Lessons From ONA ‘10: What It Takes, Part 1

November 1, 2010 12:45 pm EDT 1 comment

At least three national news organizations approached me at last weekend’s Online News Association conference to see whether I could recommend any students with great news judgment and programming skills. That’s what news organizations are desperate to hire today. Why? Well, as former president George W. Bush will tell you some things — like learning how to program — are just hard work.

Lunch with a friend last week helped me put some numbers on just how hard it is. I was meeting with him so that he could show me the server he set up and the computational journalism he had been doing since we last had a chance to catch up. At heart, he is a writer and a reporter, yearning during our conversation for the chance to do more long-form narrative text stories. But in his newsroom, he is the resident programmer/journalist and has asked by his editors to hire more people like him.

Here’s what it took for him to become “tech savvy.”
* In high school, he took one computer programming class. He didn’t study or use computer programming at all in college. He wrote and edited stories at the campus paper. After graduation, he was hired in jobs as a researcher or blogger.
* During the last two years, he taught himself how to code. He set up his own Ubuntu server, with PHP and MySQL. He learned some ActionScript, JavaScript and XML. He uses Excel, Visual Basic and screen-scraper.com to report stories and build interactive editorial Web applications.
* He works 60 to 75 hours per week.
* He spends 90 percent of his time working with and learning about computer coding.
* It took him two years to get to this point of technical proficiency.
* That is a total of 5,500 hours.

He was not born with the IT chromosome. He did not wish himself to state of savvy. He has clearly been blessed with an incredible brain that was nurtured in an environment that valued education and intellectual curiosity. But that didn’t get him his job. He got his job because. He. Worked. Hard.

Let’s point out how difficult it is to get 5,500 hours of computer time under your belt.
* College students spend about 15 hours a week in class. Good ones will spend another 25 hours reading and working outside of class. That’s 480 hours a semester, 560 hours a year. At that rate, taking ONLY coding classes, you’ll get to 5,500 hours in just under 10 years. Which makes you this guy. Nobody wants to be that guy, so it’s time to accept that editorial programmers are committed to life-long learning.

* Let’s say you knock out a few coding classes in school — 500 hours worth — enough to get hired by a big news organization as a developer. That leaves you with just 5,000 hours to go. Working a standard 40-hour week, you’ll burn through those in 125 weeks. That’s about 2.5 years, after various and sundry holidays, illnesses and vacations.

* Or, maybe you were a good liberal arts student and didn’t blow any of your tuition on coding classes. But your smarts and broad-based knowledge land you a job at one of a very few news organizations that commit seriously to career development. Google spurs innovation with its famous “20 percent time,” which allows its developers to spend a day a week working on projects that are not part of their job descriptions. So, your boss lets you play with computers for one day a week. You’ve got 5,500 hours to make up. And by the time you’re celebrating your 35 birthday you’ll probably be at the point where you can start developing your own editorial applications.

What the conversation with my friend made me realize is why it irks me so much when people come to me saying that they can’t perform some computing taks because they are “technically illiterate” or “not a computer person.” My friend isn’t a computer person. I’m not a computer person either. But we try. We hack our ways through incredibly frustrating failures by simply doing this. And so can you. If you want.

The List: Quotes and Notes From TBD.com at ONA ‘10

October 30, 2010 2:55 am EDT 1 comment

Having a pithy quote or an insightful stat is key to being a good panelist at a conference. TBD.com’s Jim Brady and Erik Wemple have both in spades, so it was good to open on the Online News Association conference with a session on their new Web site. Here in List form, are the best insights from the panel.

1. Jim Brady, on the need for diverse revenue streams for digital news media: “There’s no silver bullet, there’s shrapnel.”

2. Erik Wemple, on the importance of linking to other news sources: “With 12 reporters and 5.3 million people in our market, our editorial vision is smoke and mirrors.” (Note to self: I haven’t seen anyone ask TBDers about how much risk they see in incumbent media orgs putting their news behind pay walls. They must have calculated that either the odds of that happening are pretty low or that the impact on revenue wouldn’t be a company killer.)

3. Wemple, expanding on the editorial vision of the site: “We want to be a place where, if you hear a siren, you go to #tbd and you find out what’s wrong.” (That news sensibility speaks to TBD’s legacy partner, the local news channel formerly known as Newschannel 8. It does, at least at first blush, seem to ignore anything that’s not event-based news.)

3. Brady, on selling local ads: The biggest challenge in local advertising is getting business online. TBD is developing service models, network models and Paper G to help bridge that gap. A quarter to a third of the blogs that TBD aggregates participate in its ad network.

4. TBD aggregates 196 blogs from the Washington area. This includes professional media, amateur media, and corporate, government and non-profit organizations. That one blog for every 27,000 people in TBD’s market. I wonder what is the smallest market size that could sustain an operation like TBD? It seems to me that this indicates a roll for news organizations in medium-sized markets to cultivate local bloggers to reach some minimal threshold that would make aggregation useful. I also wonder what the typical blog-to-person ratio is a typical media market? (Calling all grad students. There’s a good research question for you.)

