data should be a map or not. And that’s before the first line of code hits the internet. There’s a lot to learn — and a lot to learn from. This specialized reporting institute would focus on the challenges specific to reporting for news apps, how the steps can be improved, how other fields within and outside of journalism have tackled these problems and how the results of the reporting-for-news-apps process can be extended to other parts of journalism.
McCormick/Poynter have specific goals they wish to fulfill with their conferences. Full list here.
Specifically, they want the institute to focus on a topic. The first topic that came to my mind was education data, specifically school test score data that every state has and many news organizations produce apps around. Thoughts?
They place an emphasis on the diversity of the conference, in type of journalist who attends (e.g. broadcast, print, online), type of outlet (newspaper, ethnic media, independent) and the speakers. Technology conferences have a well-earned “white dude” problem. Thoughts on how we reach beyond the core of nerdy dudes who do this now and beyond the proto-nerd who might be interested in attending?
I think this is solid idea for a conference, but I’m not sure it’s fully baked. So, instead of me sitting here wondering what else I should put in the application I’m going to submit by the deadline of Nov. 15, I’m going to ask you. What else should I put in there?
Here in my first semester on the faculty at the Harvard of the Plains, I get to work with students in both the College of Journalism and Mass Communications and the Raikes School for Computer Science and Management. With both groups of students, I’m working through problems that can be described as technology+journalism = ??
Journalism student: I can’t do this. This is impossible. I’ll never get this.
Tech oriented student: I can’t do this now, but learning how is just a matter of time and effort, so no worries.
At first, I just blew off the journalism student’s reluctance as a different strain of the “journalists can’t do math” disease that has never been cured. But the more I think about it, the more I worry.
I strongly believe that the future of journalism requires journalists who can program — who can work in, construct, manipulate and advance digital distribution of content and information. The future of the industry needs technologists as well, probably more than technologists need journalism, but my focus is getting journalists elbow deep into the tools that will shape their future.
I’ve always hated the newsroom culture of almost celebrating math ignorance. For an industry that prides itself on being smart, to turn around and glorify ignorance is dumb. And to continue to push that self-selection just calcifies ignorance and weakens journalism.
But if that same math-is-hard self-selection extends to code, then we’ve got a serious problem.
The question on my mind is what to do about it? How can we bring a little more “just a matter of time” swagger to journalism students?
I’ve been having somewhat of an existential crisis of late. I’ve been a speaker at multiple journalism conferences a year for more than a decade running now and I have started to wonder at the value of all that talking. Not that I feel all those sessions weren’t valuable — they were — but were they as valuable as they could have been? Could we have gotten a few more people over the wall? Could we have snagged a few more minds?
Michelle Minkoff has been thinking about this too, and asked me for some advice. You should head over and read her post. It’s what got me off the carpet to write what’s rattling around in my head.
Every journalism conference I’ve been to are 90 percent panel discussions, maybe some hands-on classes and the remainder keynote speeches with a Big Name Speaker. How each conference selects speakers varies — some identify people who would be interesting on a given topic and invite them, others invite speakers to propose panels.
What I’ve come to believe:
The best panels are about things *anyone* can do, not about some crazy thing you did that no one will ever be able to do or only works because of some cosmic combination of factors in your city or state.
Panels are a really, really crappy forum for very specific technical information.
The best panels entertain and inspire as much as they inform. They tell a story, from speaker to speaker to speaker. There is laughter and people leave the room ready to run through a brick wall. More tent revival, less reading bullet points.
The problem with this line of thinking:
Not everyone can inspire or entertain. There is a legit “diversity of voices” argument to be had about journalism conference panel speakers and it goes beyond the YAFWG (yet another f**king white guy) argument. Being a good speaker is a really good skill to have but it shouldn’t eliminate you from the speakers list.
We’ve shown people The Light! They’re ready to go out and do what you inspired them to do! Congrats. You’ve rubbed them on the carpet, sent them running out the door to … what? A newsroom that doesn’t care? A life of blindly Googling for help? There are people who take this challenge and thrive. There are far more people who are confronted with the vastness of the unknown and quit.
So, what can we do about this?
I think we have to rethink the News Nerd/technical journalism panel. We have to quit fooling ourselves that an hour at a conference is sufficient to do anything more than hold someone’s attention for an hour. We have to stop inspiring people and then giving them little direction after they walk out.
In Michelle’s post, Jeremy Bowers at the Washington Post sums it up thusly:
"There’s missing support for the middle-class of news developers. This is a particularly glaring gap, because it’s the most difficult part of the incubation of the adolescent coder."
