Matt Thompson

I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked with the Knight Foundation and the Reynolds Journalism Institute. As deputy editor of StarTribune.com, I launched the award-winning, social, arts-and-entertainment site Vita.mn. I also managed the creation of the Star Tribune's politics website Politically Connected, the development of an internal taxonomy, and other editorial projects related to community interaction and technology. Outside the Star Tribune, I'm probably best-known for being the voice and co-creator of EPIC 2014, an alternative history of the media, set in the future. Previously, I was the Fresno Bee's first online reporter/producer, and the Naughton Fellow for Reporting and Writing at the Poynter Institute. I currently sit on Poynter's National Advisory Board. You can find me and Robin (EPIC's other co-creator) blogging at Snarkmarket.My best Snarkmarket posts on journalism:The Attention Deficit: The Need for Timeless Journalism (8/07)The Press' New Paradigm (6/06)When Vox Populi Attacks (1/06)Three Rants on Rick, parts I & II, part III (11/05)The Era of Slow News (7/05)Websites you should really check out:We Feel FineJournerdismPopURLs


Newspaper Title Style Guide

Major U.S. Newspapers

  • The Arizona Republic
  • The Boston Globe
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Chicago Sun-Times
  • The Dallas Morning News
  • Los Angeles Times
  • Miami Herald
  • New York Daily News
  • New York Post
  • The New York Times
  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • The Seattle Times
  • Tampa Bay Times
  • USA Today
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • The Washington Post

Alphabetical Listing

  • Akron Beacon Journal
  • Albany Times Union
  • Amarillo Globe-News
  • Anchorage Daily News
  • Anderson Independent Mail
  • The Ann Arbor News
  • Arizona Daily Star
  • The Arizona Republic
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • Austin American-Statesman
  • The Baltimore Sun
  • The Birmingham News
  • Bonita Daily News
  • The Boston Globe
  • Boston Herald
  • The Boston Phoenix
  • Bradenton Herald
  • The Buffalo News
  • The Cape Cod Times
  • The Charlotte Observer
  • Chester Sun Times
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Chicago Sun-Times
  • The Christian Science Monitor
  • The Cincinnati Enquirer
  • The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.)
  • The Columbus Dispatch
  • The Commercial Appeal (Memphis)
  • Contra Costa Times
  • The Courier (Houma, La.)
  • The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Ky.)
  • Courier-Post (Camden, N.J.)
  • Daily Globe
  • The Dallas Morning News
  • The Daytona Beach News-Journal
  • Democrat and Chronicle
  • The Desert Sun
  • The Des Moines Register
  • Detroit Free Press
  • The Detroit News
  • Duluth News Tribune
  • East Valley Tribune
  • Edmonton Journal
  • Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press
  • The Florida Times-Union
  • Florida Today
  • Fort Worth Star-Telegram
  • The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.
  • Gwinnett Daily Post
  • The Hartford Courant
  • The Henderson Gleaner
  • The Herald (Everett, Wash.)
  • Honolulu Star-Advertiser
  • Houston Chronicle
  • The Indianapolis Star
  • The Island Packet
  • The Journal News
  • The Kansas City Star
  • Las Vegas Sun
  • The Lawrence Journal-World
  • Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader
  • Los Angeles Times
  • The Miami Herald
  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune
  • The Modesto Bee
  • Montgomery Advertiser
  • The Morning Call
  • Naples Daily News
  • New York Daily News
  • New York Post
  • The News & Observer
  • News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.)
  • The News Journal
  • The News-Press
  • The News-Sentinel
  • The New York Times
  • Ocala Star-Banner
  • Omaha World-Herald
  • The Orange County Register
  • The Oregonian
  • Orlando Sentinel
  • The Palm Beach Daily News
  • The Palm Beach Post
  • Philadelphia Daily News
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Philadelphia Weekly
  • Pioneer Press
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • The Plain Dealer
  • Politico
  • Portland Press Herald
  • Post Register
  • Poughkeepsie Journal
  • Press-Register (Mobile, Ala.)
  • The Providence Journal
  • The Roanoke Times
  • Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
  • St. Joseph News-Press
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • St. Petersburg Times
  • The Sacramento Bee
  • The Salt Lake Tribune
  • San Antonio Express-News
  • The San Diego Union-Tribune
  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • San Jose Mercury News
  • Sarasota Herald-Tribune
  • Savannah Morning News
  • Seattle Post-Intelligencer
  • The Seattle Times
  • The Shreveport Times
  • South Florida Sun-Sentinel
  • The Standard Times
  • Star-Banner
  • Star-Gazette (Elmira, N.Y.)
  • The Straits Times
  • The Sun Chronicle
  • The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)
  • The Sun News
  • Tallahassee Democrat
  • Tampa Bay Business Journal
  • The Tampa Tribune
  • Times Herald-Record
  • The Times-Picayune
  • The (Toledo, Ohio) Blade
  • The Topeka Capital-Journal
  • Toronto Star
  • USA Today
  • The Virginian-Pilot
  • Waco Tribune-Herald
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • The Washington Blade
  • The Washington Post
  • Waterbury Republican-American
  • Wisconsin State Journal
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freetombstone

Buzzwurgatory: Words and phrases we should use more carefully in 2013

Buzzwords are underrated.

A concept often doesn’t cohere for people until it’s given a name. Web designers had been using CSS media queries and Javascript triggers to present Web pages differently in different contexts well before Ethan Marcotte gave us the term “responsive web design,” but the phrase helped the concept to catch fire.

The problem with buzzwords is that they usually have a life cycle. As they become more and more popular, they get applied and misapplied to an ever-widening cluster of concepts, making them more vague than meaningful. This prompts a backlash, and before long, the term can seem outmoded or even wrongheaded.

Take the word “curate,” for example, recently hated-on in Jen Doll’s guide to 2012′s worst words. It’s not hard to see why. “Curation,” as it’s long been known, was a rarefied task, left to experts in museums and galleries. When folks started appropriating the term to describe basic Web behaviors like excerpting and linking, it felt like an abuse of the term. Oh, right, now my cousin’s not posting banal links to her Facebook page, she’s “curating” her feed.

The thing is, it’s actually useful to think of the work folks like Maria Popova do in terms of classic curation. If you want to argue that point, first you have to read Erin Kissane’s wonderful five-part epic on the subject of curation, which involves, in part, hearing from actual curators describing aspects of their work. The fact that “curation” has become a buzzword now tends to overshadow the fact that many genuine, longstanding principles and lessons of curation can helpfully be applied to the work many journalists do online.

I propose a new, awful portmanteau: Buzzwurgatoryn. The period when a buzzword has been overused to the point of meaninglessness, yet continues to be used. What follows are three buzzwords/buzz phrases in imminent danger of entering buzzwurgatory. I resolve to use these words more carefully in 2013, and I hope you will too.

Entrepreneurial

Somewhere around the time someone started a Twitter feed called @themediaisdying, we started to hear the words “entrepreneurial” and “journalism” thrown together a lot more often. (Here it is in 2010, in scare quotes, in a reference to the new business model of Forbes.com.) Entrepreneurialism was (and is) a useful, relevant concept for journalists, whose individual followings and business skills increasingly affect their professional prospects. And for a while, I thought its overuse was harmless.

My mind started changing when I heard a journalism instructor encouraging students to practice entrepreneurial journalism. A good example of said practice, the instructor suggested, would be to start a blog, an act which has propelled the careers of such entrepreneurial journalists as Nate Silver and Ezra Klein.

Now, I happen to believe most journalism students could benefit from having blogs. And sure, having a blog can help someone develop some of the skills necessary to develop a media business. But starting a blog is a far, far cry from being an entrepreneur.

Not long ago, after speaking at a conference, I was approached by a woman who wanted advice on kickstarting her digital media venture. She said she’d sunk a couple thousand dollars into getting a website developed — a place where she could post stories and solicit stories from users. She was starting to think she’d made a bad investment — the software they gave her was inflexible, they wanted more money to make changes to it, and the site had no clear revenue prospects on the horizon. To be clear: the woman had made a bad investment.

This is what happens when the concept of entrepreneurialism enters buzzwurgatory – people think it’s just that easy, and then they get burned. Next time you hail someone’s entrepreneurialism, let it be because you read their smart, rigorous business plan or admired their profitable freelance operation, not because you saw them install WordPress.

Engagement

I’ve got to thank my editor, Mallary Tenore, for suggesting this one. The concept of “engagement” really only seems to be concrete when there’s a ring involved. Apply it to media — which is itself a woolly concept — and you’re asking for trouble. After all, anytime a user is reading your article you’re “engaging” them, right?

My friend and fellow Reynolds Fellow Joy Mayer spent a year exploring what journalists mean when they talk about engagement. She found something both important and concrete at the root of the term, which in its application to journalism she defines as “a focus on, respect for and enthusiasm about the role of the audience.” Meg Pickard, former head of digital engagement at the Guardian, described her job function to Joy with a graph that I think captures it quite clearly. When deployed with care, “engagement” is a genuine, valuable thing.

But in its vaguer usage, “engagement” breeds cynicism. Sometimes it’s used to mean merely exposing more of our work to more people, rather than deepening our users’ involvement in the creation and furtherance of our work. (It’s not difficult to find ads for “audience engagement services” that essentially help you post more links to your content on Twitter.) Or it’s used as shorthand for just “getting out in ‘the community,’” and dismissed as merely something reporters have always done anyway.

Go check out Meg’s graph, and read about what it means. She’s advancing a specific set of values and practices that are being lost in buzzwurgatory. Let’s talk more about that stuff, and less abstractly about “engagement.”

Hyperlocal

Poor “hyperlocal.” It was once upheld as the buzzword that would save newspapers. But then, derisive stabs at failed or struggling “hyperlocal” ventures became almost as common as West Seattle Blog shoutouts in future-of-news reports.

While the term “hyperlocal” might have been coined to describe sites focusing on neighborhoods and other intimate, geographical user communities, it was appropriated almost immediately to refer to a model notable only for the extent to which it could scale nationwide. Sometimes it seemed as though almost everyone using the term was interested not in what was happening to neighborhood coverage, but what was happening to the news industry on a national level. Anything local suddenly became hyperlocal.

For a while now, the most widely watched “hyperlocal” effort has probably been Patch, which is almost more of a national play than a neighborhood one. Even efforts like my own Project Argo, with sites focusing on issues of national scope at a state or regional level, were described — strangely — as hyperlocal. Yet for all that national attention, there wasn’t even an event to bring together publishers of sites truly hyperlocal in scale until Michelle McLellan and Jay Rosen convened the first Block by Block Community News Summit in September 2010.

