Data and design: A marriage made in news heaven

7:53 pm by Heather Billings. Filed under: API,Hacking the News,Programming

Among the subsets of programmer-journalists, two are kissing cousins: data journalists, proficient in assembling data and making it tell stories; and visual journalists, proficient in interactivity and design. In best-case scenarios, one pro-jo is both of these, resulting in a database that is easy to use and that yields interesting results. Unfortunately, these both tend to be rather esoteric areas of journalism. We are more often than not, as my data professor Steve Doig once put it, “the nerds in the corner” and “no one really knows what it is you do.”

Well, Paul Bradshaw has taken a bit of the mystery out of it all with his well-circulated article about how to be a data journalist. It really isn’t of much use if you’re looking for a how-to, but it does a good job of explaining what data journos do. A few of the programs he mentions are easy enough to start playing with even if you have no real programming experience: ManyEyes is just plain fun, and Yahoo! Pipes is far more powerful than you’d expect. One of my computer science friends uses Yahoo! Pipes to pull data from many different job hunt sources in order to produce a single jobs feed. Now that’s serious geekery.

(Need more things to play with? Check out this Read Write Cloud article on tools for data journalism. If you’re comfortable with programming, Factual’s API is really cool.)

Near the end of his piece, Bradshaw says, “If you’re good with a graphics package, try making the visualisation clearer through colour and labelling.” This very British footnote is his only nod to visual presentation.

Extending Bradshaw’s thought, I offer this thought: If you’re NOT good with graphics, please, for the love of Photoshop, find someone who is to help you out. Otherwise, you risk confusing and/or boring your audience. A print story that is confusing would (one hopes) be edited until it is clear. This same standard doesn’t seem to apply to Web graphics and visual data. Tables and raw Excel spreadsheets are fairly common. That makes me sad.

David McCandless operates the delightful Website Information Is Beautiful, in which he presents graphical interpretations of data that make my inner nerd squeal. (One of my favorites is his tongue-in-cheek “Because Every Country Is the Best at Something” map.) In his excellent TED talk earlier this year, McCandless said, “Information design is about solving information problems. It feels like we have a lot of information problems in our society at the moment, from the overload and saturation to the breakdown of trust.”

In other words, the way you present information is just as important to telling the story as the information itself is. If you present good information in a bad way, your audience isn’t going to get the proper impact. And this is where programmer-journalists come in. Sure, you could dump your carefully gathered info in a graphic designer’s lap. But he isn’t going to have the innate understanding of that data that you, after spending countless hours deciphering it, have. That’s why having both skills is important.

Here’s McCandless’ full talk, in which he breaks down several of his infographics to explain his designs. If you’re a visual thinker, this will jumpstart you, and if you’re not a visual thinker, it will give you some insight into what’s going on in our brains — and maybe some inspiration for your own projects.



Code monkeys won't save news, journalists will

3:10 am by Heather Billings. Filed under: Hacking the News,Programming

As journalists, we pride ourselves on asking the right questions.

Why, then, does the New York Times come excruciatingly close to nailing the key to journalism’s future, yet still ask the wrong question?

A recent Times Magazine article talked about how a Nick Bilton, former hacker-journalist at the Times, is teaching his students the importance of thinking like programmers.

“[R]eporters need to know how to manipulate computers in order to tell the stories that matter most to their audiences,” the article paraphrased Bilton.


The author of the article, Nicholas Carlson, goes on to talk about the cutting-edgeness ofColumbia University’s new programming and journalism master’s.

Right on.

And then we have the question posed to us: “But what’s in it for the engineers, who might have more lucrative things to do than save journalism?”

Cue the ripping out of hair.

Programmer-journalists are not computer engineers.

Computer engineers are not the key to journalism’s survival.

Read that again. Ad nauseum, if necessary.

Sure, the l33t (hacker-speak for “elite”) ones may be. I know of a couple who started out as engineers and turned into journalists. But for the most part, it works the other way around. Most programmer-journalists are journalists who see the advantage in knowing how to bend a computer to their wills because they know they can get better stories or better audience connection that way. They’re already invested in saving journalism, because journalism is what they love.

That’s the difference between an engineer and a programmer-journalist. And its importance cannot be overrated.

And yes, the industry needs its hardcore hackers and its sysadmins to stay afloat. I’m not suggesting love for journalism is a must for all techie jobs in the journalism sphere. But it’s essential for anyone with programming skill who’s going to try to “save journalism.” (As an aside, I think it’s newspapers that need saving, not journalism. Journalism’s doing just fine, thank you very much.)

Need more proof? Read through this revealing and fascinating blog post written by Paul Biggar, one of Newstilt’s co-founders, about why he and his partner decided to shut down the startup. One theme you’ll find is that they weren’t all that excited about journalism in the first place:

“We weren’t intrinsically motivated by news and journalism… Our desire to keep pushing the “mission” was extremely low… We didn’t really care about journalism, and weren’t even avid news readers… This compounded when we didn’t really know anything about the industry, or what readers wanted.”