I think I have an idea that might work.
Proposed: The Super Panel. It goes like this.
We start with a panel designed specifically around inspiring, entertaining and informing. We make no secret of this — we celebrate it, in fact. We choose speakers specifically because they inspire and entertain.
After the panel, those so moved are invited to an unconference-style session where the people who want to go further are thrown together with the panel’s speakers and others recruited to help to map out the next moves. Install some software? Map out a group project? Start hacking away? Up to those who show up.
After the conference, the super panel speakers plus those recruited to help agree to run a study group/mentoring program online. Maybe through Google Groups. Maybe something else. I don’t know. Haven’t thought this all the way out. The point being there’s a support group of people who were at this session who are working on a project together to learn after the conference is over. There’s infrastructure and support in place after you leave.
I realize this completely changes the dynamic for panel speakers: Done right, there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for a panel. This adds to that 100 times over. I also realize also that not every panel and not every panelist is cut out for this. But it seems like every conference could do a handful of these Super Panels in addition to the normal panels. Nobody has time to start some online study group based on every panel they went to at a three day conference. But one? Two? If they really want it they will make time.
I think Super Panels would serve several purposes: First, it would take away the argument that conferences leave people high and dry and all alone after they’re over. Second, it would leave someone who claims that they want to learn this stuff with a lot fewer excuses. Third, it would much better serve this middle class of news nerd who is already in the choir, enjoys but doesn’t need the sermon and wants the technical stuff that just doesn’t come across well in a panel.
Edit: See this if you think 1) I’m being specifically critical of any one organization and 2) you think I’m just writing this to write it instead of doing something about it.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Journalism 101 class taught by Professor Scott Winter and the dean of the college, Gary Kebbel. Thinking it was just a simple come, talk, answer questions and leave, I was surprised to find that they had all come with questions and, while I was talking, were texting them to a single Google Voice account for me to answer. Holy Inbox Disaster, Batman. So it’s taken me a bit to dig out, but here’s my answers, for anyone who cares. I included their questions as written (texted) and lumped them together when they were all asking about the same thing.
Q: I was creepin on ur blog and i was wondering, what’s up with ur blog?? / Why is your resume not posted on your site? / Your bio on TampaBay.com says you’re a News Technologist
A: My personal website is a disaster of epic proportions. When you spend every day building websites, the last thing you want to do on your own time is build more websites. Maybe now that I’m doing something else I’ll clean the mess up. As for Tampabay.com, that’s an interesting problem on the web. As you build an online reputation and get involved in things, you leave a trail of biographies around that you lose control of when you leave a company or organization. I’m not the only one who no longer works at the St. Pete Times who has a bio that says otherwise, and I can do little about it (and News Technologist was my title when I was there).
Q: What’s a bogus piece of advice aspiring journalists think they should follow? / What is your best advice for students like us going into journalism, advertising, PR? / Is it at all possible to be a journalist apart from the digital world? (not making websites, constantly using twitter)
A: Bogus advice? Believe you can be a journalist apart from the digital world. Look at yourself. How often do you check email/Facebook/text messages/Twitter/Friendster/Orkut/MySpace/Pownce every hour, including when you’re in class. Think of how much of your life is spent on a computer or on a mobile device. And then realize you are the news consumer of the future. Is it even possible to be a journalist apart from the digital world? I suppose it arguably is — even the smallest town newspaper uses email, but may not have a website. But you would have to work — actively put out effort — into removing yourself from the digital world and be a journalist. That’s not a world you want to be a part of, and it’s willfully ignorant of every signpost we have of where life is going.
Best advice? Don’t. Waste. Your. Undergraduate. Education. Recognize this: Journalism — all forms — is going to be in turmoil for years. Traditional business models will be under assault if not outright destroyed. So, the future belongs to those who do, who think differently, who have new and unique skills. Take entrepreneurship classes. Better? Start a business. Take more statistics than are required. Take computer science classes. Do not major in journalism and minor in journalism and journalism, er, English and Sociology (like, ahem, someone). Take classes that will prepare you for an industry that is aching for people with an entrepreneurial spirit who can work with the web on a fundamental level and visualize how to make ideas into a part of a business.
Q: What would you say gave you your start? Did social networking play an important role?
A: The Daily Nebraskan gave me my start. And social networking at the time was called “talking to people.” I started college when dialing into AOL was voodoo devilry no one understood (1993). I would tell you that social networking plays an important role in my career now, and I’ve seen people who developed a name and a reputation on social networking sites get jobs because of it. So social networking is a great way to make a name for yourself, but it’s not always a path.