5. The panel of TBDers recounted the news organization’s coverage of its first big breaking news story. Bloggers in TBD’s network as well as the site’s general audience provided important eyewitness accounts of the scene. This anecdote illustrated two important elements of crowd sourcing: First, that crowds are best at stenographic journalism — they are good at supplying answers to the who, what, when and where question when those answers come from immediate observation of events or documents. That means that crowds are relatively efficient at feeding editors information during breaking news, especially stories that develop across a broad geographic all at once. Second, that if you want to use crowd sourcing when news breaks you have to develop relationships with your audience BEFORE news breaks. Anyone whose ever cultivated a source knows that means a lot of chit-chat that appears to have nothing to do with the news value of the source. Same on social media.

6. Wemple, on the power of fertile failure: “If you have a Web site that doesn’t have something terrible on it, you’re not trying hard enough.”

7. TBD social media producer Mandy Jenkins, on ignoring your critics: “”In the age of social media, that’s something we can’t do anymore.” (More of her thoughts here.)

8. Steve Buttry re-counted his tale of interviewing Jenkins for the job. It was a good reminder that journalism job candidates who display curiosity always move their resumes to the top of the pile. In online media, this means your ability to show that you try to hack devices and services just to see how they might be able to solve a problem other than the one their developers intended them to solve.

9. Jenkins, raising suspicion that she may be the Mike Allen of TBD, said she has 22 Tweetdeck columns, follows about 200 feeds and that “We follow anyone who’s ever given us a tip.” (Note to journalism grad students looking for a academic research question: It would be very interesting to see whether news Twitter accounts with high follow/follower ratios yield significantly different levels of trust or relevance among the audience.)

10. TBD.com’s corporate parent anticipates the site to take about as long as its sibling, Politico, to become profitable. That took about three years. So, a note to the laid-off reporters and editors who’ve called me with dreams of starting your own news site to compete with your former employer — Step 1: Gather up three years of operating costs…

11. Writing brief, smart, newsy lists without an editor… is hard. Perhaps something we could be teaching our students.

Job Post: OpenBlock, Django and Community Newspapers

October 29, 2010 11:08 am EDT No comments

Request for Proposals:
Specifications for Community News Tool Using Python and Django.

The School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with funding from the McCormick Foundation, is developing business models and editorial products to help community newspapers transition to the digital age.

We are seeking someone who has experience with Python and the Django Web development framework to install a Django application called OpenBlock on a Web server and write a report that details the technical challenges, specifications and scope required for integrating OpenBlock into newspaper websites hosted by TownNews.com. The report would also propose potential alternatives that would be more efficient than using OpenBlock.

In order to write the report, the person we hire will need to perform these tasks:
1. Install the OpenBlock application on a server, and become familiar with its codebase.

2. Identify technical specifications for transforming data formats given to students by city and county government into geo-coded data formats optimized for use in OpenBlock. (See http://developer.openblockproject.org/wiki/Ideal%20Feed%20Formats) These technical specs might include the technical specs for building a site scraper (See http://developer.openblockproject.org/wiki/ScraperScripts) to retrieve the data, a feed parser or a program to impute the latitude and longitude of data types that are vaguely described in their original format from the government.

3. Identify high-level technical specifications for integrating an OpenBlock installation with the CSS styles, site navigation and URL structure of the news organizations so that users and search engines perceive the TownNews.com content and the OpenBlock content as a single site.

4. Contribute findings back to the OpenBlock project developers wiki at http://developer.openblockproject.org/wiki
We intend to select a candidate by December 1. The project would start immediately upon selection.

Please e-mail your proposals – including a proposed timeline, cost bid, resume, cover-letter and three references — to Christine Shia at shia AT email DOT unc DOT edu. Please include “Proposal – OpenBlock RFP” in your subject line.

Questions about this RFP can be addressed to Assistant Professor Ryan Thornburg at 919-962-4080 or ryan DOT thornburg AT unc DOT edu. Please include: “Query – OpenBlock RFP” in your subject line.

Sex With Me and Porn on YouTube

October 29, 2010 9:17 am EDT No comments

I met yesterday with two old friends who work at two news organizations in Washington, D.C., where the Online News Association annual conference is being held. I asked both about what had been their big online stories and what was driving traffic to their sites. One said that the biggest story of their year was about porn on YouTube. The other said his site’s most trafficked story was about “sex with me”.

So what?

To me, it highlights two trends — the audience is control and is much more difficult to force feeds its civic vegetables. And that having a well-designed homepage, while important, isn’t as important as writing water cooler stories.

One of the news organizations said that they had noticed a lot of traffic on stories about pot. And that definitely played in to their conversations about what to cover.

As the news environment gets more and more competitive and news organizations get more sophisticated, the pressure to cover sex, drugs and rock and roll is only going to increase.

How is your organization balancing that with journalistic ethics? How are you teaching the ethics of these situations?