But the fate of this sector of the industry seems to echo in macro the experience of Everyblock: long after the hype had faded, it was becoming more interesting and significant than ever. While the “hyperlocal” hype was ballooning and popping, a rich galaxy of genuinely hyperlocal sites was forming, as variegated as the neighborhoods these sites inhabit. They share many of the attributes of the neighborhood newsletters and community newspapers we’ve long known, but in my experience they tend to be newsier and even more intimate, more social.

Watch this space. “Hyperlocal” may have entered buzzwurgatory, but the stuff that actually merits the term has never been more worthy of your attention. StreetFightMag is doing a terrific job of chronicling the burgeoning business of hyperlocal media, especially as non-media companies have started to really compete at this scale. Just as in my last Poynter piece, I’m going to link to J-Lab’s recent synthesis of the ethical practices of local-local journalists, because I think it includes much for journalists at larger shops to think about and learn from.

And if you’re still hung up on the buzzword, protip: just call ‘em “neighborhood sites.”

Moar buzzwurgatory!

I can think of a lot more terms that are in this predicament, but I won’t go into detail on these, just urge caution with their use:

  • Multimedia: (Sorry, Chip.) Sure, it’s a harmless, innocuous term. It’s also now almost devoid of meaning. I have seen so many résumés describing their authors as “multimedia journalists” that all it tells me now is that you have a smartphone and a Facebook account. We Are All “Multimedia Journalists” Now.
  • Agile: Basically this is my excuse to link to yet another piece I wrote last year for Poynter. The tl;dr version: “agile” isn’t just an adjective, it’s a rigorous methodology, and you might profit from learning more about it.
  • Big Data: I’ll let TechCrunch take this. It’s true: much, much more data is being captured, making sophisticated data analysis exponentially more valuable, difficult, and mainstream. But too many people hear this term and think, “Whoa! Data’s getting big!” (“One word. Plastics.”) Focus on the burgeoning cluster of data analysis needs and your role in satisfying them, not on the hypothetical trendiness of stuff involving data.

I’m going to make a prediction, here at the bottom of this piece. Someone is going to see my list of words in buzzwurgatory and say, “Hey, this dude said we shouldn’t say ‘engagement’ anymore.” Any masochist who made it this far, please be my witness: That is not what this post is meant to convey. These are useful terms whose use is in danger of becoming corroded. So use them — carefully.

Finally, don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the baby-grooming fluid. Feel free to hate on all the buzzwords you’d like. But don’t forget that they often serve a useful purpose — providing an understandable, recognized shorthand for good concepts that might not have spread without the right vehicle.

One last prediction: I will not [unironically] use the term “buzzwurgatory” again. You’re welcome. Happy 2013. Read more

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paywall1

Why journalists should explore the business side of news

Most of us still remember a time when revenue was enough of an incidental byproduct of journalism that journalists could ignore it almost completely. We just did our jobs, and then — somehow — money happened.

This was the state of affairs for long enough that a lot of us grew up thinking it was some sort of law of physics. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? We journalists take care of the audience-building part, and overnight, the magic gnomes deposit money in our stockings?

If that’s the case, the gnomes are failing us. How many recent journalism projects have successfully found an audience and proven their worth only to founder without a working revenue strategy? I won’t pretend it’s a new argument to say journalists should take at least an interest in the revenue foundations for their work. But it doesn’t get said nearly often enough. Those of us who care most about doing journalism have to take some responsibility for how that work is supported.

Journalists are infamously change-resistant, lack savvy in business and numbers, and are bound by ethical strictures that prevent them from involvement in revenue matters. What role can they possibly play in developing support for their work? To figure it out, let’s address each of these elements in turn.

Why journalists are surprisingly innovative

The dirty little secret of the past decade of disruption in the news industry is that journalists — even within slow-moving institutions — have incubated a lot of innovation and invention. Django, the software that powers Instagram, was invented in a newsroom. CoffeeScript, developed by Jeremy Ashkenas while he worked on DocumentCloud, now powers the browser experience for Dropbox. The annals of Knight News Challenge winners contain tons of fresh thinking on how to report, produce and deliver journalism. And under the radar, hundreds of experiments in storytelling and reporting are tried and iterated on week after week.

Meanwhile, on the business side, there’s less to cheer about. I’ve talked to sales managers at commercial media organizations frustrated with hidebound sales staffs. In the nonprofit world, I’ve seen wildly inventive journalists sitting down the hall from change-phobic development officers. Looking across the industry gives the impression of herd movement — Crazy new ad formats! Daily deals! Metered paywalls! — without the experimentation and evolution that we’ve seen in news.

This is overstating the case, of course. Still, I suspect we’d do well to direct some of the innovative thinking about content toward business development.

True collaboration and domain expertise is needed here. I’m saying journalists should become more engaged with the revenue-producing sides of their organizations. I’m not saying they should storm into their sales offices and say, “All right, we’ll take it from here.” While we do need more money-where-your-mouth-is entrepreneurial risk-taking, we also need journalists to recognize what they can contribute to the search for new ways of doing business, and what they can’t.

How journalists create value

As Chris Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky point out in their masterful report on what’s happening to the news industry, the biggest disruption to the business side of the industry has been the steady decline in advertising revenue. But advertising has worked for us because of our success in attracting audiences to our journalism. And the things that drive that success still have tremendous value, even if not in the same way they used to.

When you dig into innovations in revenue around journalism and media today, you find that more and more of it involves making products out of the skills, tools and sensibilities of journalism itself. For years, journalists have left the industry to find that their skills fetch higher prices in the public relations world. Now, with the people formerly known as the advertisers increasingly trying to build audiences of their own, these skills are at an even higher premium. Some news organizations are using that fact to their advantage.

BuzzFeed has drawn a lot of press this year for the success of its social advertising product. The company’s advertising wing is an agency that works with advertisers to create sponsored content in the BuzzFeed mold. These aren’t just your classic advertorials — the pages in the magazine with the slightly off typeface and the bad writing. This is content infused with the voice and sensibility of BuzzFeed itself, tailor-made for its audience.

Versions of the agency model are in place at organizations such as Forbes, Gawker, The Huffington Post and the Atlantic. I’ve also heard echoes of this model in conversations with forward-thinking sales managers, who approach companies not just to solicit advertising, but to pitch marketing expertise in a variety of domains — not just display ads, but search engine marketing, social advertising and more.

If editorial sensibility or marketing savvy might not fly as a product, editorial tools just might. Check out the Atavist online, and what you see first is not the longform journalism produced by the digital publishing start-up. Instead, you’ll see a brochure for the organization’s moneymaker, its innovative multimedia platform. That platform has yielded licensing fees, venture investments and, most recently, a partnership with entertainment moguls looking to get into publishing.

Another spin on this revenue line comes from VoxMedia, parent company of SBNation, The Verge, and Polygon. All of VoxMedia’s sites run on a homegrown CMS named Chorus, which has been engineered not just for a compelling editorial experience, but to allow for distinctive, well-integrated advertising.

The point is that all the innovation and work we put into doing journalism may produce more value than mere space for advertising adjacencies. As we develop our ability to work with data, produce info-rich experiences for mobile devices, or experiment with distributed reporting, we may hit on tools and techniques valuable enough to help subsidize our journalism. But if we’re not attuned to those possibilities, they won’t exist.

Journalists’ ethical responsibility for the business side

When we talk about journalists’ stake in the business of journalism, there is, of course, an elephant in the room. Many would say that journalists have no business dealing with the business side. We speak often of a strict separation between “church and state,” a “firewall” dividing the business part of a news organization from its editorial division.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel address the idea of the firewall in their book “The Elements of Journalism.” “If the two sides of a news-providing organization are really working at cross purposes,” Kovach and Rosenstiel write, “the journalism tends to be on the side that is corrupted.”

It’s the entire company — not just the journalists — that must understand, respect and represent the values and mission of the newsroom, Kovach and Rosenstiel point out. And it’s the responsibility of the journalists in the organization to make sure this is so. If journalists aren’t paying attention to how business is conducted in their organization, they risk being sold out. The authors use the L.A. Times / Staples Center scandal to make their point:

In 1999, the nation’s fourth-largest paper arranged to share profits with arena owners from an edition of its Sunday magazine focused on the arena’s opening – in exchange for help selling ads. The arena owners sent stern letters to their subcontractors insisting that ads be bought. The stories assigned and written at the paper were all positive. The newsroom was not told of the arrangement. The wall, in other words, was kept intact. When the arrangement was later discovered, both reporters and readers were outraged.

It feels easier to just say journalists should minimize all dealings with their business-side counterparts. But that feels deeply wrong to me. Ethical behavior is not about trying to avoid situations that might challenge us to behave ethically. Ethical behavior is about regularly thinking through our values and how they should be applied, and then acting accordingly.

There’s an increasingly common counterexample to the news organization large enough for “church” and “state” to be ignorant of each other’s activities: the tiny local news start-up. If it were true that the best way to keep our journalism from being sullied by business considerations was for journalists not to interact with the business folks, then it would follow that the most corrupt environments for doing journalism would be those in which the journalists *were* the business folks. So is that the case?

If you run a small local news site, chances are this is exactly your situation: You’re the publisher *and* the editor. But you also have no insulation or distance from your community, so your ethical values and instincts are all-important.

Last year, J-Lab produced an in-depth report on exactly this — the ethical issues faced by small, local journalism shops. It’s worth reading the chapter on business and advertising. You’ll find few clear-and-easy rules about how the folks in these organizations navigate this terrain, but you’ll see evidence of ethical muscles well-developed because they’ve been put to good use.

Journalism events offer an example of an area requiring conscientious collaboration between businessfolks and journalists. Although they can be difficult to pull off effectively, events are increasingly popular as revenue drivers. But they’re ethically fraught.

There are ways of conducting journalism events that support and reinforce the work of doing journalism, and there are ways of conducting journalism events that corrupt or undermine the work of doing journalism. It requires genuine engagement between the business-side event producers and the journalism-side editors and reporters to pull off the former.

I’m not encouraging reporters to start going on sales calls. I am saying there are ethically responsible and financially productive ways for journalists to inform business practices. There are potential ethical pitfalls here, to be sure. Like most matters of ethics, the best way to avoid those pitfalls is to discuss them openly, not to look the other way.

So what now?

Even if I’ve convinced you that journalists have a rightful role in helping to reinvent the business side of their organizations, I probably haven’t convinced you that this is your responsibility. After all, you’re a busy journalist with a heaping pile of stuff to get done, and business development is not in your job description. I can’t argue with any of that. But just humor me with a few small steps.