Q: Now that you have a Pulitzer, what motivates you? Was that motivation before?
A: I always dreamed about winning a Pulitzer, but I always thought it was just that — daydreaming. I never thought I’d be a part of something that would win one. Even after I learned PolitiFact had won, it still didn’t feel real. Still doesn’t in a lot of ways. My motivations have always been odd — I get bored easily, I read constantly, I can’t stand being mediocre at something I care about and I distrust well worn paths. So I find something new that few are doing and I figure out a way to do something interesting with it. I believe in journalism and it has given me license to tinker around with some really cool stuff in the name of moving the ball forward, so to speak. Being at a university is going to let me experiment with applying wildly different ideas to journalism to see what it reveals about our future.
Q: What made you want to come back to lincoln and teach? / Why would you come back to UNL as a professor? / What made you decide to start teaching after all you have done? / How do you like being a professor rather than a journalist? / Why did you decide UNL? / Why did you decide to come back to UNL when the other things you’ve done are so exciting compared to Nebraska? / What made you want to be a professor when you already had this great website that won the Pulitzer prize? / Why choose to teaching students to overcome your success than to keep building onto your success?
A: First, this is home for me and my wife (who is also an alumna of the college). We wanted our children to grow up near family in a place with great schools and in a state that values education. Florida has none of those things. So moving back to Lincoln was for family and personal reasons. Why come to UNL? It’s been obvious to me, traveling the country, working with all kinds of media organizations, that there is a giant chasm between what the industry needs to get to a digital future and the workforce that’s out there. To be blunt: There’s not enough people like me, who are journalists or passionate about journalism who can code, analyze data, build websites, think beyond a story and think product, think business model. So, I could sit back and complain about it, or I could do something about it. Around the time I was thinking of this, I met Dean Gary Kebbel for the first time. We had beers a few times and got to talking. He’s thinking along the same lines I am — or a least he said he was after I got a few beers in him — and so it seemed like a good fit.
Q: Is the issue with fact and truth due to people’s poor media literacy or just apathy? / Would you agree that todays society is not as concerned about hearing true facts - especially the political viewpoint - as they should be? / With the evolving media convergence - and the new voices appearing every day - do you fear that truth will get lost in the shuffle? / Do you find fact checking to be a weapon against cynicism about the media? / Do you feel that your fact checking has changed the political scene? / In your opinion, how do you think we can increase the awareness of citizens under 30 in current events and strengthen their participation?
Oh, you want more? I think you’re all right. Poor media literacy, a political climate created by leaders who want people to act on emotion instead of fact, an explosion of voices and streams of information — this is the world we live in. Is fact checking a weapon against cynicism in the media? Yes, but it feels like shooting a shotgun at a tsunami. Did you hit it? Yes. Did it do any good? Not hardly. Has PolitiFact/Factcheck etc. changed politics? In some ways yes, in the most visible ways no. And how do we increase awareness of those under 30? I think you have to do things differently. The traditional news broadcast and newspaper story aren’t working. Jon Stewart is one way, but I really want to believe there’s more ways to do this out there. And this is what I mean by the future belongs to those who do. Who says you can’t be the one to build something that reaches people and makes them better informed?
Q: Do you enjoy covering politics? / Were you always a political reporter or did this just kind of happen, and why? / How did you come up with Politifact.com and how do you regulate it?
In the newsroom of the St. Pete Times, there is a quote board. On that quote board is one from me, telling the world that “I would rather serve fries” than cover politics. I have not ever been nor ever will be a political reporter. I hate politics. Can’t stand politics. But that’s exactly why I was interested in building PolitiFact. If I could build a political website that would interest someone like me, who gets angry whenever a political talk show comes on, then I thought you’d have something.
Q: How do you decide what statements get attention on Politifact and which ones get left behind? / How big is your staff to keep politifact running and reputable? / Who does the research for politifact? / Where do you get the “truth” from? The source itself? / How did you create such an extensive network of data that you could insure that the facts you presented were facts? / Where do you check the facts that you post on the website?