Triangle’s Media Ecosystem Needs Tributaries and Mainstream

October 14, 2010 9:16 am EDT No comments

Sitting next to News & Observer editor John Drescher last Friday during a forum about the Triangle’s media landscape, I had to feel a bit sorry for him. Of the nearly 20 representatives of news media in the region, he was the most prominent representative of the mainstream media and drew all the fire from the bloggers, entrepreneurs, do-gooders and pontificators who had him easily outnumbered and whose smaller organizations had often beaten his Goliath newsroom on important stories.

But I also envied Drescher. He was also the only one at the table who had ever dropped $200,000 of his company’s money on an investigation of a state agency. And the only one who knew what it was like to spend four years pinging the government for public records before he had a story solid enough to sell to his subscribers and advertisers.

One other thing made Drescher an enviable character in the Triangle’s media ecosystem. Despite their valid criticisms of increasing gaps in The News & Observer’s coverage of our communities many noted without irony in their voices, the small, independent and non-profit news operations had the most impact on public policy when they got the attention of Drescher’s paper or one of the local television stations.

And that made me realize that if our state is going to retain its generation-long reputation as a home for journalism that gives voice to the voiceless and holds powerful people accountable, then we must find a way to foster dozens of new and diverse tributaries of news and information that flow into the big, slow-moving mainstream media. Without the tributaries, the MSM seems likely to evaporate entirely. Without a larger channel into which they can empty, the tributaries seem likely to overwhelm us with a flood of disconnected datapoints.

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Example of Corrections in an N&O Sports Blog

October 12, 2010 10:06 am EDT No comments

It’s not life-and-death news, but sports writing values speed and currency more than just about any other news value. That’s one of the reasons that blogs work so well for sports coverage. But with that speed comes increased risk of making a fact error.

In yesterday’s coverage of the NCAA investigation into football at the University of North Carolina, Robbi Pickeral made a mistake on her News & Observer blog post. But then she provided a good example of how to correct it…and some examples of how a news organization could be more transparent about the mistakes they publish during the reporting process.

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Technology ≠ Relevance, Age ≠ Freshness

October 11, 2010 8:52 am EDT No comments

Sitting in my Carroll Hall office, it’s not unusual for me to read about some new online news tool and wonder to myself how I’m going to keep up with all the changes that continue to happen in digital media. When I was in newsrooms, I had a pretty good sense about which technologies were solid and which were hype. But the one thing I don’t wonder is how I, or a school of journalism in general, is going to remain relevant. A journalist doesn’t stay relevant solely by keeping up with technology. A journalist stays relevant by keeping up with his audience — by following the social, political, economic and, yes, technological trends and then finding a way to get the audience interesting stories that the audience itself doesn’t even yet know that it wants.

When I talk with older journalists about my students, they often assume that the Millennials constant exposure to the Internet means that they will be the ones to figure out the future of news. And what I hate to tell those older journalists is that while young people today are voracious consumers of services that have good product design and high social utility, that that alone doesn’t make them curious or informed or creative. And technological proximity alone doesn’t provide vision and leadership for journalistic innovation that our nation needs. It’s up to professors like me to cultivate those things in as many students as we can.

On the other end of the chronological spectrum, I talk to young people whose ambition sometimes eclipses their ability. I’m drawn to their gung-ho attitude but often put off by their assumption that journalists who are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning have somehow used a limited lifetime allotment of creativity and curiosity that they’ve been given. And what I tell those young people is that just as youth doesn’t guarantee innovation, neither does age limit someone’s ability to seek a fresh approach to the industry’s problems.

That brings me to the answer that I give journalists who ask for my advice on how to stay fresh and relevant. It’s the same advice I try to heed myself. Keep an eye on your audience and stay one step ahead of them with story ideas as well as storytelling and delivery tools.

Twitter Fundraising: Lessons I Learned

October 4, 2010 9:30 pm EDT 1 comment

One of the reasons I remain bullish on social media and the read/write web is my continued hope is that it will lead to an increasing diversity of voices as well as a renewed sense of personal ownership of the First Amendment. So when UNC’s celebration of First Amendment Day rolled around last week, it was a good opportunity for me to play around with Twitter’s capacity to raise money for fun and/or profit.

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Journalistic Brainstorming: What Don’t We Know

August 25, 2010 3:07 pm EDT 1 comment

We kicked off the fall semester of Public Affairs Reporting for New Media at UNC yesterday by brainstorming in 10 minutes at least 50 questions that we were going to need to answer in order to create a new “Everyblock”-style community information database for small newspapers.

It’s a great example of how the design thinking school of innovation intersects well with the world of journalism. Good reporters should always be asking themselves “What don’t I know about this?” And great reporters take that question to a diverse group of collaborators and ask “What don’t we know about this?”

Here’s what my students and I don’t know:

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JOMC 491 Class Calendar

August 20, 2010 10:15 pm EDT No comments

Syllabus is here. Calendar is after the jump

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