First, learn what your organization’s revenue and expense centers look like. Where does your company make most of its money? Which revenue lines are showing sectoral declines? Which ones seem to offer the biggest growth opportunities in upcoming years? The head of your company might share this information in occasional staff meetings. Pay attention next time he or she does.

Second, do some research to situate your organization both within its competitive set and in the wider business world. Which organizations draw revenue from similar sources as yours? Where are they most effective, and where does your organization have the edge? (Feel free to start with Mary Meeker’s annual, oracular “Internet trends” slides, a ubiquitous presence in presentations about business strategy. It’s an easy way to help yourself feel momentarily well-informed and suddenly quite ignorant as well.)

Third, go to lunch with someone on the business side of your organization. Learn how the other half lives. Chances are, you’ll learn some surprising lessons about how they do their work that might give you good ideas about how to do yours. (The discipline and intelligence that smart business managers use in deploying measurement and data in their work always impresses me, for example.)

But most of all, next time you embark on a new editorial venture, figure out how it will be supported. If you don’t understand, do the journalist thing and start asking questions. What you discover may not be as exciting as magic gnomes, but I promise it’ll be more empowering. Read more

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jobinterviewprep

10 ways to make your journalism job application better than everyone else’s

Dear Applicant,

The first time I finished a hiring process, having settled on a stellar candidate, my boss patted me on the shoulder and said, “You know, your first time really shouldn’t be this easy.” I took it as a straightforward compliment to me and the person I’d found. The position had attracted a solid pool of talented people, but the candidate I’d recruited and ultimately chosen had clearly stood out above all the rest. We knew we’d made an impeccable hire.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized my boss’ words had a double meaning — they were a compliment, yes, but also a piece of advice. Hiring — often the most important decision a manager has to make — should be hard. You want to have to make an excruciating choice from an impossibly talented pool of applicants.

So, I’m in the midst of hiring for this wonderful job you’ve applied for. It’s an extraordinary opportunity, and it’s drawn an equally extraordinary response. With the help of my colleagues on the hiring team, I’ve been poring over applications and talking to your fellow candidates for months. When I get a spare minute, I pull a few more resumes and cover letters off the pile to review, adding the most interesting candidates to a spreadsheet with notes and links to their work and social media profiles.

During most of my interviews, I realize two things: 1) Even though I feel like I’m moving at breakneck speed, to you this process feels mind-bendingly slow. 2) You have no idea how much I want you to rock — how excited I get when I read a terrific cover letter, encounter a superlative clip, or find myself engrossed in an interview. Or what a heartbreak it is when you seem great on paper, but present lackluster work or a dismal demeanor.

So to make this process harder on me (in the best possible way), here are 10 things I’m wishing for from you — and for anyone applying for a job in journalism.

Read between the lines of my job description. Yes, I know the prose is hardly gripping — wordsmithed, as it almost always is, by committee. But there are secrets buried in our bureaucra-speak. If you see an adjective twice, pay attention, we’re probably trying to tell you something. Even the boilerplate can sometimes speak volumes.

I know it’s hard to discern which of the approximately 300 “essential” skills and characteristics we’re most concerned with, but read them all twice. Highlight the ones that apply most strongly to you, and underline the ones that pose a bit of a problem. In your cover letter and interview, I’m going to want you to emphasize the former and give me reasons not to be concerned about the latter.

When there are multiple positions posted for the same team, look for which elements they share, and which are distinct to each. The former will tell you the qualities we’re focusing on most carefully, and the latter will give you a good hint about how we think of this particular opening.

Get your vanity search in order. You know I’m Googling you, right? Of course. Before I get there, take a look at what I might see and try to make sure your best material is easily findable. (Tip: Because Google and other search engines personalize their results, it might be helpful to do the search in your browser’s private or incognito mode. This should give you a good approximation of a generic search.)

If that vanity search still yields that ill-advised, gratuitously provocative screed you wrote for your college paper freshman year, it’s not a disqualifier. You don’t need to call up your alumni office and threaten legal action if they don’t take it down. Just make sure that your own site shows up at the top of the results and showcases your best work.

Speaking of which, please have a personal site. If your cover letter and resume are solid, this is what I’m looking for next. Make it clean and easy to read, with links to your best work, and a nice, readable copy of your resume. A crisply written bio couldn’t hurt either. Unless you’re a stellar designer (or you’re applying for a design job), no need to develop anything crazily distinctive; an about.me page or a nice, simple WordPress.com site is perfectly fine.

My strong recommendation is that you make it easy to find your best clips. If you use a blogging engine like WordPress, you can literally write a post titled, “My best clips on [topic you'd be covering]” and link to it somewhere prominent. (Heck, feel free to make a short URL out of it and stick that in your application materials.)

Your cover letter should tell me two stories, and both should be fascinating. First, as concisely as you can, tell me the story of how your experiences have shaped you for this position. Then, with similar economy, tell me the story of what you’ll do with this position if you land it.

Remember, these are stories and you are their protagonist. Hook me with them. Don’t just narrativize your resume, although the first story should probably include some of its relevant bits. You can rattle off as many superlatives about yourself as you’d like — “I’m a first-rate storyteller with an eye for detail and a passion for telling the untold story” — but do you really think that’s how great characters are crafted? (I loved that part in the Harry Potter books where J.K. Rowling was all, “Hermione Granger is a dedicated wizard with a passion and an instinct for all kinds of magic, as well as a loyal and compassionate friend to elfkind.” Oh, wait.)

And this should go without saying, but please — please — proofread.

There’s more than one way to skin a resume. I know what a pain it would be to customize your resume for each job, so I have no complaints with a reasonably generic resume format. But do make sure to emphasize the aspects of your experience most suited to the jobs you’re applying for. Hierarchy in a resume is all-important; the stuff you want me to notice most should go at the top.

If you’re fresh out of school and your academic accomplishments are your calling card, lead with them. If you’ve been a longtime freelancer for a variety of high-quality news outlets, the names of the organizations may be most important to emphasize. If you’ve steadily moved up in seniority from job to job and held some impressive positions, then foreground your titles and make that progression stand out.

Remember: the more of your background you include, the less I’m likely to remember. A comprehensive C.V. is unnecessary. Foreground your five most impressive credentials, and tuck the rest into aftermatter, or excise it altogether.

By the way, the Web software we use for job applications and hiring tends to render resumes unrecognizable. So unless you know for certain that the system is going to deliver the resume to me with formatting intact, make sure that it looks wonderful in a plain text editor (like Notepad on Windows or TextWrangler on Mac). If you have the option of both uploading a PDF and submitting a separate plain text file, do both.

Even if I’m not following you on social media, assume I am. You probably don’t work for my organization yet, so you’re not covered by our social media guidelines. But I’ll be trying to assess from your feed whether you could accommodate them. So try not to go too far out of bounds.

Also, if you signed up for a Twitter account a few days before applying because our job description asked for social media skills, I can probably tell. Newbie Twitter feeds are almost unmistakeable. Here’s a secret: As much as I’d love to see your witty, informative stream of 140-character bursts of insight, I can also very much respect folks who listen more than they talk on Twitter. If you don’t say much yourself, but are following an interesting bunch of people (and do interact when appropriate), that’s perfectly fine in my book. If you’re new to a social media community, there is no shame in signing up and listening. I’ll be thrilled if you demonstrate to me that you understand the dynamics of the community, even if you haven’t shared much yet yourself.

Don’t hesitate to get one of our mutual colleagues to recommend you to me. I value a good recommendation; it’s one more piece of information I can draw on in my evaluation of your work. But the mere fact that you and I know someone in common doesn’t really help me out at all.

The best recommendations have a few qualities in common: 1) They come from someone with a genuine, first-person sense of how you work. 2) They come from someone with a decent understanding of our aims for the position. 3) They don’t just tell me that you’re great, they tell me why and how.

A little follow-up at any point in this process doesn’t hurt. A lot might. If you haven’t heard from us a month after you’ve applied, there’s no harm in sending an email to check up on where we are in the process. And after an interview or test, a gracious follow-up note is always appreciated, especially if you note some ideas that struck you afterward. If we close the position and you still haven’t heard from us, again, feel free to write.

Beyond those few occasions, be gentle. There’s probably an optimum level of persistence that can slightly help your prospects or speed the process along, but it’s unlikely to make a significant difference in our decision.

The very best interviews feel like great conversations. This may be one of my quirks as an interviewer, but I’ve found this to be true both as an interviewer and as an interviewee. Interviews often start out as interrogations — a back-and-forth series of questions and answers. But great interviews don’t tend to end that way. With the interview, I’m not merely trying to unlock the bits of knowledge in your head, and I’m certainly not trying to see how well you anticipate the answers locked in my head. I am trying to assess how you think, what you’re passionate about, how we gel as colleagues.

If I veer away from asking questions and start riffing off your ideas or telling stories of my own, don’t wait for the interrogation to resume — join in. Your questions, reactions, asides, brow-furrowed musings and rejoinders are all just as interesting to me as your answers, and if I’m trying to elicit them, it’s a good sign.

Every hiring manager is different. At the risk of negating everything I just wrote, I’ll be honest: Nothing in this post is universal. You’re probably going to encounter hiring managers who don’t Google anyone, couldn’t care less about your personal site or Twitter stream, disregard recommendations, hate follow up and don’t truck with idle chit-chat in interviews. (I’d love to see perspectives from other hiring managers in the comments section of this post.)

The other members of my hiring team probably have different approaches and interests. If you have an interview with someone else on my team, feel free to ask what I can share with you about them; I want you to impress them too.

Again, when I wish you the very best of luck, I mean it sincerely.

Matt Read more

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quest

How the Internet is giving the quest narrative new relevance for journalism

From Odysseus’ journey home to Mario’s mission to rescue Princess Peach Toadstool, the basic template of the quest narrative has been used again and again to command our attention. Joseph Campbell famously dubbed it the “Monomyth” — the one story to rule them all — ascendant across every human society, in every age.

Ever since journalists moved beyond the inverted pyramid and into the world of narrative, they’ve found themselves in the inescapable thrall of the quest. When Gay Talese turned Frank Sinatra into a sniffling, irritable Everyman trying to vanquish the common cold and reclaim his untouchability, he joined a long line of narrative journalism structured, in essence, as a quest. And for good reason — the format remains hugely popular.

After Atul Gawande employed the quest format in the New Yorker to explore why health care costs differed so widely among similar cities, his piece quickly became required reading in the White House. It was “one of the most influential health care stories in recent memory,” according to Kaiser Health News.

When Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg adopted the form to investigate why the world economy exploded in 2007, they ended up producing one of the most popular public radio stories ever. In her manifesto on what makes great radio, Planet Money’s dynamo reporter Chana Joffe-Walt cited the quest narrative as one of the series’ tried-and-true storytelling tricks — overused, perhaps, “but only because it’s so damn effective.”