A: Editors listen for things people are talking about, facts and talking points that rise into the national conversation, and have a verifiable fact in them. So long as there’s a verifiable fact in there — “Candidate X is ruining American values!” isn’t a verifiable fact — then they go after that. We’ve said from the beginning that it’s a subjective process, which is why you don’t see us producing “Who lies more” stories. We don’t know. You can’t know based on our numbers, because we don’t fact check everything someone says, or even a representative sample. It would be impossible to do that. So we have to pick and choose. There’s five people on the national staff, plus researchers and other people who help out from time to time. There’s a pattern to how they research an item, and it starts by asking the person who said it for their source. A reporter then checks out that source — often calling the source and asking if they were quoted accurately. Often, they check with official sources — government documents, records or reports. Where things lead from there varies widely. But we have to be careful to go to original sources instead of relying on think tanks and organizations that have an agenda.
Q: If you could alter one specific part of politifact right now what would it be?
A: I’ve been advocating for a redesign for some time. It’s time. I want it to get cleaner and leaner, with some parts better emphasized. No major surgery on the functionality, just look and feel stuff.
Q: Do people who you rate as not telling the truth ever contact the site trying to defend their statements? / Do you get criticized or questioned often about the accuracy of the information on politifact? / Why did you choose to focus so closely on Obama and judge him on his promises, and not follow those promises of others so closely? / Where do you get your research from to decide if the politics on your website are true or not? How do we know its reliable? / I’m fearful that politifact may not be a balanced website. There’s no shortage of corruption on both sides. Does the website reflect this? / Being the finder of falsehoods in the political world, did u find yourself leaning to one side after your research…?
A: All of these questions are hinting at or coming out and asking about bias. And whenever anyone says bias, I want you to think very hard about why someone would declare something biased. Did it confront their carefully cultivated narrative? Did it challenge a belief? Is it actually biased or is this person just unwilling to consider other viewpoints or do they have a vested interest in you believing a specific thing? That said, yes, people defend themselves all the time and we’ve indeed changed rulings because of new information. Do we get criticized? Daily. It’s part of the game now in modern politics. Why did we choose to focus on Obama? We didn’t. There’s a GOP promise tracker too, right next to Obama’s. That said, he is the president, so a brighter focus on him is warranted. “Balance” is too often interpreted as “we quoted the left and the right equally.” That is a false concept, and one PolitiFact has said from the beginning they were not going to fall prey too. If the national conversation is dominated by a person, idea or talking point, we’ll fact check that regardless of what the other side is saying because it’s not dominating the national conversation.
Q: What did you initially expect the outcome of politifact to be?
A: That at best we’d make it to the end of the 2008 presidential election and have to find something new to do. I honestly thought we’d turn it off after the Florida primaries. But once it took off the first week it was online, I knew we were going to make it past the primaries. But I did not expect to celebrate the site’s 4th birthday.
Q: What would you say to people who argue that journalism is a dying field?
A: I would tell them that they’re looking at it all wrong. Traditional journalism — newspapers, cable news, etc. — are in serious trouble because of the internet, how people are using it, changes that are coming about because of it, etc. But at the same time, journalism as a practice is flourishing. There’s more choice, more voices, more journalism now than there has been at any time in history. It’s easy to just blow off journalism as dying because the metro daily is in deep trouble, but journalism has been around for a very long time. We’ve been telling stories to each other since we were living in caves and painting on walls. So journalism isn’t going anywhere, but the business models that fund it as a business are going to see tremendous change, destruction, upheaval and rebirth for the near future.
Q: What was your favorite story to report on? Least? / What is the most interesting story you have ever covered? / What’s the most interesting story you’ve ever covered? / As an investigative reporter, what was your favorite story to write? / What is the most exciting story you have ever covered?
A: I’ve covered thousands of stories. Picking a few is tough. The guy thrown out of an all you can eat buffet for eating too much was fun. Covering a shuttle launch was amazing. Tornadoes are great fun and a horrible grind all at once. Covering corruption at a small city hall was great fun too. Looking at the moon through the eye of a hurricane is something I’ll never forget. Getting to do cutting edge investigative reporting with tools no one had ever used before was awesome. The great part about being a journalist is that there’s always another story.
Q: What is your theory on “quote” leads?
A: Theory? Fact, my friend. Fact. Either you are in my 202 reporting class or word is starting to get out. Quote leads, I told my students, are stupid, lazy and should never appear in a newspaper except for two circumstances: The quotes are “We’ve cured cancer” or “We’ve made contact with an alien life form.” Short of that, your quote lead sucks.
Q: What inspired you to create the website Tampa Bay Mug Shots? Can you make one for Nebraska? / How did you come up with the Tampa Bay,mug shots website? / Why did you create the Tampa Bay mug shots website and how is it ethical while keeping the families of the person in mind and their right to privacy? / What are the reactions that you’ve gotten from people about the mugshot website? Is the morality behind the website a consideration or a constraint?
