Over at the Carnival of Journalism, the topic this month has to do with geeks in journalism. The lovely Jessica Binsch prodded me to participate, so I thought I’d oblige with a few hurried words squeezed in under the deadline (which is today). Besides, gotta jumpstart the ol’ blog somehow, right?
So here’s the #jcarn topic for December:
If you are a journalist, what would be the best present from programmers and developers that Santa Claus could leave under your Christmas tree?
And, correspondingly, if you are a programmer or developer, what would be the best present from journalism that Father Christmas could deliver down your chimney?
But I’m not here to rail about terms. That’s been done to death. In the end, it’s not what people call you that matters. It’s what you do.
I’m here to focus on that small last word there: “do.” You gotta make things. I know someone who has been looking for a job as a news hacker for some time. The problem, I believe, isn’t that she doesn’t have the skills. It’s that she hasn’t hacked a whole lot together on her own. She doesn’t really have a lot to show off.
This is a problem when you’re trying to get a job, sure. But it’s also a problem when you have a job as a newsroom geek, not only for you, but also for your fellow journos.
So, in the spirit of the Carnival of Journalism question, I’d like to propose a two-part “present,” one for each of the factions listed above:
Journalists (the data-crunching, pencil-snapping, yelling-at-the-cops-on-the-phone folks): Please utilize your geek. We love nothing more than helping you out with reporting, whether you need a PDF OCR’d or have some awesome datasets you want to examine or want to pull together a long arc of reporting together in a simple way. If you come to us early enough and treat us like partners, we’ll probably be able to help you do something really freakin’ cool with your story. (And if you’re totally in love with something another news org has made, tell us! Maybe we can adapt it for you.) Together, we might be able to offer our readers a tool they can use to inform their lives. Isn’t that what journalism is supposed to…well, do?
Geeks (the data-crunching, keyboard-banging, yelling-at-code-on-the-screen folks): Make yourself known. Approach journalists who are writing stories that you see potential for and pitch yourself. (Or, if you see it after it’s been published, let the writer know how you could have helped.) Here’s the rub: A pitch made with only words is a poor one. Much better: email ‘em some examples of things you’ve done, and explain how their story could work with something like this. Do. Build. On the weekends, on your own time. About things that interest you; make you curious. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be. If we want the respect of those pencil-snapping journalists, we’ve got to show why we deserve to be part of their process. Getting the ball rolling is the hard part.
(Disclosure: I have been very, very bad at this. I build half-projects and get distracted after I learn what I wanted to learn. This is exactly the wrong thing to do. Learn from my inner angst.)
This synergy, for me, is one of the coolest things to see in action at the Trib. The news apps team works with reporters every week, from helping visualize data for reporters to building awesome news websites. (By the way, we’re hiring and would love it if you came and built cool shit with us.) It’s not the right vibe for every newsroom, but it would look very good in a lot of them.