Toward a solution to the more tech in J-school problem

First, lets state some general conditions and agree to them:

  1. 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.
  2. There is not a generally agreed upon way to accomplish this increase in technological skill within a j-school curriculum.
  3. There is not a generally agreed upon list of tech skills that journalism students should/must have before graduating to become a journalist today.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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. 

Steak for two, crow for one, coming right up.

Me vs. 130 Journalism 101 students: The epic Q&A

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 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, 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?

A: Yes.

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 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

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.

Take a few minutes and watch this and 1) tell me we’re not living in the motherflippin’ future and 2) this bad boy couldn’t be used for some very, very cool journalism. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods … you name it. Any kind of disaster where spatial extent is newsworthy.

Some very smart posts about killing your CMS

Since I wrote my opus hating on legacy CMSes, I have been kicking the idea around in my head here and there, pondering just what this thing would look like, from backend systems to code to the presentation layer. Never anything fully baked or worth writing down. 

In the past week, I’ve come across two posts that are just brilliant. And they dovetail nicely together. 

First, Stijn Debrouwere asks a hell of a good question:

And that question is: what would the ideal web delivery platform look like if our priority was to help us piece together different components, not build everything into a single app like, say, your average Drupal install. Existing CMSes aren’t built for that kind of environment, so we don’t just need to complement the CMS by leveraging different best-of-breed tools each with their specific focus, we actually need to replace the CMS with some kind of presentation layer software that’s better suited to the new distributed reality.

Then, Eric Hinton at Talking Points Memo takes a crack at answering it:

On Monday we launched the second component of this incipient media-death-star, our frontpage publisher - nee Baroque. To get an idea of how it works watch a quick demo we made. It’s fast, formless and - best of all - built completely outside of our CMS. Currently, MT’s publishing engine notifies Baroque to cache new entries but it would be trivial to plug any other data source in. Eventually, when the core API and datastore is complete, MT won’t talk to Baroque directly at all. On this day, we will finally loose the shackles of the monolithic CMS model.

A group at Hamilton College tracked the predictions of pundits and rated them on a “Good, Bad and Ugly” scale. I would love to do this with NFL draft pundits. You could do multiple accuracy ratings too: straight up right and wrong, accurate to +/- 1 or accurate to +/- 3. Question: Who funds research like this?

anything about 
toothpaste, Uganda 
can be 

— Nate Silver, the brains behind FiveThirtyEight, in a speech to the Columbia Journalism School (pdf of the speech).

"When politicians, from Barack Obama all the way down, talk about higher education, they talk almost exclusively about math and science. Indeed, technology creates the future. But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do. A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world."

— William Deresiewicz, writing in “Faulty Towers, The Crisis in Higher Education" in The Nation.

Why the journalist in programmer/journalist matters

In a comment, Ben asked how PolitiFact went from idea to PolitiFact.

How did that get refined into the site we see today? Was the content and feature refinement mostly the work of web people or people from the print newsroom? Any lessons learned to help the rest of us help our editors and reportorial colleges see the new dimensions web apps can bring to conventional content?

The content and feature refinement, at least at first, was the work of Bill Adair and I almost exclusively. After we first talked over the idea, I sketched out how I thought the database should be laid out based on Bill’s vision in Django. Arguably the best thing about Django is that out of the box it has a fantastic administration tool. The admin tool let me show Bill what I had done and let him enter in a few records into the database. Doing that, he’d have more ideas, or I’d think of something I wanted to put in, and I’d add them to the model code. After we got pretty happy with what we had, we split up: Bill started reporting out and writing a few items and I started building the views — Django’s query layer that takes data from the database and sends it to the templates for display. From this, both of us came up with new things we wanted and old things that didn’t work right. Out of all this work came the demo, which brought the decision to go forward, which brought on board our IT staff and a web designer, plus more input from both web and newsroom colleagues.

There’s a couple of lessons I see in our experience that may or may not work for you:

  • Keep the number of people initially involved as absolutely small as possible.

  • Ideally, the people involved at first should be the one with the vision and someone who can translate that vision.

  • Ramp up staff slowly and minimally. More people means less decisiveness.

  • Ruthlessly compartmentalize. Let designers design, reporters report, etc.

  • Accept that you’ll never create the perfect app, so decide quickly what’s worth fixing, what’s not and what belongs in version 2.0.

And that brings me to the title of this post. One of the key parts of developing PolitiFact was the ability to translate a standard style of news story into something bigger, broader, relational. I’m not saying that a skilled programmer can’t do this, but in my experience, this is where the journalist part of the term “programmer/journalist” has the most value.

If you’ve been a reporter, hopefully you’ve been paying attention to how people react to your stories, what information readers remembered, how readers approached stories. Hopefully, you’ve paid attention to the weaknesses of how you’ve approached some stories in the past. Also, as a reporter, hopefully you’ve paid attention to the parts of your stories that repeat, over and over and over again. Names, places, even the structure of certain story types.