But these are all works of long-form journalism, which conventional wisdom has long considered antithetical to the real-time information flow of the Internet. In a world where solid endings and coherent story structures are dissolving into a neverending stream, does the quest narrative still have power?

In fact, I’d argue the Internet may be giving the quest new relevance.

The quest moves online

I’ve long made the case that to understand Internet time, you can’t just look at what happens every minute, with new information zooming around chaotically. You have to look at the full picture of how narratives unfold — and that can take place over months, or longer.

Kickstarter, for example, is one of the new darlings of the Internet, yet campaigns on Kickstarter take eons in our conventional understanding of Internet time. Each campaign is a quest distilled to its simplest form — a clear protagonist (the project creator) with a straightforward quest object (the amount to be funded).

The long-form journalistic quest also has its online analogue in the gradually unfolding investigation. Talking Points Memo pioneered the format online with its Polk-Award-winning U.S. attorney scandal coverage. More recently, TPM alum Paul Kiel, now at ProPublica, applied the strategy toward investigating the foreclosure crisis in the U.S. housing market. It was a classic long-form quest unfolding in real-time.

First, ProPublica journalists laid out their ambitions and called for stories from their audience, following especially strong leads and capturing powerful impressions of what people were experiencing around the country. As developments in the story emerged, the reporters encapsulated them, pursuing the most interesting questions that arose. They occasionally partnered with other journalists to pursue side quests. Then, they wrapped up a couple years of reporting into a traditional long-form story.

Why the quest works

The simple genius at the heart of the quest narrative is this: you hook your audience with the stakes of the quest, not the outcome. You’re selling your audience the question, not (primarily) the answer.

If you can paint an arresting picture of why the quest object matters, if you can invest your readers/users/listeners in your protagonist’s mission and his fate, they’ll follow you through all the winding twists and turns of a proper epic tale.

Think about one of the classic epic serials you love — Lord of the Rings, say, or Harry Potter. Do you remember the sense of disappointment you felt when it was over? That’s the magic of the quest –  done well, you actually don’t want it to end. The longer you follow the winding threads of the story, the more invested you become in the quest object.

And that’s the main reason the quest works so well online. Jakob Nielsen, a digital usability expert, once likened attention on the Internet to a fuel-driven vehicle:

It’s as if users arrive at a [Web] page with a certain amount of fuel in their tanks. As they “drive” [i.e. scroll] down the page, they use up gas, and sooner or later they run dry. The amount of gas in the tank will vary, depending on each user’s inherent motivation and interest in each page’s specific topic. Also, the “gasoline” might evaporate or be topped up if content down the page is less or more relevant than the user expected.

With so much stuff on the Internet competing for our attention, our fuel tanks run dry pretty quickly these days. It’s difficult to sustain the attention necessary to follow a nuanced story unfolding over time. A well-executed quest breaks this pattern; it’s a source of renewable attention. The more attention you give, the more storytelling you want.

How it works for journalism

The reason the quest works so well for journalism in particular is that journalists can employ a deft and simple trick: turn themselves into the protagonist, and make their question their object. Recall Gawande’s question in the New Yorker: Why does health care cost so much more in one city than it does in another city just like it? Once he hooks you with that question, Gawande puts the spotlight on himself and his effort to find an answer:

From the moment I arrived, I asked almost everyone I encountered about McAllen’s health costs—a businessman I met at the five-gate McAllen-Miller International Airport, the desk clerks at the Embassy Suites Hotel, a police-academy cadet at McDonald’s.

For the rest of the story, Gawande travels around McAllen, Texas, chasing possible answers to his question the way Harry Potter chased Horcruxes. Could it be drinking and obesity? No. Is it the state-of-the-art quality of the city’s care? Nope. Malpractice lawsuits? Probably not.

Each of these mini-quests deepens your understanding of the overarching question. By the time he finally arrives at the rather nuanced answer he’s developed, you know enough to really get the nuances.

There’s an extra-special bonus for journalists, too: the format significantly aids transparency. Think about those “how we reported this” tidbits that can make a typical long-form investigative piece deadly dull — phrases like “according to a report published by Dartmouth’s Institute for Health Practice and Clinical Policy.” Because he’s the protagonist of the quest, those elements of attribution and transparency have become elegant parts of the narrative:

To determine whether overuse of medical care was really the problem in McAllen, I turned to Jonathan Skinner, an economist at Dartmouth’s Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, which has three decades of expertise in examining regional patterns in Medicare payment data. I also turned to two private firms — D2Hawkeye, an independent company, and Ingenix, UnitedHealthcare’s data-analysis company — to analyze commercial insurance data for McAllen.

When you mash up the quest format with a journalistic mission and the Internet, you also gain the ability to actively involve your users in the quest as it unfolds, as Kiel and his colleagues at ProPublica did. That sort of direct involvement has two excellent benefits: it further deepens users’ investment in the quest, and it allows the journalist to crowdsource acts of reporting that would be near-impossible otherwise.

How to ace the quest

I’d be remiss if I said this was straightforward and easy to do. Using the quest format is not going to make up for a lack of storytelling polish or an uninteresting objective. If Kickstarter shows us the essence of how quests play out online, then this compilation of failed Kickstarter projects will probably be a helpful reminder that success is not simple.

It’s especially important to get a few key elements right.

  • Start with a great question or mystery. Great journalism very often does. Remember, your first goal as a quest-maker is to fan the flames of your audience’s curiosity about the issue you’re covering. Talk to friends who lack a natural passion in the subject, and see if you can develop a hook that really interests them.
  • Make each twist in the story count. An epic quest is generally an escalating series of smaller quests, each of which also has to be surprising and interesting. As I recently wrote in a piece for Contents Magazine, my friend (and fellow Poynterite) Robin Sloan’s Kickstarter project of July 2009 was an excellent illustration of how to do this well. Many of his project updates were delightful nuggets in themselves, perfect fodder for his backers to spread to their friends and followers. (Kickstarter just published a thorough behind-the-scenes case study of how Robin did it. Highly worth a read.)
  • Orient your audience more than you think you need to. How many times did J.K. Rowling remind Harry Potter’s readers about his tragic origin story? A lot, that’s how many. It’s crucial not to lose your audience in the twists and turns of your epic tale, or to turn away new potential followers by leaving out crucial backstory.

Online, we’re still figuring out what the ideal quest looks like. The rules of the game are far from settled, and technologies and user behaviors are still shifting rapidly. How might a journalistic quest unfold on Facebook or in a mobile app? (If you’ve seen this happen, please dish in the comments!)

You might just consider it your quest to figure this out.

Matt Thompson gave a talk on this subject at the Confab content strategy conference in Minneapolis earlier this year. If you like slide decks and you liked this piece, you’ll love this. Read more

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nprbuilding

How NPR benefits from agile project development & you can too

We talk a lot these days about how important it is for media organizations to be agile in the face of a rapidly shifting media landscape. And when I came to NPR in February 2010, I thought I knew what that meant.

I’d read the Agile Manifesto and its 12 corollary principles. I’d used 37signals products like Basecamp and Campfire, and I dug the company’s book, “Getting Real.” To me, “agility” was the enemy of formality. It meant doing away with processes and meetings, embracing the casual and chaotic.

But what I’ve found working in NPR’s Digital Media department has been a surprisingly rigorous, disciplined approach to product development. Not only have we not done away with meetings, we actually have regularly scheduled meetings to discuss the meetings. And it works. Agile development, along with a flexible approach to serving content, is what allowed us to launch an iPad app and a tablet-optimized HTML5 site the day the iPad was released, for example.

When I hear the word “agile,” I often hear two things being conflated:

  1. the adjective — the general idea of being more nimble, lean and iterative, and
  2. the noun — a concrete set of methodologies for how to structure product development.

Everyone agrees on #1. But I rarely hear us talk about #2. Yet I think Agile (the noun) has done wonders to create a highly productive, innovative work environment here at NPR. And I think these methodologies could be usefully applied to many aspects of our work, including journalism.

Let me come clean about something up front: this post is not a humblebrag. It’s a straight-up brag. I both work at NPR and genuinely admire how digital product development happens here. I think our implementation of an Agile methodology is solid, and I’d recommend it to other teams and organizations. Heck, I’d recommend it to other teams and departments within NPR. But because I’m about to give a shameless plug for a part of my company, I’m going to share some of my shame first.

How I used to develop products

In 2005, I started working at the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a deputy Web editor. My first big job was to build an arts-and-entertainment website, working with a wonderful designer, a few excellent developers and a small crew of editorial and business staff who were developing a printed weekly tabloid alongside the site.

Before I arrived in Minneapolis, the Strib had conducted plentiful research on target audiences and their needs, and sketched out the beginnings of a requirements document for the site. Our task was to flesh out those requirements, deliver a compelling vision of what we could create, and then execute it.

That’s exactly what we did. I assembled a swirling mass of ideas into an ambitious, cutting-edge website concept, which I presented to our executive stakeholders. Once we got the thumbs-up, I worked with our product team to turn the concept into a detailed set of functional requirements — a long list of features that could be placed on a Gantt chart and completed one by one. After more than six months of design and development work — including plenty of delays and time underestimates — we’d completed enough features to feel comfortable launching. We previewed the site with the stakeholders, and then released it to the public, “in beta,” as one did in the mid-2000s.

In many ways, Vita.mn was a success. It celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2011. But if I knew then what I know today, I’d never run a project the way I ran that one. The moment actual users started getting their hands on the site, they instantly exposed critical flaws. Some of these flaws took a lot of precious time to correct, and some couldn’t be corrected at all.

I had unwittingly employed a product development methodology folks call “waterfall” development, and I had independently discovered some of its biggest pitfalls.

How Agile works

We call the type of development I describe above “waterfall” because the phases of the project all cascade in one top-to-bottom direction: from drawing up requirements to designing the product, all the way down to launching and maintaining it. (Think about the way a Gantt chart flows down from one step to the next.) Visualizations of Agile processes, on the other hand, almost always depict a cycle; a continuous loop.

If we’d developed Vita.mn with the four main tenets of Agile in mind, we’d value “working software over completed documentation.” That means we’d take the time we spent on producing a lengthy requirements document and we’d use it to build the skeleton of the site instead.

We’d try to get a bare-bones version of the product into the hands of a prospective user as soon as possible, to start gathering feedback on how we could improve it. This likely would have identified the flaws that didn’t reveal themselves till launch. We’d value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” which means we’d figure out what we needed to do each day by talking with one another, rather than picking the next item on the to-do list.