A: Frankly, I wasn’t inspired to build it — I was asked to do it by my boss. So we set out to build it the best way possible, both from the standpoint of the user there to look at mugshots and from the point of the accused. We started with the premise of we’re going to do this, that these are public records that the public has the right to see, so how do we do it in such a way that’s fair as we can be. So we took great care to make sure names did not get indexed in Google. It wasn’t fair for someone’s first result in Google to be our site because we’re good at Search Engine Optimization and they aren’t. So we blocked Google, and because we couldn’t know the outcome of each case, we deleted everyone after 60 days, which is about the average for a misdemeanor case to make it’s way through the courts. So guilty or innocent, we delete the record. That leaves the argument on if we should have done this at all, and I’ve just agreed to disagree with people on that.
And no, I won’t build one for Nebraska. I’ve got too much other interesting work to go through that again.
Q: Why did you decide to cover the topic and write essays dedicated to Florida’s Wetlands? / What made you decide to write about Florida’s wetlands? / In ur paving paradise u showd the illusion of conservation tht didn’t actually heed destruction of wetlands. How prevalent do u think this illusion module is? / What do you propose we do about the disappearing wetlands?
A: How wetlands came about is kind of a theme of my career. I really had no interest in wetlands, and only a tangential interest in environmental journalism at all. But I walked into the Times office one day and was assaulted by a very excited Craig Pittman, the Times’ hugely talented environmental writer. He had this great story about wetlands that he needed some data help with that could take it from a good story to a really great one. So we sat down and started looking at what we could do, and the challenges just kept getting more and more interesting. We went from your basic “get records and analyze” story to me taking graduate courses in satellite imagery analysis and doing things journalists had never done in a newsroom. That’s what interested me more than anything — the challenge. I was going to get that story if it killed me.
How prevalent do I think the “illusion of protection” idea is? I think it’s far more common than we know. I think there is a ton of good investigative journalism to be done looking at the gap between the rhetoric and the actual execution of laws and regulations. I think you’ll find that there’s a significant gap between what the public hears about how government regulation works and how it actually works on the ground.
What do we do? Read Chapter 12 of the book Craig and I wrote: Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss. Available now on Amazon.com.
Q: What inspired you to be a founder of a company? / As an aspiring business owner, what advise would you give to get a company started? / Can you tell us more about hot type consulting llc? What responsibilities do u have as a co-founder?
A: A friend, Chase Davis, and I got to talking at a hotel bar during a conference about how we were picking up little freelance gigs here and there, so what if we put it together into a company. So, that’s what we did. We pretty much had work before we even got the paperwork together. Our first job was building the content management system for the Texas Tribune. We got so busy doing that I didn’t have time to get our paperwork done to incorporate us, so they couldn’t pay us until we did that. And that’s Hot Type in a nutshell. It’s Chase and I and all our friends in the business who want to make some extra money building custom web applications for media companies. We’ve worked with everyone from huge corporations to small startups. My responsibilities, apart from programming and getting work done are as the back office for the company. So I handle the accounting and legal work that comes up (contracts, etc.) as well as client development and anything else really. When you’re a company of two, every responsibility is your responsibility.
Advice for starting a business? Start. Get $1,000 together and hire an attorney and an accountant to handle the legal and financial startup paperwork and once that’s done, get to work. Get a website up, get some business cards and get out there and compete. Sitting around talking about doing it does no good.
Q: Do you think a Gatewing X100 will actually be used for journalism in the future? Do you think it can withstand flying through natural disasters?
A: I do think UAVs will be a part of journalism in the future, but only when they get cheap, plentiful and ultra brain-dead simple to use. Is the Gatewing that bird? No. It’s $65,000, as big as a large suitcase and more than your average reporter can handle. And, I think if you’re going to use it in disaster reporting, it has to be ultra portable (think backpack). So the Gatewing fails there too. But it’s so freaking cool I can’t help but be fascinated with it. And I think the applications for UAVs are all after the natural disaster is over, not during it. So after the hurricane has destroyed everything, use a UAV to assess the damage.
Q: Are we doomed?
A: Courage, my good man. Courage. Fortune favors the bold. Traditional models are in deep trouble, but innovative thinkers and hard workers will have a place in the future.
BusinessWeek, however, is just one egregious example of an ugly truth: There’s no such thing as a CMS success story. At least, successes are elusive, which is a problem for anyone in media, as content management systems—the software used by writers, editors, and producers to create digital content for websites—have become as essential as oxygen.