I’m not trying to knock the idea or Biggar. I think it was a great idea that flopped for a variety of reasons, and Biggar himself is taking a critical look at why. The first in a list of his personal lessons learned is, “Deeply care about what you’re working on.”

And what’s he doing now that his startup has folded? Working for Mozilla, on Firefox’s Javascript engine. Code is his passion: “I’m loving working on compilers again.”

Sound like the future of news to you? Apparently it does to the New York Times. That frightens me a lot.



Columbia's new program validates pro-jos

3:56 pm by Heather Billings. Filed under: Hacking the News,Programming

There’s been buzz in the techie journalism community about the new master’s program that Columbia University unveiled yesterday. In five semesters, students will be able to graduate with a dual master’s in journalism (two semesters) and computer science (three semesters).

The program is touted as the first of its kind. Northwestern has had a programmer-journalist program (which includes sweet tuition waivers), but it seeks to attract programmers who want to learn about journalism instead of the other way around. As someone with a disproportionate number of nerdy friends, I can say that journalism isn’t exactly the first career field that springs to mind when computer geeks hit the job market.

I will say that I’m jealous of the 15 journalism students who are going to get three solid semesters of computer science. But a year and a half really doesn’t seem like enough time to go from n00b to code monkey. And two semesters of journalism training hardly seems enough for someone with no journalism background, especially for the kind of journalist that does the sort of in-depth research so often accompanied by programming skills.

Michelle Minkoff, a recent Northwestern grad, notes on her blog that she was able to learn programming and computer skills at Medill by being willing to pursue it herself. I agree with her when she says that self-reliance is completely necessary in a field where everything’s changing. (The HTML I learned as an undergrad was outdated when I learned it. I’d be screwed if I never educated myself about the XML, for instance, and I’m starting to learn HTML5 now.) Programs that don’t stress an attitude of continuing self-education are going to produce lazy coders. Lazy coders aren’t going to worry about best practices or keep up to date with new developments.

But the impact of Columbia’s decision goes beyond merely providing a smoother path for students. The really big deal here is that one of the most respected journalism schools in the nation has just laid its blessing upon pro-jos.

It’s more than education reform. It’s validation. This move signals that coders might finally be moving from the dark recesses of the newsroom into the respectable light of day. News organizations might finally start realizing that coder-journalists aren’t mutant freaks: They’re the future.

Everyone who’s for the future, join me in urging other journalism schools to forge relationships with their universities’ computer science departments. While the education is what you’re willing to make it, having administrators who understand the importance of such partnerships is priceless.



The definition of a journalist

4:15 am by Heather Billings. Filed under: Hacking the News

Is she scooping you on her blog? Could be.
Does that make her a journalist?
Creative Commons photo by Michael Melrose.

Last night, a representative from the Electronic Frontier Foundation posted this tweet: “What makes a journalist a journalist is whether she is gathering news, not the method or medium she uses to publish.” The message was part of the weekly Web Journalists Chat (found under #wjchat on Twitter), which discusses issues related to digital journalism.

The tweet reminded me of a debate that I’ve grown tired of listening to: Who’s a journalist? Are bloggers journalists? What about people who just happen to be on the scene and take photos?

I often hear my ethics professor, former Washington Post editor Len Downie Jr., sidestep the whole bloody mess by using the phrase “someone who committed an act of journalism.” It’s a beautiful solution because the journalism is what should matter. Fighting over whether Matt Drudge is a journalist or if the National Enquirer should be eligible for a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t really matter.

But in the wake of the tweet, I’d like to do something radical. I’d like to throw a dart into the game of definitions.

Journalist, n. A person who is likely to commit acts of journalism.

My definition differs only slightly from Merriam Webster’s first entry: jour·nal·ist: a person engaged in journalism.

The difference, however slight, is what matters. Sure, bloggers (and TMZ and your grandmother) can be — and have been — “engaged in journalism.” I maintain that unless they do it regularly, they aren’t journalists. A saying about stopped clocks being right comes to mind.

But maybe your granny regularly posts photos of petunia show winners, then moves into asking questions about their gardening techniques and sharing those with the readers she’s suddenly attracted. Then, I’d maintain she’s probably the best journalist ever to cover the local flower show beat. She’s become likely to commit acts of journalism. (If you’re smart, you’ll invite her to contribute to the hyperlocal community news page you just set up.)

So it is with programmers, too. If, as a programmer, you’re a code monkey that facilitates other people’s stories, I wouldn’t call you a journalist. If, however, you’re a code monkey who goes looking for databases to pull stories out of, I’d argue that you’ve become a pro-jo. Your actions mean you’re out looking for trouble — and looking for trouble is a sure sign of the pursuit of journalism.