But beyond those principles, which are broad enough to keep us in agile-the-adjective territory, there are more specific product development frameworks with names of their own. NPR uses a framework called “Scrum.”

While I’m proselytizing for Agile, I may as well just encourage you to think about it like a religion. “Agile” and “waterfall” are different flavors of product development, just as Buddhism and Christianity are different religions. Within Agile as in Christianity, there are different denominations — such as Lutheran, Baptist and Methodist — that reflect different interpretations of shared texts. Scrum is one of those denominations, and it’s the one we use at NPR.

How NPR uses Scrum

To get a better perspective on our product development process, I spoke to three of my colleagues who’ve had pivotal roles in engineering and executing that process — Constance Miller (senior project manager), Sarah Lumbard (our senior director of product strategy and operations), and Patrick Cooper (senior product manager for NPR.org).

I think the Wikipedia page for Scrum describes our implementation of it pretty well, and includes a few more details about how it works. But there’s also a lot of potentially intimidating Scrum-speak, so I’ll sketch it out for you.

The calendar

Our whole product development division — which encompasses design, user experience and software development — splits the calendar into a series of two-week blocks, or “sprint cycles.”

Each project we undertake is allotted a certain number of cycles and a unique mix of staff members (usually representing the skills of design, user experience and software development) to form the product team. At the end of each cycle, groups of stakeholders convene to review the work the team has completed. Once a project is done, the members of the team disperse to begin new projects.

Each cycle includes a number of meetings that typically happen at a consistent time and place in the cycle. There is, of course, the daily scrum meeting from which the process gets its name, held to a tightly choreographed 15-minute maximum. During the daily scrum, everyone on the team answers exactly three questions: 1) What did you do yesterday? 2) What are you working on today? 3) What are your impediments?

There is a sprint planning meeting at the kickoff of the cycle to write “stories” and apportion them. (Units of work in Scrum are called stories, and have a consistent syntax: “As a X I can X so that X.” For example: “As a user, I can save calendar events so that I can keep a customized calendar.”) There’s a demo at the end of the cycle for stakeholders to review the work. And there’s a retrospective after the demo for the team members to review how the process worked (this is what I cheekily described up top as the meeting to discuss the meetings).

The roles

Scrum teams feature three roles — a product owner, a Scrum master and the product team. The product owner represents the “voice of the user.” This person is responsible for answering any questions that come up in the course of the team’s work, prioritizing the team’s work, and deciding when that work is completed to satisfaction. The Scrum master safeguards the process described above, removing any impediments that team members face.

The team, of course, is responsible for deciding what work to do and collaborating to get it done. Scrum places extraordinary emphasis on the importance of the team, its autonomy, and even its physical proximity. “The dynamics of the team are as important as the problem you’re trying to solve,” Miller said. The team collectively writes the stories they’ll work on during the cycle, estimates the amount of work each will require, and collaborates closely to complete the work.

Outside of the Scrum team, there are various organizational stakeholders who inform and review the team’s work. Most notable among this group of stakeholders is the “executive sponsor” who stands behind the process and helps to insulate it from outside tinkering.

Three key takeaways from Scrum

Both the product and the process need owners.

For Scrum to work, Miller said, there has to be a development team, there has to be a product owner, there has to be a Scrum master, and none of them can share these jobs. The separation of the roles of product owner and Scrum master strikes me as a particular novelty. It means there’s someone whose main job is looking after the product right alongside someone whose main job is looking out for the process. These two tentpoles of the product team serve as a check and balance on one another.

This implies — quite astutely, I think — that to have a truly iterative approach to product development, you’ve got to iterate the process too. You have to put real thought and effort into optimizing how the team communicates and collaborates. That’s why there’s a meeting about meetings.

The team must be self-organizing, autonomous and deeply collaborative.

Scrum grants teams an extraordinary amount of independence during the cycle. It forces stakeholders to cede a good degree of control over the project, Lumbard pointed out. In some implementations of Scrum, stakeholders are allowed to come to the daily Scrum meetings, but only to observe, not to talk. During the two weeks the team is working on a cycle, they’re empowered to produce the solution they think is best without the meddling of outside forces. They’re also empowered to focus all their attention on the project at hand without being pulled into other efforts, and the Scrum master is there to ensure this.

At the end of the cycle, stakeholders have the option of not accepting the team’s work. This happens, Lumbard said, and it must happen, although it’s painful for everybody. But only two weeks of work are at stake, rather than the many months that might be involved in a complex waterfall project.

Also, most members of the team have a diverse set of interests, Patrick Cooper pointed out to me. A product development framework that isolates the role of each person on a team to his or her area of expertise doesn’t make use of that person’s full range of knowledge and curiosity. By encouraging joint ownership of a project, Scrum engages all the relevant interests of each team member, Cooper said, like the designer who loves writing and has good opinions on the editorial direction of a project.

The team must be able to communicate fluidly and transparently.

That daily 15-minute meeting is one of the smallest aspects of Scrum, Lumbard said, but it makes a big difference. Much of the success of Scrum comes from greasing the wheels of communication, putting team members close together enough that “you can just yell for a piece of gum,” as Miller put it. And conversely, as Cooper told me, things break down when you’re too focused on milestones without communication.

That doesn’t only include communication within the team, either. Product owners have to be diligent about communicating to stakeholders, and teams should be able to eavesdrop on one another’s progress as well. Meeting notes, wireframes, and other project-related assets are all stored on an internal wiki, where anyone can dip in and see the latest updates on any project in a cycle, or what’s ahead on our project roadmap.

The case against Scrum

I’m going to stop proselytizing for a minute and argue the opposite case. Here’s a set of reasons from my NPR colleagues why you shouldn’t use Agile, or Scrum:

It makes you do less. One of the 12 principles of Agile says, “Simplicity — the art of maximizing work not done — is essential.” Scrum demands that you pare down the potentially infinite list of to-dos for your project into an ever-more-focused core idea. (There’s even a metaphor for the ideal Scrum outcome, sliced down to its purest essence: sashimi.) At a news organization, working on a single project for a cycle can feel indulgent, when our standard mode involves juggling a bunch of projects at once. Even as you may be getting more (and higher-quality) work done, you lose the sense of activity for activity’s sake that can be perversely gratifying.

It’s expensive. For stakeholders to feel comfortable ceding control to a team for two weeks, they need to be comfortable with the skills and instincts of the team. Read more

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iStock_writing2

4 types of journalists: How they tick and what we can learn from them

Nine years ago, when I was working full-time for Poynter, my colleagues and I took the Myers-Briggs test during a team retreat.* I hadn’t heard of the test at the time, and aside from light Psych 101-ish readings during college, I had never learned much about the Jungian theories it was based on.

Candidly, my first reaction to the test was pretty dismissive; I considered the results about as useful as a horoscope. But as my colleagues and I talked about our findings, I was increasingly swayed by the very basic — but very important — truth at the heart of the exercise: We each interact with and respond to the world in deeply different ways, and it’s crucial to consider those differences as we interact with and respond to one another. If we understand each other better, we can work together more effectively.

Like I said, basic stuff. But I’m reminded of this basic realization very often as I work with many different journalists from a variety of newsrooms. I’ve found myself developing my own vocabulary to describe what motivates and inhibits the journalists I encounter. As this vocabulary has become more concrete in my mind, I thought it might be valuable to share it.

But first, some disclaimers: these are types, not hard-and-fast roles — bell curves, not buckets. Every good journalist can tap into any of these attributes, even if they incline toward one in particular. And different circumstances require different approaches; our foremost thought when doing journalism should be serving the public interest, not indulging our inclinations.

Recognizing those inclinations, however, is valuable. There are multiple ways of approaching any subject. Acknowledging our passions and pitfalls can help us do better work, allowing us to both play to our strengths and play against type when the situation merits it. So here they are, the four types of journalists I’ve encountered and what I’ve observed about them:

The Storyteller

Primary motivation: Connecting people to each other and to issues that matter in their lives.
Patron saints: Michael Lewis, Lane DeGregory
Best compliment: “What a powerful lede.”
Strengths: Storytellers render dull material vivid, making broccoli taste like s’mores. In the hands of this journalist, even a mundane City Council meeting becomes a font of whimsy and intrigue. I’d argue this type of journalism has the most general appeal; almost anyone can relate to a good story. Plus, great stories and their characters and themes are likely to stick with you long after the facts themselves have faded from memory — handy fodder for your next cocktail party. I suspect most journalists fall into this type.
Potential pitfalls: Reality has a way of defying classical narrative conventions. As Tyler Cowen has argued eloquently, our zeal for stories can blind us to underlying empirical trends that are ultimately more important. We tend to turn political races, for example, into grand dramatic clashes between near-mythic characters with tragic, indelible flaws. But very often, the dynamics of a political race are mundane, driven by a complex mix of circumstances that a good story might obscure or oversimplify. If you need any more convincing about the dangers of stories, read Aaron Bady’s masterful essay connecting Jimmy McNulty, #Kony2012 and Mike Daisey.

The Newshound

Primary motivation: Exposing facts that are hidden or unknown.
Patron saints: David Rogers, Renee Ferguson
Best compliment: “You landed a huge scoop.”
Strengths: Newshounds possess a relentless curiosity and drive that helps them constantly uncover new facts. Most investigative journalists probably lean in this direction. Although news is often a commodity in the age of Twitter, anyone who is regularly the first source of new information on a topic is likely to garner a large, loyal and influential audience.
Potential pitfalls: News has a tendency of crowding out context. We give outsized focus to novel information at the expense of known facts that might help us legitimately understand an issue better. At its worst, this tendency pushes us to gobble an everlasting stream of trivia without ever attending to the truly significant dynamics of a story.

The Systems Analyst

Primary motivation: Understanding the world and explaining it clearly.
Patron saints: David Leonhardt, Gina Kolata
Best compliment: “You helped me get the issue for the first time.”
Strengths: Systems Analysts have a gift for sniffing out root causes, key trends and important patterns that underpin a story. They prize themselves on cultivating genuine expertise, knowledge of a subject that lasts far beyond a news cycle. That degree of authority can inspire a loyal audience, as folks find themselves coming back again and again to get the journalist’s take on news developments.
Potential pitfalls: It can be difficult to write about systemic patterns in ways that are accessible to general audiences. Systems Analysts constantly have to be vigilant about not convening a conversation solely for wonks and insiders. They often have to fight against a tendency to focus on broad, empirical understanding without capturing the individual experiences that bring out the nuances in the data. It also takes time to foster deep, genuine understanding of a subject; the metabolism of that process cuts against the demands of the continuous news cycle.

