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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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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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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U2’s Bono Sings the Battle Cry for Online News

Written by Ryan Thornburg June 25, 2009 12:24 pm EDT 1 comment

“You didn’t come all the way out here to watch TV, now didya!?”

Standing in the outfield of a giant baseball stadium under the glow of more than 40 video walls and monitors, the lead singer of the rock group U2 aimed his remote up at the screens and flipped from station to station while tens of thousands of concert-goers screamed and cheered. It was the fall of 1992. CNN had just made history with the first live video coverage of a war, and somewhere in a computer lab at the University of Illinois – in a town that could have comfortably fit its entire population in the sports stadium – researchers were about six months away from launching the first graphical Web browser.

The hundreds of channels on cable TV were about to be dwarfed by millions of Web pages. The mass media that was able to send one message to an entire planet all at the same time and had defined a shared American experience for more than a half century was about to be replaced by communication technology that would blend the telephone with the television and the postal service and the printing press to form a decentralized network of news and information that would allow every – or everyone with a computer and Internet access – to talk to everyone else all at the same time.

The online news audience doesn’t spend an average of 35 minutes every day because they need another glowing box. News organizations that aren’t committed to giving their audience something fundamentally different should quit throwing money at their Web site and start re-investing in legacy media.

They didn’t come all the way out here to watch TV. Stop giving them a news product. Let them visit news experience. They’ll pay for that.

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Newspaper Corrections: Sources Now Share the Obligation

Written by Ryan Thornburg June 1, 2009 12:40 pm EDT 3 comments

Handling errors and corrections online is good topic for newsroom debate. The dual challenge is that online text can be updated/fixed/improved/corrected at any time and it’s also always available. That means errors can get corrected quickly, but those that don’t can damage credibility long past the daily print edition.

In a world where anyone can publish a blog, professional journalists need to emphasize accuracy and credibility even more. But the reductions in staff at almost all newsrooms in America is putting a squeeze on quality control.

This story from last week’s News & Observer provides an interesting case study. The piece quoted me, but mistakenly said I had worked for USA Today. When I saw the error, I emailed the reporter and used the article’s comments section to quickly post my own correction.

In the last week, though, I never heard back from the reporter. It turns out he was on furlough. He sent an apologetic note once he got back. That said, the fact error remains online.

So, let’s walk through what’s wrong (and right) with this picture:

1. Error gets in the news article. Yes, this is an automatic F in my introductory newswriting classes, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. Many people would wisely artgue that these kinds of pernicous little errors are going to become more common, though, as reporters take on the work of departed colleagues and stories get fewer reads by editors before they go to press.

2. Vigilant sources can use comments to correct errors in the article. This is incredibly empowering and could go a long way to increasing trust in journalism. You often hear sources say they spot errors in reporting but never bother to ask for a correction because they figure the reporters and editors won’t care anyway. For the most part I think that’s the opposite of true. But it also doesn’t matter now — sources have the ability, and even the obligation, to correct errors of fact. To not do so is to complictly accept and tolerate inaccuracy.

3. Someone at the N&O should have been monitoring these comments and alerting the appropriate editors to corrections. The primary reason the comments section on newspaper articles are so low-brow is because the (already thinly spread) staff is not participating in them. Which leads us back to the old sentiment among sources and readers — that newspaper editors just don’t care about what I have to say.

This example highlights the two key components to success in the future of news — high levels of accuracy and engagement. Journalists who don’t pursue both are in danger of becoming quickly irrelevant.

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Advice to Future Magazine Editors

Written by Ryan Thornburg April 16, 2009 12:57 pm EDT No comments

Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, magazines have a strong future online, I think. But their future depends completely on the leadership and innovation of publishers and editors, as I told the Carolina Association of Future Magazine Editors last night.

The audio of the talk is after the jump.

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NCAA Basketball, the Tar Heel, and Citizen Media

Written by Ryan Thornburg April 6, 2009 10:05 am EDT No comments

The NCAA basketball game tonight in Detroit between the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Michigan State Spartans brings us a good illustration of the relative strengths of print and online news.

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Innovative Student Journalism in the Works

Written by Ryan Thornburg March 25, 2009 11:49 am EDT No comments

The students in JOMC 491: “Public Affairs Reporting for New Media” are developing some bang-up stories and tools. For anyone interested in the future of news, in North Carolina civic life or in education policy, their projects are worth reading … and engaging.

More here.

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Social Media and User Generated Content for Journalists

Written by Ryan Thornburg March 3, 2009 8:14 am EST No comments

There are so many great new buzzwords — distributed reporting, citizen journalism, crowd sourcing. They excite a lot of people who don’t think through their implications for public affairs reporting… and they terrify a lot of people who don’t realize that in many ways they are just juiced-up version of pretty common “old-media” techniques. In either case, they’re exciting because they pit two traditional journalism values — giving voice to the voiceless and accuracy — directly against each other.

Here’s an introduction, with audio to come in a future version. (If you can’t wait for the audio – give me a call or shoot me an email.)

Social Media and User Generated Content For Journalists

View more presentations from ryan.thornburg. (tags: citizen journalism)
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When Everyone’s a Publisher, Who Will ‘Convene’ The Public?

Written by Ryan Thornburg February 22, 2009 6:39 pm EST No comments

Last week, Richard Hart of MDC, Inc., kindly came to speak to my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class. He led us through an illuminating conversation about the nonprofit’s recently released report on the Triangle’s “Disconnected Youth.” (PDF)

At the end, I raised this question: If government is already publishing a lot of raw data online, and if organizations like MDC are already put together in-depth, relatively objective analyses of public policy issues like this, then what does he — as a former journalist and the nonprofit’s communication director — think is the role for journalists? How do we fit in to his overall communication strategy for this report, I wondered.

That was a good question, Hart said. He noted that his primary focus now, after an initial and relatively small media hit, was convening small groups of influential and interested area leaders from various sectors to discuss how to implement some of MDC’s recommendations.

That made me wonder: Should journalists be doing that? Presuming we think that the subject of high school dropouts is an issue that is relevant and important for our audience, how much effort should news organizations be putting in to creating conversation around content that is created elsewhere? Should journalists be conveners?

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