Lessons From ONA ‘10: What It Takes, Part 2

Written by Ryan Thornburg November 3, 2010 8:50 am EDT No comments

Aggregation continued to be one of the online news community’s big buzzwords at the 2010 Online News Association conference last week. The idea behind aggregation is that individual news organizations can achieve comparative advantages and that the entire information economy can function more efficiently if the news organization links to reliable information from bloggers, sources and other news organizations rather than replicating the information with its own take.

But aggregation isn’t free. You can either automate it, which might cost a newsroom $25,000 to $100,000 in up-front costs, plus constant tweaking of the algorithms and processes that gather, organize and automatically publish news stories from external sources. Or, you can put humans and their infinitely superior cognitive flexibility on the task.

But what does that cost? Based on some estimates I’ve put together based on conversations at ONA:

* It takes an average of 8 minutes for a news producer to read a blog post or news story, write a summary and categorize it by location and subject.
* Based on a VERY limited sample that desperately needs further research, you can estimate pulling in one blog post per week for every 4,500 people in your market. (Please send me any data you have that would help me solidify this number.)

In my home market of Raleigh-Durham, which has about 1.5 million people, aggregating local content might take about one full-time position and cost a news organization maybe $35,000 a year plus benefits.

How does that match your experience with aggregation? What am I missing?

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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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Survey of Online Journalists: They’re Young, White Copyeditors

Written by Ryan Thornburg April 2, 2009 6:33 pm EDT 6 comments

Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism came out with a survey about the attitudes of online journalists. I’m sad to say that the survey has limited use in charting a path for the future of news, but it did make me feel a lot better about the response rate in my recently completed national survey of online journalists.

Pew hired Princeton Survey Research Associations International to conduct its poll of 1,201 members of the Online News Association. They had a 24 percent response rate. I paid two grad students and an undergrad to help me survey 174 online journalists (mostly non-members of ONA). We had a 29 percent response rate.

But even more importantly, I think the survey we did here at UNC does a much better job showing us the future of news… which is bright if you dream of a future of inexperienced, homogeneous copyeditors shuffling text around a Web page.

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Newsroom-Classroom Panel at ONA: A Bridge to Nowhere?

Written by Ryan Thornburg September 13, 2008 8:28 am EDT 3 comments

As yesterday’s Online News Association conference panel about collaboration between universities and newsrooms drew to a close, it was becoming clear that intellectual transactions were just waiting to be made, that a new marketplace must be created. The room had decided that the news biz did indeed have problems and that the academy just might be stocked with the resources needed to solve them.

The only thing standing in the way of better collaboration had been the difficulty so far in matching the problems with the resources. We would need to create a Match.com of journalism innovation, I said, where newsroom leaders could submit RFPs and where educators could post the research and technical resources of their students.

So with 10 minutes left in the panel, I whipped open a Word document and projected it on the screen at the front of the room. I was ready to start brainstorming right there and begin making a quick list of research questions and innovation projects. Oh, the excitement of a panel discussion that would be more than just talk! The bridges that would be built!

But then we hit just one small snag. Of the hundred or so people in the room, about 90 percent were from the classroom. Somehow, on an otherwise unremarkable Friday afternoon in Washington, the Statler conference room at the Capital Hilton had transformed in to an ivory tower. We had built a bridge to nowhere.

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Reporting From the Online News Association Conference

Written by Ryan Thornburg September 10, 2008 8:47 pm EDT No comments

Tomorrow morning I’m headed to the ONA conference in Washington, D.C. I will blog and Twitter on occasion as news warrants and technology allows.

Also, on Friday at 2:30 p.m. I will be moderating a panel about the possibilities and challenges of newsroom-classroom partnerships.

Full coverage of the conference is here. UNC-Chapel Hill junior Alex Kowalski is one of the student journalists staffing the event.

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