The Provocateur

Primary motivation: Revealing the many complex facets of the world.
Patron saints: Malcolm Gladwell, Bethany McLean
Best compliment: “That’s a fascinating insight I’d never thought of before.”
Strengths: Provocateurs surface distinctive ideas and angles, disrupting the natural tendency of media types to exhibit herd behavior. They spur us to think in new ways about a topic or to identify emerging trends or patterns that are worth keeping an eye on. They savor the feeling of covering an issue no one else has drawn attention to, or reporting on an angle nobody’s pursued yet. Provocateurs are particularly good at posing questions, poking at conventional wisdom in a way that encourages us to think critically about it.
Potential pitfalls: Originality ≠ insight. The desire for a fresh take can push a journalist into being pointlessly contrarian or spotting trends that don’t exist. Provocateurs have to be careful not to make too much out of outliers and exceptions. They also face the danger of latching onto an undercovered story in a way that alienates the public rather than drawing people in.

In case this exercise itself didn’t give me away, I’m a Systems Analyst, through and through. While I love a good story or a fresh take, I tend to think in frameworks, and I most value journalism that gives me a comprehensive understanding of its subject. I often have to keep that orientation in check when I work with different types of journalists, pushing myself to get a sense of what they value most and keeping that in mind as we collaborate.

After we took our Myers-Briggs tests, my Poynter colleagues and I each got a workbook to help us interpret our results. It included this analogy: “Think of your choices as somewhat like being right- or left-handed. Both hands are valuable, but most people reach first with the hand they prefer. They usually use that hand more and become more skillful with that hand. In the same way, your type preferences are choices between equally valuable and useful qualities.”

At the risk of sounding a bit too Pollyannaish, I think that philosophy is just right. Every one of these types is capable of producing great journalism and poor journalism. I suspect the best journalism most often arises when journalists with different inclinations mix and work together. Perhaps you recognize the types I’ve identified here, and perhaps you’ve found entirely different ones. Maybe you find this about as useful as a fortune cookie. But if anything in this exercise resonates with you, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* I tested as an ENTP (“Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving”). Read more

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Ideas2

5 provocative ideas sparked by women in media

As 2012 gets moving, I thought I’d be the very last person to list some of the ideas that have gotten stuck in my mind from over the last year.

Last year, I wrote a list of lessons I’d learned from women in media, and I found that to be a useful filter for reflecting on the year. So I’ve resurrected it for a slightly different list. This year, I’m recounting not lessons, but ideas. Thoughts still tumbling around in my head, sparked — again — by several brilliant people who (mostly) happen to be women.

What journalism can mean

As we all know, journalism remains in the midst of a deep identity crisis. We aren’t exactly sure what it is, what it’s supposed to do, and whether it works. Every now and then, however, we happen across a work of journalism so self-evidently worthy that it needs no explanation or justification beyond itself.

Enter Homicide Watch, the first child of Laura and Chris Amico. If you haven’t spent much time with the site, fix that. (Start with the magnificent year in review package.) Aided by her husband Chris (my coworker at NPR), Laura Amico is doing sobering, powerful work.

The site needs no more explanation than its tagline: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” As the site description explains, “Using original reporting, court documents, social media, and the help of victims’ and suspects’ friends, family, neighbors and others, we cover every homicide from crime to conviction.”

That word — “every” — is key to what distinguishes Homicide Watch and makes it so valuable. People often say there are two DCs. Our metro area is often described as “recession-proof,” and currently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Yet within the city itself, there are large wards that have some of the country’s highest poverty and unemployment rates. Like many cities, D.C. has corners where homicide is rare and shocking, and corners where homicide is an annual event. Only the former killings tend to dominate the news.

Jay Rosen once proposed an idea he called the “100 Percent Solution” — biting off a corner of the world and aiming to cover 100 percent of it. Homicide Watch is what that idea looks like in practice. And it’s clearly appreciated by residents, as you can see.

It’s a site that takes perfect advantage of all the capabilities of the Web to do path-breaking journalism. Because of its comprehensiveness, it’s the go-to resource for D.C. residents when a loved one has been killed, and a first stop on Google for anyone seeking information about a homicide. Threads routinely become memorials for friends and family members of the departed.

With Chris’ technical work underpinning Laura’s reporting, it’s a valuable data repository as well, containing interactive maps, DocumentCloud integration, and a peerless victim and suspect database. I’ve marveled as Laura has pieced together victim identifications from the site’s search referral data.

The site imagines a world where the taking of a human life — no matter whose — is always a serious act, one that deserves our attention not only at the moment of tragedy, but throughout the ensuing quest for justice. By doggedly and passionately reporting on our world that way, Laura is helping to bring it about. I can think of few journalistic ends worthier than that.

Discovery and connection as creative acts

Maria Popova, who goes by @brainpicker on Twitter, does “curation” in a way that really makes the buzzword’s inadequacies clear. Her Twitter stream and her invaluable site are two of the most consistently mind-expandinging feeds I follow. As Hannah Levintova put it, each blog post of hers is “a stunning hidden gem that would take the average netizen hours to track down.”

From the many, many ideas Popova has sparked in my brain, one has stuck more stubbornly than any other: We need to start treating discovery, connection and sharing as creative acts.

Even now, long after “curation” became the most reliable buzzword in the journalism conference drinking game, we still have a fairly narrow understanding of what “creation” means. We talk about “creating content” as though it were something distinct from discovering ideas, connecting them together, and sharing them with others, rather than overlapping with those acts.

Read Popova’s description of her daily process, and you will understand that it is an art she has worked as hard to perfect as any reporter has worked on her beat. It’s as consuming and imaginative as any other creative endeavor. And it’s incredibly valuable.

Many will start trying to resurrect the creation/discovery firewall here: But her work depends on the work of someone else! OK, so whose doesn’t? As Popova has put it, all “creativity is combinatorial.” Done poorly, bad curation (like bad reporting) is just hackery. But done well, it is a deeply inventive act.

This has implications. Among other things, as Popova has written, it means we have to start thinking about how we acknowledge curation and discovery in ways more sophisticated than “via @somebody.” And it means we need to think more aggressively about how to describe and teach these skills. I highly recommend Popova’s own explorations of these ideas at Brainpickings and at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Nostalgia as a media force

This is abstract, but stick with me.

As many have remarked, one of the effects of contemporary technology is that it has drastically augmented our memories. It’s an ancient, problematic phenomenon: we’re outsourcing more and more of the task of remembering from our brains to our gadgets.

As Thamus said to Theuth, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.” The more of our lives we capture — in phonecams, status updates, sensor-driven data feeds — the less we have to remember. (And the less, some would argue, we even fully experience.)

You might describe nostalgia as the distance between our memory of a thing and our experience of it. It’s a gap that brings with it a sort of pleasurable pain — the joy of a memory paired with the sad fact that you’ll never live it again.

Our technology confronts us with this gap constantly. The ubiquitous digital photograph is a nostalgia production machine. I’ve caught myself reviewing photos of an event and feeling the wistful tug of memory while I’m still at the event. I can’t be the only person who’s done this. The Polaroid-trumping instantness of a digital camera encourages us to fiddle with our record of an event, to tweak how we’ll remember it later. More on this in a moment.

The two people more responsible for inspiring thoughts about the power of nostalgia over the last year are Willa Paskin and Anne Helen Petersen. In 2011, Paskin inaugurated a feature for New York Magazine called the “Nostalgia Fact Check,” in which she reviews beloved cultural artifacts (e.g. “The Little Mermaid,” Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” and “Raw”).

Petersen, on the other hand, has been writing a series of fascinating features called “Scandals of Classic Hollywood,” in which she excavates the lives and careers of some of our most legendary celebrities for insights on how our culture once was, and how it’s changed. Both of these series are wonderful in part because they’re just excellent cultural criticism. But they also exemplify the essence of nostalgia: that divide between the past as we recall it and the past as it was.

Why do these heady observations on nostalgia matter for busy media professionals? Because I’d argue there’s real opportunity in our affinity for nostalgia. Think of Instagram: I’d argue it’s taken off partly because its filters lend an artificial veneer of nostalgia to those in-the-moment digital photos; they instantly make a moment seem more distant or unrecoverable.

Hollywood and Hasbro have also seized on our nostalgia fever. They’ve excavated the ’80s childhoods of today’s new moms and dads to bring back the likes of G.I. Joe, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony. I promise you, that $90 Transformers DVD box set is not targeted at Junior; it’s aimed squarely at the heartstrings of his youthsick Papa.

In October, my buddy Robin Sloan and I gave a talk at TEDxPoynter arguing that news organizations should be designing apps and other products targeted at different user moods (as well as media formats and other experiences). Other media companies have tapped into the nostalgia vein. Could we?

Great long-form journalism is amazing … and rare

For a long time, it’s been a truism that long-form doesn’t work on the Web. But after 2011, long-form storytelling may no longer need champions. Amazon and Apple have stood behind it in a big way, of course. I have several friends who are starting publishing companies aimed at novella-length storytelling. At least two good friends have funded book projects through Kickstarter. Every day, the future of the considered take seems to be looking up. It feels safe to say that long-form storytelling will continue to be around for a while.

I’m happy about this; I love me some long-form. But amidst the resurgent popularity of long-form journalism, I have to thank Ellen Weiss (executive editor of the Center for Public Integrity, whose board I serve on) for a valuable reminder: long-form isn’t always the best form.

These are my thoughts, not Weiss’, but I definitely have to credit her for the conversations that sparked them. Especially when we’re dealing with investigative journalism, it’s easy to default to the assumption that the proper format for a story that took a long time to report is a story that takes a long time to read.

Loving long-form journalism shouldn’t mean believing in length for length’s sake. As Erik Wemple wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year, investigative journalism can be kind of torturous to read, especially the opuses. Of course we have to respect that investigations typically unearth complex facts that aren’t easily distilled. But that means we need to give extra props to folks who can take months of work and compress it into diamonds.

If you were ordered to describe the path that all the money in the world takes as it travels through the global economy, your starting assumption might be that you need a lot of pages for the task. Randall Munroe only needed one (big) page. His infographic — “Money: A chart of (almost) all of it, where it is, and what it can do” — ricocheted all around the Internet when he published it in November. And the chart didn’t only explain money; it also earned some. Two poster versions are available for purchase, and I’m sure I’m one of many who bought the smaller one.

I’d love to see more examples of journalists turning big, important stories into concise, spreadable ones. I think this means more investigative projects led by designers rather than writers. It means reporters taking the time and energy they’d pour into a long narrative report, and using that effort to make the world’s most viral TED talk instead. (Relevant: TED talk about how all TED talks can be summed up in six words. Apparently the distilled essence of every “jaw-dropping” TED talk is, “Flickr photos of intergalactic classical composer.” Sounds about right.)

