Why I am in this field (continued from NICAR-L)

October 12, 2012

Over the past two days, an exceptional conversation has crawled out of a seemingly innocent post. The focus changed from a question on fair compensation for multifaceted journalists to case studies on why some of us are in this field.

In reading the exchange, I realized once again why I am in this field.

This post as much an archive for these emails as a place to append my own thoughts. My comments can be found after those of three of the most inspirational people in the industry – Michelle Minkoff, Heather Billings and Sisi Wei.

Michelle Minkoff

Since my name was dropped a lot today, please allow me to give the kind-of-recent student perspective on a few of the points addressed since this thread took a turn for the very weird. Forgive my delay – was too busy living my coding dream at my awesome job that my education gave me the tools to do.

For those of you who don’t know me, I was a text-interested English major who fell, hard, for computer-assisted reporting, data visualization and coding. I graduated with a journalism masters’ degree from Northwestern in 2010, and have been working for the AP’s Interactive department in DC doing “my thing” for about a year now. I’m still at the beginning of my journey, but I’ve met some of my key goals pretty early on in my life, and I owe most of it to NICAR.

Warning: this is very, very long. This is what happens when passion and late nights combine.

  1. I don’t know that I would did/do is anything so special. Much like we’re surprised when we teach, and others don’t see the light, I remember being surprised that many of my fellow students just saw it as an elective to complete their program. Frequent comments from my peers: “Are you excited because it’s Thursday, which means it’s ‘Geek Class’ day?” Me: AAAAAAAH, yes! Student: You actually like it, don’t you? How? Me: Who doesn’t?”

  2. The practicality of “this can help you get a job” only appeals to some of us. I looked at things rather idealistically, and still do. I was intrigued by how these tools could make my journalistic analysis and presentation more interesting. Occasionally, I am contacted by classmates who wonder if they, too, could have an editorially-focused job if only, “I had paid more attention to that guy Derek or whatever, but his class was so boring”. As I point out to them, if you’re not into it as a weekly assignment, putting in 40+ hours a week on writing queries/code is a special kind of hell. But if you love it, it’s living the dream.

  3. I know a few people from such classes who use it as an additional skill in a more traditional j-job. We may not hear about it as much, but that’s okay – we’re still making a difference. I think that’s more prevalent than the radical shift I experienced. One of my Medill colleagues agreed with a blog post where I wrote about the importance of being curious, although he maintained “you seem to have taken that madness to the limit”. I don’t do things halfway.

  4. To Mark Ng’s comment: it wasn’t that I was already on the path, and Derek accelerated my career. I didn’t know that this was a thing at all. He showed me a whole new world. Yes, I figured out how I could make these skills work for me. It’s a shift in perception, but his role was immense. It’s also about a personality match – I remember some dry humor that fell flat on most ears, and I’d be almost falling out of my chair. Might have been different with someone else.

  5. Derek wasn’t just a professor giving lectures in class. First of all, it meant a lot for him to be an active journalist and technologist. I was inspired by current projects, and I loved how he was able to combine the two fields. He also was not a programmer by official school training, which made it more approachable for me. I thought the coding world was out of this English major’s reach, until I learned he was a rhetoric major.

He answered copious emails and IMs, modified code and answered questions technical (what’s the file format if I need all the rivers in the US) and philosophical (why are my peers afraid of the command line?) and about the work history of such places (how does reporter collaboration work?) Another mentor once commented to me that much of what I was asking wasn’t about how to do things, but looking for support/reassurance. That’s an important and valid role for us to play in the role of people coming to this world. We can’t force interest, but we can turn a light bulb on.

  1. When we talk about educators, be cognizant that we are all educators. Derek literally changed my life, and brought me to all of you (“You mean there’s a list where there are people besides you who talk about this stuff and do it for money? It’s a thing?” “Yes, Michelle.” Me: AAAAAAAH! I LOVE NICAR NOW!), but he is not the only one who gets credit for my educational growth. The enthusiasm, patience and role models that I’ve gotten from an internship (Ben Welsh, Ken Schwencke) and my real world time at my current org (Jonathan Stray, Troy Thibodeaux) are essential. I see them as educators, and getting that kind of support for one’s continued growth is super important. I WOULD NOT BE WHERE I AM WITHOUT EACH AND EVERY ONE OF THEM. A phrase our DC bureau chief refers to is an “intellectual home”. And that’s what I think we should be trying to give people, to entice them to the cause. That goes for classrooms and newsrooms.

  2. To speak to Steve Doig’s point about how Brittny, Heather and myself are all women, and what that means for the tech gender stereotype, I’ll just say I’m getting more involved in understanding the gender-specific issues in tech, and I’d like to give a special shoutout to NICARians for being awesome. I have NEVER felt like I’m treated differently by you fine folks, and if anything, there are men among you more sensitive to gender issues than I am. And I have heard some horror stories.

