Where’s the Grant to Teach Journalists how to Code: Take II

Since I received some feedback on my last post — (all appreciated) I thought I would keep the conversation going — if only to clear up my own ideas.

First: Thanks to all — some good advice in the comments and other blogposts.

There seems to be a general consensus: In the end, it’s probably better to have people specialize in specific areas (editorial and development) — although some people disagree.

This makes sense: one person can only do so much — and since both fields require a lot of attention, it only makes sense to let one person focus on development and the other on editorial concerns.

But I still want to intimately understand the in’s-and-out’s of what a developer does and is capable of. Specifically in terms of building databases.

In many situations editorial and development speak two languages. I often act as an interpreter of sorts (people look to me and say: He knows Flash, he’s on the Net a lot, he must be able to tell us if the developer can do this). And I’ve gotten a good sense of things, but I want to improve my language skills — maybe even speak a little myself (if I’m going to extend the metaphor), so I can do small (still important) tasks to take things off a developers plate.

But what I really want is to build databases — We are in a period of trial and error in social media: I want to be able to try and err myself.

I’ll even share the basics of what it is that I want to attempt next (Note: I’m currently looking for people to collaborate on this ie: funders, wink wink…prod prod) — this might explain where I was coming from with the original post. But first I’ll set the stage.

Sharing Information — an open database.

I’m coming to the end of Assignment Zero a citizen journalism project I’ve helped to organize with NewAssignment.Net and Wired.com: I worked a bit on everything, concept, I.A., design, implementation, day-to-day managment, tech support (only controlling the CMS, not building it), etc etc. It’s been a very eye-opening experience. (note: obviously I was not alone — every step of the way, we had specialists and I had great co-workers).

There have been some ups and downs. Some failure and some success.

A few things that I learned from Assignment Zero — off the top of my head.

1. The topic: Crowdsourcing — I’m into it. But I’m a nerd. If you are going to try networked journalism, make it a topic that a network or community can rally around. This was a tough one — even for Wired’s audience.

(side note: you have to stay in constant contact with that audience — Wired was great for having tried this project out with us, but we needed just a little more of a commitment from them to promote what was happening at AZ to the Wired audience on a regular basis).

2. Make it open source: Assignment Zero was crowdsourced — but not necc. open source. It’s a subtle but important distinction in my mind: There’s lots of talk about newspapers going hyperlocal. Fantastic — that’s probably where they can get the most value, since the news wires, cable tv, etc, will cover the national/international issues faster and perhaps better.

How Does One Make local coverage open source?

Lots of small newspapers will be covering the same local issues — like education — within a small fixed context… their town.

Give it focus: What if they all covered the affects of No Child Left Behind in their neigborhood?

It’s a topic that lots of people care about. Heck, there are already networks that exist (P.T.A., teachers unions, anyone with a school aged child, etc).

Hmmm.. what if they all covered the affects of No Child Left Behind in their local, but they all agreed on what raw data they were going to try and uncover. Things like (a. Graduation rates, (b. number of minutes their school(s) had to give up teaching science or social studies in order to meet the NCLB tests (c. Performance rate for specific races/grades. Any other public information.

It could be a joint effort: journalists and citizen journalists working
together, each in their specific community/city to get the specific

Now they can compare apples to apples. Each news organization has a local story — serving their community, but they can also feed that information up, to create a story that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Imagine if just 50 news organizations — one in each state did this. It might only cover 50 cities — but that would produce some interesting stuff. And it would be more than any one of those news organizations could collect by their lonesome. Open source journalism: the data is shared.

Then you need a way to visually display that information …. and generally have fun/geek out with it. Lots of possibilities.

It would require a few things: 1. A general agreement between the news organizations to share their information (note: it doesn’t necc. have to be a newspaper — I suspect most papers wouldn’t want to share this info — they are attached to the “scoop” — but I bet hyperlocal sites or blogs would want to cover it — I could imagine ChiTown in Chicago — and a similar Chitown site in each major city in American doing its share.

But it also needs a database to collect, mix and mash that data in the right way. A database I see very clearly in my head — but don’t have the coding chops to create.

Well — sorry for the rant. This is only my latest idea. Maybe it’s far fetched — but I think it’s only a matter of time before these types of collaborations become regular and I want to do one. Or at least try and fail at creating one.

5 thoughts on “Where’s the Grant to Teach Journalists how to Code: Take II”

  1. Hi, David.

    I’ve thought for several years that the industry would be smart to have some people trained in both journalism and technology.

    Granted, a person may excel at one or the other, but whichever job a person focuses on, the other background can still help — not just the individual, but more widely.

    Also, for better or worse, a number of newsrooms are demanding that journalists learn more and do more with technical production. In a way, reporters are now facing something similar to what many copy editors have had to do — that is, wordsmiths, etc., being forced to design pages.

    But pushing people to be jacks of all trades does make them less likely to be master of any.

    I think it’s good for people to learn different fields, but to be able to focus, to use those different fields when it’s appropriate, which is not all the time.

    If a news organization that is large enough wants to add new elements regularly, it should generally strive to find someone who can excel at those new elements, instead of spreading people too thin or forcing round pegs into square holes.

    But maybe I’ve gone tangential.

  2. About No Child Left Behind specifically or a database generally … something that is releveant both locally and nationally …

    I think there is a lot of potential for this —

    As far as “No Child,” a trick to make it somewhat timeless, so it wouldn’t matter as much if we don’t time it right with the legislation — focus on some aspect. Sorry, I can’t think of anything more specific right now.

    But the Assignment Zero forum topic on “What else should we investigate?” had a number of potential good topics (from me and others).

    Off the top of my head, one example related to education:
    Do any schools or areas educate children better or worse than would be expected by socioeconomic factors?

  3. Open source journalism — what an awesome idea! I agree with your point that this would take a major change in some journalistic codes of conduct right now (scoop envy?), but this is exactly where those of us with even little bits of coding experience could definitely put our heads together and figure out how this might work. All the best with this concept — it sounds like you’re on the right track to realizing it.

  4. > what if they all covered the affects of No Child Left Behind in their local, but they all agreed on what raw data they were going to try and uncover. … It could be a joint effort: journalists and citizen journalists working together, each in their specific community/city to get the specific information

    You’re a brilliant man, David.

Comments are closed.