Again, I’m not trying to (re?)start the long-form backlash. But, to Weiss’ point, it shouldn’t be our default format for important journalism. Often, that 15,000-word opus reflects a different kind of laziness.

(And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of criticizing long writing in a somewhat sprawling five-part piece.)

The revolution will probably be Funny Or Die’d

(1) Comedy has long been the best vehicle for working through controversial or polarizing issues. (2) There are so many polarizing issues our society needs to work through right now. (3) We journalists have to figure out how to use this comedy business.

Humor allows us to engage with stereotypes, inequities and prejudices more meaningfully than we can in almost any non-comedic context. Think of Jeff Foxworthy reclaiming the concept of the redneck, or Eddie Murphy taunting the kids who can’t have ice cream ’cause they’re on welfare. It also brings these things into the light, turning them into ideas everyone can talk about rather than ideas reserved for in-group conversations. And so it is with Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl.” As many folks have remarked, the protagonist J is not a character you’re likely to encounter in a Hollywood flick or a network sitcom, despite the fact that she’s familiar and relatable.

For many of the same reasons, I was sucked into the “$#!* People Say” meme as well, and particularly Franchesca Ramsey’s “$#!* White Girls Say … To Black Girls” take on it. The original video felt like easy, familiar, only mildly transgressive humor. But when the meme got to Ramsey, she took it to another level, using it to express sentiments that really don’t often make it into polite conversation.

There’s a reason journalists don’t typically do humor. When we try to be funny, it typically doesn’t go very well. But could we take a page from Rae and Ramsey and point the lens on ourselves, rather than the folks we cover? I would have loved to see the New York Times launch a “Truth Vigilantes” segment in response to public editor Arthur Brisbane’s cherry bomb of a column the other day. Read more

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5 reasons to liveblog instead of live tweeting

Allow me a moment of nostalgia for the classic liveblog. “Liveblogging” was this thing we used to do before the rise of Twitter and Storify, much like good old-fashioned blogging itself. You’d have a host and a bunch of guests all watching the same Web page together, and for an hour or so, they’d make magic.

I should confess: every now and then, I get a hankering for some of that old magic. I pour some good wine, dust off a CoverItLive console, and invite some friends over.* And every time I do, I’m reminded why genuine liveblogging — real-time, browser-based liveblogging — is still one of my favorite instruments in the modern journalism toolkit. I highly recommend it to you, for reasons I outline below. And I’ll also give you some pointers on how to do it.

Why liveblog

Joking aside, I shouldn’t oversell the notion that liveblogging’s gone out of fashion. Just this year, Guardian blog editor Matt Wells hailed the form as the embodiment of journalism’s future. But anecdata suggests that it’s diminishing somewhat in popularity. There was a moment not so long ago when I’d attend an event, and two or three liveblogs would be competing with one another to capture what was going down. Today, folks tend to announce that they’re livetweeting the event instead.

And of course, Twitter has some key advantages. There’s no client to embed. When you live-tweet, you’re engaging with everyone who follows you (or everyone following the hashtag), not locked into a siloed chat room with the few diehard fans willing to join you. And with Storify, you can build your livetweeting into a narrative that folks who weren’t there in real-time can follow after the fact.

But Twitter’s also low-fidelity. The character limit is great for tweeting applause lines, but makes it difficult to capture the flux of a speaker’s argument, or the back-and-forth in a panel presentation. If you’ve ever given a talk and read the tweets afterwards, you’ve probably seen your remarks emerge from the 140-character meat grinder heavily truncated, somewhat mangled, and lacking a coherent thematic thread. To make a geeky analogy, live-tweeting is to an event what a MIDI file is to a song. A true liveblog is more like an mp3.

That’s part of the reason why if I know about a coverage-worthy event in advance, I’ll make plans to liveblog it. But there are many other reasons more selfish than doing justice to a speaker’s words:

A liveblog forces you to genuinely pay attention. My very first proto-liveblog was a solar energy conference in Fresno in 2005. At the time, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term “liveblogging.” I just decided I wanted to publish as many posts from the event as I could, while it was happening.

The stock reportorial trick when covering an event like that is to begin writing your story as soon as you get there — hunting for something that will work as a lede, trying to find some overarching message or takeaway, and capturing a few key quotes that fit the narrative frame you’ve decided to create.

A liveblog, of course, doesn’t work that way. Because there’s no need to run it through the Epiphanator right away, you capture as much as you can without imposing a predetermined narrative. And because you’re trying hard to follow along, you have to pay close attention and really try to grok the points that are being made.

In the end, you’re left with not only a good post in its own right, but the ultimate reporter’s notebook, more comprehensive than you would have created otherwise, and augmented with the questions and observations of your crowd. It’s perfect fodder for a duly-Epiphanated follow-up.

It also forces you to write. Great writers often talk about the value of putting thoughts into text without editing everything before it’s out of your head. But forcing the words out can be one of the hardest parts of writing. You workshop each sentence, you agonize over beginnings and endings, you fret over finding just the right verb.

When you’re writing with an audience in front of you, it provides a very effective counterweight to any perfectionist tendencies you might have. You’re suddenly aware of the yawning seconds between each snippet you write. In a liveblogging client such as CoverItLive, a counter shows you the number of readers waiting impatiently for the next bit — a constant reminder of the precious claim you’re making on your audience’s attention.

It’s so effective at this that after South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, I used it as a prod to force me to write down some of the many thoughts swimming through my head. Yes, I liveblogged my internal monologue. And I make no apologies.

It can be intensely engaging. As Ken Doctor reminds us, an average user spends only eight to 12 minutes a month browsing her local newspaper website. The New York Times has one of the stickiest news sites on the Web, yet its average user spends only about 20 minutes with its website each month. Now, these are averages, and the median numbers are probably a lot different. There’s probably an outsized number of hit-and-run users alongside folks like me, who spend quality time going through the site each day.

Liveblogs, on the other hand, don’t tend to draw all that many hit-and-runs (unless it’s a liveblog of a big breaking news event, which can be a pageview machine). But the users who do get sucked in tend to be very engaged. CoverItLive tells me that my liveblogs (most of them published on my personal blog Snarkmarket) have attracted just over 5,500 users in total — the equivalent of a moderately successful post on a well-trafficked site. But on average, CoverItLive says, each of those readers spends 39 minutes with the liveblog.

In total, my liveblog readers have spent the equivalent of more than 12 days straight hanging out with me in CoverItLive. That’s extraordinary, especially considering that those posts rarely took more than an hour to produce.

It’s a service to your users. I’ve already covered why a good liveblog is superior to livetweeting for fully capturing an event. But why liveblog when anyone can set up a live video stream from their smartphone?

First, liveblogs and streaming video aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, CoverItLive lets you embed UStream video right into your liveblog so users can simultaneously watch the event and read your coverage.

But until the Speakularity, pure video still has some key disadvantages to text. It’s tough to scan. If you miss a key moment in a livestream, it can be difficult to pick up the thread of conversation. And if you’re in a place where your ears (or your computer speakers) need to be otherwise engaged, audio is not so optimal. Liveblogs let users quickly get a comprehensive overview of an event without having to relive the event themselves.

It can be a service from your users. I’m a firm believer in Dan Gillmor’s axiom: “My readers know more than I do.” They prove it every time I liveblog. When a speaker throws out a reference I don’t know (e.g. when Clay Shirky name-checked the “Haversine formula”), my crowd brings me the lowdown. They come up with terrific questions during the Q&A part of a talk (especially handy when they know the speaker’s background better than I do).

Before you begin: a checklist

  • Have you set up and tested your liveblogging environment? No matter which platform you’re using, it’s good to do a dry run before the actual event, to familiarize yourself with the controls, tune your interface to taste, and make sure everything will work, especially if you’re embedding code for the liveblogging console into your CMS. Depending on your platform, you might also be able to customize the look and feel of the chat console in advance.
  • Is your computer juiced up? Have you gone to the bathroom? I’m mostly serious. Once the event is rolling, you probably don’t want to leave your seat; you risk losing your flow. So make sure you’ve got enough battery power that you won’t have to go outlet-hunting before the event is over. And take your bathroom break beforehand.
  • If there’s a hashtag for the event you’re covering, do you know what it is? If there’s not one, decide on one and do your best to spread it.
  • Have you given the relevant communities of interest a heads-up? No matter how little advance notice you have for a liveblog, always make sure to let people know you’re on the scene. Post links to the liveblog early and often on Facebook. If you have a few days or weeks of lead time, you can start publicizing the liveblog as early as you’d like. If you’re using CoverItLive, you can create the event well in advance and embed the player in a blog post as early as you’d like. Before the live coverage begins, users who encounter the player will be able to enter an email address to be reminded when the event starts. You can embed the player in as many places as you’d like, which means you can put it in separate blog posts before the event and right as the event begins. Users will be able to watch it no matter where they find it.
  • Do you have the relevant facts for the event handy? For example, if you’re covering a panel, prep the speakers’ names and bios in advance so you don’t have to remind yourself when the panel starts. Keep all info relevant for the panel handy in a text file. (Or, if you’re using CoverItLive, you can store the info as a text snippet in your media library and publish it when the liveblog begins.)
  • Do you have relevant media and polls queued up? Like most of the best storytelling on the Web, the best liveblogs mix together text, images, video, polls and other types of content. Prepare some of this in advance if you can; for example, snag headshots of speakers when you prep their bios.
  • Have you considered enlisting a helper? It’s useful to have someone standing by to help out with moderating or responding to comments, fetching relevant links, sending out poll questions, etc. If nothing else, try engaging a few select folks in advance to join in and follow along to keep your liveblog lively. Experienced hands can go it alone, but it’s always nice to have company.

You’ll find more tips for liveblogging here (including more pointers for during and after the liveblog). I also recommend the pamphlet “Tips for Conference Bloggers.”

I’m planning on liveblogging SXSW again this year, for the fourth year running. Consider this an invitation to join me virtually; it’s always a good time. Maybe together we can rescue this endangered** art.

* Note: CoverItLive is the liveblogging service I’ve used most often, which is why it gets so many shoutouts in this post. I’m not a paid shill for the service, I promise, but I do like it a lot. NPR uses ScribbleLive. And it doesn’t take a client to liveblog effectively; lots of folks still liveblog by manually adding datestamps to their blog posts as they publish updates.

