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September 24, 2018

Filed under: journalism»professional

The Best of Times

About two months ago, just before sneaking out the back door so that nobody in the newsroom would try to do one of those mortifying "everyone clap for the departing colleague" routines, I sent a good-bye e-mail to the Seattle Times newsroom. It read, in part:

I'm deeply grateful to Kathy Best, who made the Interactives team possible in 2014. Kathy doesn't, I think, get enough credit for our digital operation. She was always the first to downplay her expertise in that sphere, not entirely without reason. Yet it is hard to imagine The Seattle Times taking a risk like that anymore: hiring two expensive troublemakers with incomprehensible, oddball resumes for a brand-new team and letting them run wild over the web site.

It was a gamble, but one with a real vision, and in this case it paid off. I'm proud of what we managed to accomplish in my four years here on the Interactives team. I'm proud of the people that the team trained and sent out as ambassadors to other newsrooms, so that our name rings out across the country. And I'm proud of the tools we built and the stories we told.

When I first really got serious about data journalism, the team to beat (ironically enough, now that I've moved to the Windy City) was the Chicago Tribune. It wasn't just that they did good work, and formalized a lot of the practices that I drew on at the Times. It was also that they made good people: ex-Trib folks are all over this industry now, not to mention a similar impact from the NPR visuals team that formed around many of the same leaders a few years later. I wanted to do something similar in Seattle.

That's why there was no better compliment, to my ears, than when I would talk to colleagues at other newsrooms or organizations and hear things like "you've built a pretty impressive alumni network" or "the interns you've had are really something." There's no doubt we could have always done better, but in only four years we managed to build a reputation as a place that developed diverse, talented journalists. People who were on or affiliated with the team ended up at the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, and Pro Publica. We punched above our weight.

I never made a secret of what I was trying to do, but I don't think it ever really took hold in the broader organizational culture. That's a shame: turnover was high at the Seattle Times in my last couple of years there, especially after the large batch of buyouts in early 2017. I still believe that a newsroom that sees departures as an essential tool for recruiting and enriching the industry talent pool would see real returns with just a few simple adjustments.

My principles on the team were not revolutionary, but I think they were effective. Here are a few of the lessons I learned:

  • Make sacrifices to reward high performers. Chances are your newsroom is understaffed and overworked, which makes it tempting to leave smart people in positions where they're effective but unchallenged. This is a mistake: if you won't give staff room to grow, they'll leave and go somewhere that will. It's worth taking a hit to efficiency in one place in order to keep good employees in the room. If that means cutting back on some of your grunt work — well, maybe your team shouldn't be doing that anyway.
  • Share with other newsrooms as much as possible. You don't get people excited about working for your paper by writing a great job description when a position opens up. You do it by making your work constantly available and valuable, so that they want to be a part of it before an opening even exists. And the best way to show them how great it is to work for you is to work with them first: share what you've learned, teach at conferences, open-source your libraries. Make them think "if that team is so helpful to me as an outsider..."
  • Spread credit widely and generously. As with the previous point, people want to work in places where they'll not only get to do cool work out in the open, they'll also be recognized for it. Ironically, many journalists from underrepresented backgrounds can be reluctant to self-promote as aggressively as white men, so use your power to raise their profile instead. It's also huge for retention: in budget cut season, newsroom managers often fall back on the old saw that "we're not here for the money." But we would do well to remember that it cuts both ways: if someone isn't working in a newsroom for the money, it needs to be rewarding in other ways, as publicly as possible.
  • Make every project a chance to learn something new. This one is a personal rule for me, but it's also an important part of running a team. A lot of our best work at the Times started as a general experiment with a new technology or storytelling technique, and was then polished up for another project. And it means your team is constantly growing, creating the opportunity for individuals to discover new niches they can claim for their own.
  • Pair experienced people and newcomers, and treat them both like experts. When any intern or junior developer came onto the Interactives team, their first couple of projects would done in tandem with me: we'd walk through the project, set up the data together, talk about our approach, and then code it as a team. It meant taking time out of my schedule, but it gave them valuable experience and meant I had a better feel for where their skills were. Ultimately, the team succeeds as a unit, not as individuals.
  • Be intentional and serious about inclusive hiring and coverage. It is perfectly legal to prioritize hiring people from underrepresented backgrounds, and it cannot be a secondary consideration for a struggling paper in a diverse urban area. Your audience really does notice who is doing the writing, and what they're allowed to write about. One thing that I saw at the Times, particularly in the phenomenal work of the video team, was that inclusive coverage would open up new story leads time and time again, as readers learned that they could trust certain reporters to cover them fairly and respectfully.