You’ll notice my list of very close role models above features all men, but that’s never been weird to me. Doing journalism and tech is hard, you help make sure being of a minority gender isn’t a dissuading factor. That means a lot. Or maybe I just never got the memo women weren’t supposed to be techy. Guess it’s a little late now.

Let’s all be on the lookout for more people who get it. We need them to join the cause, and can help them feel at home. I know you’re out there, maybe lurking on this email list. Know that I, and hundreds of others, will help you make the jump if you find journalism and tech and data rewarding. We will welcome you home to NICAR, where I am proud to call the members of this organization my teachers, my friends and finally, though I can scarcely believe it – my colleagues.

(If you thought that was long, sympathy cards can be addressed to the role models listed above, for whom tomes of this length are a frequent occurrence.)

Heather Billings

There is no one archetype of the student — or the working journalist — who’s going to pick up this stuff. Mark is right in that I had ideas of what I wanted to do in mind when I came to ASU and found him. (In fact, I chose ASU specifically because I wanted to pursue geek journalism in some way, even though I’d never programmed crap.) But students who spend their spare time picking your brain about Python just because they’re curious about it are definitely the exception rather than the rule.

Also, while pounding job availability into students’ heads seems obvious to those who have worked their butts off in the field, that’s not what a lot of college students — especially journalism students — are after. They’re out to change the world; to find corruption; to be the next Woodward. Showing them how technology can aid that quest is, in my narrow opinion, the best way to get them hooked. But this shouldn’t be limited to how to parse CSVs for your own benefit: it should also encompass how technology can take complex subjects and let people digest them in a way that makes sense to them. Show them how the way a story is presented on the web can make people’s lives better in a way that a print story never could. (My favorite current example is crime.chicagotribune.com. Obviously, I’m a bit biased!) Servers and databases and command lines are hard, and unless you have a head for numbers — which I don’t — they’re kind of boring at first. Seeing what amazingly useful stuff can be presented to the public for their consumption was what made me buckle down and learn it. Or start learning it, anyway.

Which brings me to another point: Everyone learns differently. Sometimes, like in this thread, people bring up Michelle and I in the same breath, but what worked for her would never, ever work for me (and vice versa). We’re both hard workers, we’re both dedicated, and we’re both blown away by where life has brought us in just a few years. But there is no archetype. She’s a networker. I’m an observer. She enthusiastically shares what she learns. I tend to think I don’t know enough “yet” and am afraid of giving out misinformation. She’d be going crazy if she weren’t doing journalism. I work on a lot of projects that are only tangentially related to journalism, but I’m loving learning. She’s grateful for mentors that are no-nonsense to a point that would cause my easily flustered German self to punch walls. Thus, I am grateful for mentors that have been patient and gentle when I’m not patient with myself.

Those mentors, far more than any class, are what have gotten me here (wherever “here” is). Confession: I am, at my core, incredibly insecure about my technical, visual and journalistic abilities. But the people who invested and continue to invest in me are my safety net. They give me the courage to even consider attempting the projects that live inside my head. (Now if someone could only manufacture time for me to hack them together…) I could still go to Steve Doig and ask his opinion on some data analysis I’d run, or hit up Mark Ng or Serdar Tumgoren when I run into a Django problem. And now I’m lucky enough to work on a team full of people like Joe Germuska, David Eads and Ryan Mark — people who see in me the potential for a better coder, and are willing to help me get there. (A huge thank you is also due to Mr. Boyer, who got my original Trib Apps pipe-dream resume and, somehow, wasn’t completely terrified by my lack of experience. I’m still working on hubris, Brian, as you can tell. :-p )

And one last thing before I close my ramble: How many print journalism students go on to be great career investigative reporters? How many halfheartedly cover dog shows and pancake breakfasts for a few years before going into a completely different field? In that context, it hardly seems surprising that the number of students in whom the programmer/data spark blazes is so low. But maybe in the next generation of journalists, they’ll talk about Minkoff instead of Woodward. ;-)

Sisi Wei

For many of you who don’t know me, I graduated from Medill undergrad last summer with majors in journalism, philosophy and legal studies. All reading and writing, but no coding. And to heavily emphasize something Michelle said, I too never knew this was a thing. I loved journalism and I wanted to use it to change the world, but I had no idea that this kind of journalism existed until the fall of freshman year, when I was required to create a simple Flash graphic. And this is a story I share often, but it’s something I would really like for the amazing educators like Derek, Matt and Mark to hear.