** Note: Maybe not so endangered. Read more

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phpcode

6 reasons journalists should ‘show your work’ while learning & creating

In a busy corner of the metajournalism world, a crowd of journalists is assembling what amounts to a public, open-source curriculum on how to do hacker journalism. In blogs, tweets, Git repositories, meetups and slide decks, they’re sharing code snippets, tutorials, data sets, How To’s and more, in ways that are often engaging and accessible to non-geeks.

If I lost you at “Git repositories,” let me back up a step. The process of becoming a hacker journalist is different for everyone, but the pattern is common. Eventually the tools of writers cease to be enough: Microsoft Word gives way to Excel, which gives way to MySQL. And then, almost without knowing it, you’re creating the tools yourself. Having conquered English, you start learning a few phrases in HTML, then PHP, then Python and Django. One day without warning, you find yourself tromping around a Git repository.[1] And liking it. A new journo-hacker has been born.

Right now, journalists just like you are publicly documenting their own process of learning and creating. And if any part of you finds this compelling, there’s never been a better time for you to join in.

Why the “show your work” ethos is catching on

I should clarify a few things.

First, this practice isn’t primarily about teaching you how to become a [better] coder. That’s really just a nice byproduct.

And although there are many points of entry into this network of public programmers, it’s a distributed phenomenon rather than a coordinated campaign. Like many things in the git-’er-done-minded “hacker/coder/data journalist/computer-assisted reporter” community, it doesn’t even really have a proper name. But it does have something of a rallying cry, borrowed from your high school calculus teacher and spread by the fast-growing muckraker mob in Chicago: “Show your work.”

Lastly, it’s not really new. Journalists on the NICAR mailing list and members of IRE have been incredibly generous with their ideas and knowledge for years. Folks like Derek Willis and Adrian Holovaty have been sharing their ideas online for the better part of a decade (in Willis’ case, even longer). As Willis pointed out to me by phone, the NICAR/IRE newsletter Uplink has been going for two decades. Outside of journalism, the origins of this cultural ethic have an even longer history, reaching back as far as science itself (yep, that again), which developed the expectation that experiments should be well-documented. It’s baked into the fabric of the Internet, the “view source” culture that celebrates and rewards openness.

And yes, said Brian Boyer, of the aforementioned Chicago mob, math class probably played a part.

What’s novel is the somewhat sudden and very public uptick in this phenomenon: more journalists are sharing their work than ever before. In his farewell post for the Chicago Tribune’s News Apps blog (note the post title), PANDA Project lead developer Chris Groskopf says: “We’ve found ourselves in the midst of an exploding community of news-oriented developers who are hell bent on using, contributing to, and releasing new open source code. There are now more than a dozen active news nerd blogs–almost all of them producing new open source code.”

Why? Willis points to several reasons. The barriers to entry are lower all around from the days when Uplink and IRE conferences were your best bet, he says. It’s simpler than ever to throw up a blog or a Tumblr, and the basic tools necessary to do this type of work are becoming easier and easier to master, or at least to get dangerous with. Also, more networking opportunities for journo-hackers means that the IRE conference isn’t your only opportunity to meet up with fellow travelers. Now, there are Hacks/Hackers meetups happening across the world, and most folks in this universe are in daily contact on Twitter and elsewhere online.

Another reason, says Willis, is that “we realize that our problems aren’t just our problems anymore, and maybe never have been just our problems.” While journalists used to imagine that their challenges were fairly unique, we’ve come to understand that we don’t have a monopoly on the need to gather, organize and sift through data, or to manipulate and visualize information. As the lines between media organizations and software companies have begun to blur, coders at news orgs and coders elsewhere have discovered they have a lot to share with one another.

Plus, once this movement started to get a foothold, whatever cultural resistance might have prevented newsrooms from opening up their processes and toolkits to potential competitors started to wither away. Now that organizations from the New York Times to the Bay Citizen to ProPublica to the Guardian are showing their work, it’s easier for coders in every newsroom to say, “We should do this too.” (Everyone I spoke to said that whatever resistance there might once have been to these ideas is pretty rare to find nowadays.)

I might also point to the rise in prominence and respect for journo-hackers in the newsroom as a reason more and more journalists are learning to code in public. Although there remain a few benighted corners of the industry where folks are still asking whether coding can be journalism, these skills are now in high demand in newsrooms both big and tiny. Michelle Minkoff — a freshly minted Associated Press programmer whose coding career began two years ago in Willis’ class at Medill — told me over the phone that she’s excited to have started in the industry at this time. While coders used to have to fight for their place in the newsroom, in Minkoff’s experience, the coders are — if anything — too much in demand. Everyone in the newsroom wants help with a data project.

Six reasons to show your work

If you’ve read this far, you’re at least curious about this incursion of coder culture into the newsroom. Possibly you’re already a programmer yourself, or maybe you’re an aspirant to the title. Or maybe you’re a dyed-in-the-wool narrative journalist who wouldn’t touch anything called a “LAMP stack” even with biohazard gloves. With an assist from my conversations with Willis, Minkoff, Boyer and his team member Joe Germuska, I’m going to argue that you too (yes, even you, Gay Talese) should be showing your work. [2]

Keep in mind that documenting your discoveries and creations is time-consuming work; Boyer said a typical post laying out the process can take an entire work day to write. So why should you do it? I’ll present you with six arguments — three for the altruists among you, and three for the purely self-interested.

For the altruist

1. It’s only right to pay it forward. Whether or not you know it, you’ve benefited from others who’ve shown their work. This article you’re reading was published by an open-source CMS, using open-source database software. There’s a better-than-even chance you’re using an open-source browser to read it. As Germuska points out, the Internet was built by people saying, “Here’s what I did. How might it work for you? Make it better.” And certainly, if you’ve learned to code or you intend to start, you’ll have relied quite a bit on the kindness of strangers. What goes around should come around.

2. Your journalism can have a greater impact. When ProPublica details exactly how to go about replicating one of their prizewinning investigations, they empower other journalists, and even interested non-journalists, to put their good work to use in other contexts. Anytime you write a story, Germuska says, you necessarily filter the underlying data to support your narrative. By going public with the unfiltered data and the instructions for manipulating it, you sow the seeds for many more stories to be told. Others might find completely different stories using either your methods or the material you left on the cutting room floor.

3. Strike another blow for tech and data literacy. As Douglas Rushkoff says, “Program or be programmed.” The more we demystify this universe of variables and algorithms, the more agency we all have in a world increasingly run by software.

For the egoist

1. Do it for what Brian Boyer calls the “HR benefit.” Whether you’re a boss or an employee, showing your work raises your profile, giving you a strong boost in the hiring game. News organizations are competing for talent against tech firms offering bigger salaries, nicer benefits and foosball, Willis points out. But giving top-notch candidates a chance to do influential work that other programmers can emulate or extend makes your offer sweeter. And if you’re looking for a job yourself, sharing your knowledge and code is a terrific way to be on a hiring manager’s radar when a spot opens up.

2. It’s a force multiplier. Share your code with the world, and you open up the possibility that others might help to extend and support your work. Even if you’re not building the killer app that will fold the world’s laundry, sharing your discoveries and challenges increases the likelihood that others will chime in to help you with those challenges. Boyer and Germuska shower reverent words of praise on a Swiss army knife of data manipulation called CSVKit, developed in large part by Groskopf in response to a tweet from Germuska.[3]

3. It helps you learn. Everyone I spoke to said some version of this. Boyer put it best: “If you can teach something, you know it.” The task of documenting what you’ve discovered and built helps to organize and cement that knowledge in your head. And it helps your organization learn as well. Boyer describes it as a way to preserve institutional knowledge. “Chris [Groskopf] doesn’t work for me anymore,” Boyer says, “but I still have all his blog posts, and that’s going to be helpful for me.” The posts, he says, have become training manuals for whomever follows in Groskopf’s footsteps.

The curriculum

There’s not really a syllabus of required show-your-work reading. Once you start to dip your toe in the water, you’ll realize how many different directions you could go in both developing and democratizing your skills. But here are a few terrific places to start:

101-level course: Few journo-hackers are more approachable than Lisa Williams, who’s been running a terrific Tumblr since last May called “Life and Code.” Williams  writes just like she talks — pithy, casual and unassuming. Also, she’s a wife, mother and entrepreneur, so she knows something about having too little time. Start reading “Life and Code” from the beginning and you’ll find posts about how it feels to start out in this universe, important lessons that longtime programmers often forget to mention, and links to helpful resources. If you want the tl;dr version, begin with her post, “Learning to Program for Journalists: The Epic How-To,” which is an excellent starter pack for the would-be coder. If you want to find code snippets, head to Williams’ Git repository. Pair your reading of “Life and Code” with a trip to the much-ballyhooed Codecademy.

Upperclassmen tutorials: I generally find blogs by individuals a bit more novice-friendly than those by organizations. So if you’re still not feeling quite ready to storm GitHub, spend some time with self-described “protojournohacker” John Keefe. Willis, Boyer and Minkoff all maintain outposts online. And I’ve got to throw in a plug for my NPR colleague Chris Amico. Peruse the comment threads and blogrolls on these sites, and you’ll start to have a good idea of the network. And here’s the nice part about blogs: if you want to get a sense of the individual’s development, start with the oldest posts and move forward through time.

By this point, you’re ready to join the journo-hacker community; after all, you’re already familiar with some of its leading lights. Find the nearest Hacks/Hackers chapter, or start one. Begin your own show-your-work Tumblr.

Graduate-level work: At this point, approachability probably isn’t what you’re after. It’s code. Pure, glorious code. Unsurprisingly, you’ll find quite a bit of it on the Chicago Tribune’s News Apps blog. ProPublica, the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Washington Times and feature a particularly robust selection of tutorials and code snippets. Because DocumentCloud is a force of nature in the data- and document-processing world, DocumentCloud’s blog is also stellar, even if it’s all about DocumentCloud software.

If you can grok the work that appears on these blogs, congratulations. You’re a coder, no modifier necessary. And chances are you’ve already made your way to the universe of show-your-workers that stretches far outside the bounds of the Fourth Estate. Hopefully, you’re sharing what you’ve learned and what you’ve built. And perhaps you can also help me spread one more message:

All journalists should show their work. This movement, spread by hackers with hearts of gold, shouldn’t be confined to the realm of coding in journalism. Narrative journalists can do it. So can editors at The Atlantic. I try my best to do it. And so should you.


[1] Git is software that manages revisions to files. It allows you to do things such as view previously saved versions of files, or work on a file in tandem with others. A “Git repository” is just a collection of files managed by Git. For more on version control software, check out this friendly guide.

[2] I should point out that when Boyer and Germuska talk about showing your work, they’re talking not only about the act of documenting what you’ve built or learned and how, but also about the act of open-sourcing your work – making your code and data available for the world to use. Read more

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