In retrospect, all of these practices seem common-sense to me — but based on the evidence, they're not. Or perhaps they are, but they're not prioritized: a newspaper in 2018 has tremendous inertia, and is under substantial pressure from inside and out. Transparent management can be difficult — to actively celebrate the people who leave and give away your hard work to the community is even harder. But it's the difference between being the kind of team that grinds people down, or polishes them to a shine. I hope we were the latter.

January 21, 2016

Filed under: journalism»professional

Unconferencing

How do we level up data journalists? In a few months, we'll have a new digital/data intern at the Times, and so I've been asking myself this question quite a bit, especially in light of our team's efforts to recruit diverse candidates. There are a lot of students and young journalists out there with a little bit of training, but no idea where to go from there: how do we get them across the gap to where they're capable of working on a newsroom development team? There's a catch-22 at work here: it's especially tough for aspiring news devs to get a job without experience, but they can't get experience without the job.

One strategy I've often heard is that young people should attend industry conferences as a way to learn from experienced journalists and build connections. Myself, I'm skeptical of this. Conferences have never really been a part of my professional life. We didn't go to them at CQ, and I never got a chance to go to GDC when I worked in the game industry. After I was hired at the paper, I got to go to SND2015 and Write the Docs, and this year I'm heading to NICAR, SRCCON, and (possibly) CascadiaJS. It's possible I really hate myself.

Visiting conferences is rewarding, but it's also exhausting, expensive, and a huge time-sink. And while host organizations often work to mitigate that through scholarships and grants to disadvantaged communities, it's still a big ask for neophytes. Even if I weren't skeptical of the benefits conferences actually bring, I think it's hard to argue that we don't need better, more accessible solutions.

The way I see it, there are three things that you get out of a conference as a young person:

  1. Mentorship
  2. Training
  3. Exposure to developing industry trends

Of the three, the first is the hardest to duplicate, and yet it's the most crucial. Networks are powerful in this industry, and you can practically watch them develop before your eyes if you look closely: young people who catch a break early with the right people, and find themselves quickly elevated with opportunities to work on well-known teams, fill industry panels, and write insipid Nieman Lab think-pieces on the future of news. Then we all end up competing over hiring those same six people, which I don't really think is healthy.

Ironically, this is something I want to discuss with other newsrooms at the conferences this year, before I retreat into my Seattle cave for the rest of my natural life. But I'm also starting a personal initiative to make myself available for "remote mentorship," and asking other people to do so. If you're in news and would like to join, feel free to add yourself to the sheet, and I'll share it with students or other people who get in touch!

June 8, 2015

Filed under: journalism»professional

Paper Anniversary

It's ironic, I guess, that I was so busy at the Seattle Times a couple of weeks ago I forgot to write about my one-year anniversary here. Anyway: it's been quite a year! I've done real estate visualizations, provided an overview of Oso Valley development, and covered the Washington state elections. I did much of the development on our major investigative pieces, Loaded with Lead and Sell Block (not to mention graphs and narrative interactives for the Warren Buffett mobile home investigation). I made a Seahawks fan map so good that the team outright stole it for themselves. For the local architecture buff, I worked on a building quiz, and for the beer fans I helped build the landing page for our Brew with Us project. Want to know where the May Day protests went? I built a map for that. And this is just the big stuff.

In addition to the externally-facing development, I've been working on building tools that are used by the rest of the newsroom. I think our news app scaffolding is as good as anyone's in this business. We're leading the industry in custom element development, with responsive frames, Leaflet maps, and more. The watermarking tool I made on my second day is still in use, and will probably outlive me entirely at this point.

I have always had a low threshold for boredom, a character flaw that's led to overpacking for every trip I've ever taken and a general inability to read literary fiction. I love working in a newsroom for many reasons, but one of the greatest has always been that I am rarely bored here, and it never lasts more than two weeks when it does happen. I cannot recommend this job highly enough for technical people who want to have an impact, or journalists who want to break out of a single beat. Working at the Seattle Times has been the most fun I've had a job in a long time. I can't wait to see what the next year brings.

"As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings."

