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

Written by Ryan Thornburg 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.

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

Written by Ryan Thornburg 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.

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Job Post: OpenBlock, Django and Community Newspapers

Written by Ryan Thornburg 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.

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Triangle’s Media Ecosystem Needs Tributaries and Mainstream

Written by Ryan Thornburg 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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Twitter Fundraising: Lessons I Learned

Written by Ryan Thornburg 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

Written by Ryan Thornburg 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

Written by Ryan Thornburg August 20, 2010 10:15 pm EDT No comments

Syllabus is here. Calendar is after the jump

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Welcome to JOMC 491: Public Affairs Reporting for New Media

Written by Ryan Thornburg August 6, 2010 12:53 pm EDT No comments

With only a few weeks left before the start of the fall semester, I wanted to quickly give registered and prospective students a little bit of an idea about what we’ll be doing in Public Affairs Reporting for New Media this semester. Seats are still available, so act now!

The goal of the class will be to develop a new online editorial product for the newspapers in Whiteville and Washington, N.C., that will help them provide be a comprehensive and highly engaging source of news and information for their communities. (Perhaps something like Everyblock.com)

So, the first thing to know about the class is that you will be expected to go to those cities — both about 2.5 hours from Chapel Hill — at least once and probably more during the semester. I’ll pick up the tab for your trips, but you will need to arrange your own transportation and schedule.

The reason we’ll be working with these two towns is that they are part of a larger effort being led by Knight journalism professor Penny Abernathy and funded by The McCormick Foundation (founding family of The Chicago Tribune) aimed at helping small newspapers make a financially sound transition to a digital economy.

So do you need to know anything about computer programming, or media economics or news reporting and editing? Not really, but you’ll probably be much better off if you’ve had exposure to at least one of those topics. If you haven’t then you’ll need to rely on your own curiosity, self-motivation and time commitment to ensure your success and happiness in the course.

The class is going to be structure probably unlike any other class you’ve taken at Carolina. First, it has the experiential service-learning component. That means less reading and note-taking from lectures. It means more class discussion and hands-on group projects. My goal is for this class to teach you — as much as anything else — how to clearly articulate and creatively solve messy, complex real-world problems. To do that, we’ll be using the context of improving public affairs reporting for the people of North Carolina by using new digital news tools and concepts.

What will you do in the class?
The first half of the class will be an introduction to the problem with the second half focused on trying out different solutions. In class, we’ll be discussing articles, brainstorming and prototyping (making models that can give us a better idea of how people might use our website). Outside of class, you’ll be keeping a 2x/week blog of reflections, reading articles, and working in groups to figure out what barriers stand in our way of building a great site and then figuring out for yourself how you will overcome those barriers. I promise to be your guide.

How will you be graded?
30% – You’ll launch your own blog and update it twice a week. Some weeks I will give you specific assignments (write a descriptive report about Whiteville, discuss the readings, etc.) but most of the time you’ll simply write about your experiences.

30% – Prototyping. In many classes, you may have been asked to write or create one big final project that demonstrates your knowledge of what you learned. But in this class, you’ll practice the art of “fertile failure” — trying a lot of ideas, making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. You will be rewarded for failing fast and failing smart. We will use everything from toothpicks to MySQL to build our prototypes. You’ll start by using the materials with which you’re comfortable and end the semester by using tools that terrified you just three months earlier. These will be different tools for each student.

30% – Participation. Come to every class with a lot of questions, fulfill your service obligation, participate in online discussions outside of class.

10% – Data management and public records assignments. A big part of our prototyping and brainstorming will be around how to obtain public records and make them useable in an online database. You’ll have a few projects to get you familiar with the basics of the technology and issues surrounding this topic.

I hope that gives you a rough idea of the class. I’ll be posting a full syllabus and calendar soon. But in the meanwhile, enjoy the rest of your summer and let me know if you have any questions.

Best,
Ryan

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A Lab for ‘The Reconstruction of American Journalism’

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 13, 2010 3:07 pm EST No comments

This week is the first of a new semester in my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class — a journalism class in which the students must work 30 hours with a community partner over the course of the semester. Our goal this semester — expose the students to all of the journalism models that Len Downie and Michael Schudson outline as potential replacements for a decline in public affairs reporting at newspapers.

This semester, the 18 students in the class will be divided among four partners:

  • the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, a non-profit funded largely by foundation money and private donations;
  • OrangePolitics.org, a liberal blog about local politics run part-time by a single “citizen jouranlist”;
  • N.C. DataNet, a newsletter of from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program on Public Life, edited by a former News & Observer reporter and opinion editor;
  • a public broadcast outlet here in North Carolina.

If any of these sources will be part of the reconstruction of American journalism, the students in the class will help determine how it’s reconstructed. At the very least, the students will be able to report back to the rest of us more details about what they find in these laboratories of post-newspaper news.

Stay tuned… and add your suggested reading for the class via the Delicious bookmark tag JOMC491-examples-s10.

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Predictions for the Decade? Nano Journalism?

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 3, 2010 10:05 pm EST No comments

From Saturday’s News and Observer article, “Future looks small to experts”

“What I see a lot of today is the realization of ideas that were being tried unsuccessfully in 1999,” Thornburg said. “A lot of the ideas we see as trends today were dismissed as flops 10 years ago.”

Among the trends to look for in information and news, Thornburg said, will be the rise of content targeted to a user’s location at a given moment, via ubiquitous high-speed Internet access. Other possibilities include new markets for buying and selling small pieces of information, and a divide between high-quality information that people pay for and free lower-end news – often focused on social and political points of view, entertainment or sports.

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What I'm reading

  • News Corp. Donation Clouds Fox Coverage of Prop. 24 - NYTimes.com 16 hours ago
  • How to Count Items in a Filtered List in Excel 2010/10/25
  • Relational Databases - Example - Martin Baker 2010/10/16
  • MySQL :: MySQL 5.0 Reference Manual :: 10 Data Types 2010/10/16
  • Download & Install 2.4.1 2010/10/16

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