Why Should You Be a Newsroom Developer? Why Shouldn't You?

Back in primitive times — oh like 2007 — I kept a text file of crime and felony arrests by police departments in Chicago’s South Suburbs.

In addition to serving as the assignment editor for the South Suburban edition of The Times, I was the edition’s primary crime reporter — partly out of necessity, partly out of enjoyment and partly out of the one-man-band syndrome I suffer from.

Each day I would add new cases, determine which cases had upcoming court hearings and update older information. Every. Day.

They were meticulous. And inefficient and repetitive.

Naive to guiding lights out there in the world that could show me a better method — one that would allow me to glean insights from this mountain of unstructured data I had collected, or at least lend structure to it — I did what worked.

To this day I think about what I could have done, and now what you — the web developer, technologist or data analyst — could do in a similar situation. Better yet, what could you do every day in a newsroom as part of the Knight-Mozilla Fellowhip program.

The short answer: solve problems and show folks new ways of dealing with repetition and inefficiencies.

Fact: there are mountains of stories, charts, graphs, news applications and much more sitting with every reporter, writer and editor in every single news organization in this world. Some are mundane. But some could change the way society thinks, lives and plays.

Here’s another: that information will sit there for any number of reasons, but I’m inclined to think that lack of imagination is not one of them. There are few too people to demonstrate a better, more efficient method. Far too few people around to develop a plan. And that’s where your help matters.

I’m kind of ashamed that my curiosity never led me to a solution that was better than adding the name of the person arrested, their date of birth, the charges against them and other information to a text file.

I say that because I’ve always loved systems. Whether as a dishwasher, the newsstand manager at a Barnes & Noble or in my first jobs as a journalist at newspapers in very small Wisconsin communities, to me the foundation for how the job is done was as important as doing the job itself.

Certainly I was oblivious to other ways. And many other journalists — who write about the inefficiencies of government or health care or the courts and then do their jobs which are part of a larger system of repetition and routine — are as well.

For me, it took learning “what it means to be a developer”, and thanks to the helping hands and support of othersway too many people to link off to — I have learned lessons that are more important than any code I have written.

  • Identify the problem you are trying to solve.
  • Do not repeat yourself.
  • Iterate, iterate, iterate according to some philosophy.
  • Show Your Work”.
  • Share your data.

These lessons have very little to do with classes, functions and syntax and everything to do with helping to reinforce the core mission of journalism: hold those in power accountable, help people make sense of the world around them and celebrate their place in it.

These lessons are directly applicable to the job descriptions that reporters, editors and web producers have at news organizations large and small where there are obstacles just waiting for solutions of the technical or automated variety.

The solutions could be as “simple” as extracting information from PDFs in a manner that doesn’t require four hours of copying and pasting. Maybe they are as “complex” as combining four or five daily processes that have been duct-taped together through Google spreadsheets, emails, meetings and in-person conversations.

Or maybe there’s simply someone out there with a bunch of text files, waiting for another way they didn’t know they wanted.

Convinced? Become one of the five people who will spend 10 months combining code, data and journalism as a Knight-Mozilla Fellow. Go and apply to become a 2014 fellow today.

Not convinced? Then read what these folks — to whom I offer eternal thank yous — have to say about creating code in newsrooms in the service of journalism. Then just fill out the application. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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