--H.L. Mencken

April 23, 2015

Filed under: journalism»professional

Winner of 10

It has been a busy week, but I wanted to take a moment to recognize my colleagues at The Seattle Times for their tremendous work, resulting in a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news journalism. Their coverage of the Oso landslide was clear, comprehensive, and accurate, and followup work continues to this day (including one of my first projects for the paper). It's very cool to be working in a newsroom that's the winner of 10 Pulitzer Prizes over the years, and I'm looking forward to being here when we win #11.

March 27, 2015

Filed under: journalism»professional

Construction and architecture

In the last couple of weeks, a few more of my Seattle Times projects have gone live — namely, the animated graph in this story about EB-5 visa growth, and the Seattle architecture quiz. Both use the FLIP animation technique I wrote about a few weeks ago, although it's much more elaborate in the EB-5 graph, which animates roughly 150 elements at 60fps on older mobile devices.

In the case of the architecture quiz, I also added the Babel compiler (formerly 6to5), which turns ES6 code into readable ES5 JavaScript that the average browser can run. Although it's not an enormous change, looking through the original source code will show the new object literal syntax, template strings, and (my personal favorite) fat arrow functions, which do not rebind this and offer a lighter-weight syntax for array sort, map, and filter operations.

I'm not sold on all of the changes in ES6 — I think let is overrated, and the module syntax is pretty terrible — but these changes are definitely a positive step that reduces much of the boilerplate that was required for modern JavaScript. Most importantly, one of Babel's big advantages is that it produces readable output, compared to previous compilers like Traceur, so that even without source maps it's easy to debug. We've added Babel as a part of the default build step in the Times news app template, so if you're looking to try it out, there's no better time than now.

December 16, 2014

Filed under: journalism»professional

Sell Block

This week The Seattle Times published a piece I've been looking forward to all year: Sell Block details the way that the Washington correctional industries have fallen down on the promises that they made over three decades ago. I did the logo design for this series, after daydreaming at the bus stop one day, and I also put together the maps for it.

From a development perspective, this project is also noteworthy as a test case for the custom elements that I've been pushing hard at the Times. Both maps are embedded through <responsive-frame> elements, which has supplanted our use of Pym.js, and the statewide map was built on top of <leaflet-map>. Custom elements continue to be a phenomenal way to develop and deploy web apps. In fact, I have an article up on Source, the OpenNews blog, about how we used them in the elections and this project, and calling for more news developers to adopt them.

May 15, 2014

Filed under: journalism»professional

In These Times

On Monday, I'll be joining the Seattle Times as a newsroom web developer, working with the editorial staff on data journalism and web projects there. It's a great opportunity, and I'm thrilled to be making the shift. I'm also sad to be leaving ArenaNet, where I've worked for almost two years.

While at ArenaNet, I never really got to work on the kinds of big-data projects that drew me to the company, but that doesn't mean my time here was a loss. I had my hands in almost every guildwars2.com product, ranging from the account site to the leaderboards to the main marketing site. I contributed to a rewrite of some of the in-game web UI as a cutting-edge single-page application, which will go out later this year and looks tremendously exciting. A short period as the interim team lead gave me a deep appreciation for our build system and server setup, which I fully intend to carry forward. And as a part of the basecamp team, I got to build a data query tool that incorporated heatmapping and WebGL graphing, which served as a testbed for a bunch of experimental techniques.

I also learned a tremendous amount about development in this job. It's possible to argue that ArenaNet is as much a web company as it is a game company, with a high level of quality in both. ArenaNet's web team is an (almost) all-JavaScript shop, and hires brilliant specialists in the language to write full-stack web apps. It's hard to think of another place where I'd have a chance to work with other people who know as much about the web ecosystem, and where I'd be exposed to really interesting code on a daily basis. The conversations I had here were often both infuriating and educational, in the way the best programming discussions should be.

Still, at heart, I'm not a coder: I'm a journalist who publishes with code. When we moved to Seattle in late 2011, I figured that I'd never get the chance to work in a newsroom again: the Times wasn't hiring for my skill set, and there aren't a lot of other opportunities in the area. But I kept my hand in wherever possible, and when the Times' news apps editor took a job in New York, I put out some feelers to see if they were looking for a replacement.