The assignment was simple. Take any image, create some rollover buttons, and have them trigger info boxes that show text to describe parts of the image. The Flash template was already created – we just had to switch out the image, drag around the buttons, and change the text. I hated it, not because I didn’t like the technology, but because I felt like we were being asked to do the equivalent of: here’s an existing article, switch out all the nouns and verbs. So instead, I did one of the nerdiest things possible for a college freshman: I combined the assignment with a roleplaying game I was in, that took place in Phoenix, Arizona (yup, roleplaying). I create a county map of Arizona, and on rollover, highlighted each county and showed its name and current population total. I didn’t know how to use shape files, so I manually traced each county’s shape in Flash with the pen tool, and then manually moved them next to each other. It was amazing, I loved what I made, and it seems that after this experience, I would keep going right?

But here’s what also happened. When I didn’t want to make the templated Flash assignment, I was given the OK to try something else, but I was discouraged to do so. When I didn’t know how to make buttons that weren’t round, I asked my instructor, and he didn’t know how, or where to send me for help. Instead, I was told to make something less complicated. When the final project was turned in, he was impressed, but he didn’t know how to give me any feedback. This situation probably doesn’t exist at Medill anymore, but during my freshman year, Medill was just experimenting with teaching Flash to freshmen, and our professors were all amazing photojournalists and video journalists, but certainly not Flash experts. And because this was my first exposure to anything related to data journalism, I didn’t do anything similar until over a year later. I didn’t know how it could be valuable to journalism, but more importantly, I didn’t meet a professor/mentor who could show me the ropes, and who could show me how amazing all of this could be.

Luckily, all of that did change, and during school, I found a talented upperclassmen who took me under his wing, and during my junior year, I had the chance to work with Jeremy Gilbert, and his love and enthusiasm for technology, UX and journalism basically changed my life. One year out of school, I find myself just celebrating my one-year anniversary as a Graphics Editor at the Washington Post. To quote Michelle, this past year has been living the dream. I have CAR badasses like Dan Keating and Ted Mellnik to learn from, developers like Jeremy Bowers, Jason Bartz and Serdar Tumgoren to collaborate with, and design/front-end whizzes like Kat Downs and Wilson Andrews to swap front-end strategies with. And I’m not even mentioning all the Post dataviz gurus, cartographers and illustrators that help me to tell data-driven stories in the best way I possibly can.

I think that it’s entirely possible that without meeting the people I did, I would never have ended up in journalism, and I would not be doing what I’m doing today. Journalism students are often the most curious people, and that means they’re also tugged left and right by their other interests. More of my fellow 2011 Medill graduates left journalism than stayed in the industry, and I nearly went to law school. But because of people like Jeremy Gilbert, I’m here, I’m only 23, and I’m already doing the type of journalism that I love. I just can’t emphasize enough how important a knowledgeable, encouraging professor can be to helping a student find his or her true love. Data journalism may not be for for everybody, or even most of the students who pass through journalism classes, but for those who love it, having professors to show them what’s possible is absolutely invaluable.

My thoughts

My own story is only in the first act. I grew up loving journalism and technology, but I never had a good understanding on the two, much less how they could be combined. My first year in college became a sort of competition between journalism and computer science to see which meshed better with my goals in life. Luckily for me, I ended up on the blog of the Chicago Tribune’s news apps team.

Two things struck me.

First, what could be better than using computer science to push the boundaries of journalism? It was a win-win in that respect, and I figured I could be happy with some sort of coding-for-journalism as my day job.

But second, why were these people giving away their secrets? Journalism felt like a field where competition was its bread and butter, and here were the best of the best showing Joe Reporter how to build a population density map in Tilemill with remarkable detail. Here they were, giving college freshman the keys to future employment. To them, it was more than a day job.

Fast-forward to today, where I am just over halfway through my college years. It has been a wild ride, and I owe it all to you all.

Now, I’ll admit, my story isn’t as suspenseful as Michelle’s, Heather’s or Sisi’s. I am incredibly lucky to have found an area directly at the intersection of two of my greatest interests. And this isn’t a field where we’ll be able to learn everything we need to know in the journalism schools, especially during this transition period. But what more could anyone want out of a field than the NICAR folks have?

For me, this was the clincher. I don’t think I could walk away from the help-first-compete-later industry that we’ve fallen into. Where else can one find a 55-email-long thread, with many posts upwards of 500 words?

As for attracting more students to do what we do, it’s going to have to end up being at least an elective in our education. Don’t get me wrong: I have had great professors, and Seth Lewis has been a life saver. But without access to a Derek Willis, a Mark Ng or the forward structure of Medill, the skills I really craved had to be self-taught. As Robert Hernandez said, “Don’t wait for academia to determine what you need to know for modern journalism. Be proactive and find out by using digital media to help you learn those skills.”

At the University of Minnesota, I’ve begun gathering like-minded students who want to learn these skills but don’t know where to begin. We’re meeting weekly to teach each other what we won’t learn in the classrooms.

It’s an experiment, to be sure. But right now, I don’t see a better way.