If you have paid attention, it becomes a matter of creativity to translate that reporting experience into a web application. You rely on your experience writing those stories to figure out what parts you need in the database — a byline field, a headline field, a blurb field, a body text field, etc. Having written these stories before, you know what parts repeat — candidate name, candidate party, candidate home state. Having talked to readers, you know some of them only want to know about the candidate they care about, so you set up one-stop-shopping pages for each candidate. You know some readers are single issue people, so you set up and issues database and pages for everything you have on a single issue. You know some readers are political party people, so you do the same things for party that you did for issues. Now, I’m using PolitiFact as the guide here, but you can apply this to lots of different stories, ideas, databases, applications.

The reason I think the journalist/programmer idea is so interesting is that it’s the journalist part who can put themselves into the position of reporter writing the content and reader consuming the content, and it’s the programmer part who can translate all that into a web application, taking content in one side and displaying it on the other side in as many ways as you think readers would want.

A lot of journalists I’ve talked to lately are all dazzled by the programming part of this equation. Don’t dismiss so quickly the importance of your journalism experience. If you’ve been paying attention to what you’ve been doing, that experience has prepared you well to create web apps.

Announcing PolitiFact

* Note: This post came from a version of this blog that got lost in a server failure. It’s been restored from old RSS feeds, Google caches and other sources. As such, the comments, links and associated media have been lost.

It’s been quiet around here for a while. There’s a good reason. It’s called PolitiFact and it marks a major shift in my career.

What is PolitiFact?

The site is a simple, old newspaper concept that’s been fundamentally redesigned for the web. We’ve taken the political “truth squad” story, where a reporter takes a campaign commercial or a stump speech, fact checks it and writes a story. We’ve taken that concept, blown it apart into it’s fundamental pieces, and reassembled it into a data-driven website covering the 2008 presidential election.
The whole site is inspired by Adrian Holovaty’s manifesto on the fundamental way newspaper websites need to change. Adrian’s main theme was that certain kinds of newspaper content have consistent pieces that could be better served to the reader from a database instead of a newspaper story. I built PolitiFact with that in mind.

If you think about it, a statement from a politician has consistent pieces. It has a speaker, that speaker has a political party, the statement has a subject and a forum in which they said it. After we fact-check that statement, we assign a ruling to it, summing up the veracity of what they say on a scale from true to false to pants on fire (a personal favorite). All of those things become fields in a database. Statements are all in their own database, and we also are writing more traditional stories on the statements. And those articles have some common pieces, like a byline.

We’re experimenting with greater transparency, by listing our sources for each statement and story. We’re taking into account that YouTube is going to be a significant factor in this election by embedding YouTube videos of statements when we can find them.

PolitiFact was born when St. Petersburg Times Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair called me in very late May with an idea he had. He wanted to take the “truth squad” idea and expand it. And he wondered if we could somehow use databases with this idea. He didn’t know how we could do that, just that we should, and that was why he was calling me. I was knee deep in learning Django, the rapid development web framework, and immediately knew we could use Django to make this happen. Based on our conversation, I quick sketched out a series of related tables — models in Django parlance — and PolitiFact was born.

Learning Django has been a transformative experience for me. PolitiFact is the first Django app I’ve completed, and it won’t be the last. Not even close. Before this, I’d never developed a website before — I don’t count installing WordPress on a hosting account as developing a website — or done anything in Python. Learning Django was a challenge for someone like me with no programming experience, but the framework puts incredible abilities into your hands once you learn what you are doing. The documentation is a truly remarkable resource: It is a monument to it’s quality that 98 percent of PolitiFact comes from the documentation.

Beyond being an experiment in journalism or web development, PolitiFact is an experiment in entrepreneurship. We’ve developed a product that uses reporting labor from the St. Petersburg Times and our sister company Congressional Quarterly to create something that doesn’t originate in print. All the talk and all the focus lately in web journalism circles is on local, local, local and to some degree they’re right. But there’s also something to be said for just putting a good idea on the web that people might find useful. We think we’ve done that. Now the important part: how are people going to respond? We have no idea. We’re anxious to find out.

Credit where credit is due: I took Bill’s idea and translated it into the Django framework, but there’s a lot more that went into PolitiFact than that. I stopped learning HTML in 1998, so all the credit for how PolitiFact looks belongs to Martin Frobisher. From the Times IT department, Charles Goddard has shifted from being a java nerd to a python whiz with alarming speed; Dave Brown has built an infrastructure that boggles my mind (18 million page views an hour!); Ed Nicholson’s energy has been invaluable; and we’d still be dead in the water if Tim Aston hadn’t taken a leap of faith to let me run with Django on little more than a pitch and an ugly demo model. From the news side, Bill Adair has been equal parts salesman, cheerleader and evangelist, and PolitiFact would have withered and died long ago without his commitment. And I would never have been given the time to make this work if it weren’t for ME/Web Christine Montgomery and Executive Editor Neil Brown not listening to my technobabble and seeing the end product.

I’ll be writing a lot more about PolitiFact, Django, and how this has all forever and fundamentally changed my thinking on journalism. Stay tuned.