This position is a new one for the Times — they've never had a developer embedded in their newsroom before. Of course, that's familiar territory for me, since it's much the same situation I was in at CQ when I was hired to be a multimedia producer even though no-one there had a firm idea of what "multimedia" meant, and that ended up as one of the best jobs I've ever had. The Seattle Times is another chance to figure out how embedded data journalism can work effectively in a newsroom, but this time at a local paper instead of a political trade publication: covering a wider range of issues across a bigger geographic area, all under a new kind of deadline pressure. I can't wait to meet the challenge.

March 8, 2007

Filed under: journalism»professional

In Sound, March 2007

I've added an excerpt of The Buzz, episode one, to the Audio section of my portfolio. I've been really busy on this the last couple of days, but everyone involved is very happy with how it turned out. I tweaked the intro music a little (the slap bass was overcompressed, I didn't like the synthesized horn section), and now you can hear it in context with narration, which makes a lot more sense.

January 26, 2007

Filed under: journalism»professional

But You're Not Helping

Remember that scene from Blade Runner, when they interview the worker to find out if he's a replicant? I have been in that interview.

Getting a good head start on the unemployment process, I've started sending out resumes. It's reassuring to get responses, even in the negative. The last time I did this, I wasn't important enough to even get a rejection letter half the time. For one recent application at a large quasi-journalistic organization, I had to visit their site and fill out about 500 multiple-choice personality and management questions, most of them banal ("Do you prefer a casual workplace?" "Do your coworkers know when you are upset?"). Only in the last step did I actually type in my name and detail my CV, which felt decidedly anticlimactic. A screen said that someone would contact me by e-mail if any further attention was needed.

A few days later, I got an automated e-mail from the organization, instructing me to call a number for a phone interview. Excited by the progress, I phoned them up at lunch and made an appointment for the next week.

"Now," said my impossibly-cheerful interviewer when she called, "I'm going to ask you a series of questions. I cannot explain any of these questions or elaborate on them in any way, although I can repeat them if necessary. Do you understand?"

I agreed, a little hesitant, at which point I was confronted with verbal versions of the same bland, pointless management questions as the web form. I could tell that it even had follow-up questions built-in, because if I started to elaborate on my answers, the voice on the phone would interrupt me.

"Could you explain why you answered that way?" she would bleat. Toward the end of the call, I began to try increasingly subtle segues on yes/no questions, just to see how far I could get before she broke in. It was odd: before the call, I had been seized by an irrational fear that I would begin answering questions with grotesque lies and resume inflation, and like the Southern accent that I sometimes find myself gently mimicking over phone conversations, I would be unable to stop. Now my biggest task on the interview was retaining a semblance of humanity when faced by a virtual automaton.

After the interview, my caller (I believe her name was something like Patty, or some other name that summons images of beehive hairdos and church-basement cassaroles) answered my question about the odd format with what sounded like another prepared spiel. They were trying not to bias the process, she said, and so they asked everyone exactly the same thing. My recorded conversation would be played for an analyst, and they would let me know within the week. Almost a week later, I got an e-mail saying that my skills were not a match, and thanks for my application.

Perhaps it's paranoid of me, but I've started to wonder if Patty or the analyst actually existed. It doesn't seem out of the question that a carefully-programmed answering service could have made that phone call. At any point, did real human beings see my application? And in a business that's based on communication, isn't it a little ridiculous that I could even ask?

September 12, 2006

Filed under: journalism»professional

In Sound, September 2006

File under self-promotion: because a large portion of my work at the World Bank Institute has moved over to audio production, I've added a section to my portfolio for audio. It includes a podcast and the musical intros I posted a few days back, but also a radio show that I produced which will be broadcast by satellite to all of Africa. I'm currently involved in another of those radio programs, albeit more as an engineer, and I'll be doing production on the video tutorials for the GDLN's new Event Management System. It's been very busy lately.

When I left college, I wanted to go work for NPR. Of course, I was naive and hadn't had time to build an audio portfolio, so I got no response to my inquiries. My hope is that after this year's contract with the World Bank, I'll have a collection of writing and audio that will let me move into full-time journalism in print or on the radio--probably not at the level of NPR, but higher than freelance on the food chain.

On the other hand, my division manager wandered by the other day. She's a short, pleasantly blunt German. "How's business?" she asked, and I allowed that business might be fine. "I keep hearing your voice on things," she said, adding "It sounds good. We can't allow you to leave here." I think she was joking.

Future - Present - Past