May 5, 2015

I did not enter college with the intention of becoming a journalist. It was only after my writing teacher told me to consider joining the school paper that I even contemplated the notion.

But as soon as I started writing the paper’s weekly humor column, I was hooked. I loved digging up story ideas and putting them down on paper and figuring out what resonated with the student body. I still consider it the best job I’ve ever had: I wrote stuff for people who lived near me, and I could watch them read it in class. How great is that? Instant feedback.

If I had met Bobby Blanchard at the time though, I would have been inspired to expand my horizons. A current senior at the University of Texas at Austin, Blanchard has worked more gigs in his past four years than most people do in their lifetimes. At the Daily Texan, he has served as an online news editor, podcast host, copy editor, life & arts staff writer, senior reporter, general reporter, and senior designer. He’s also worked as a news intern at KUT Radio, a summer editorial intern at the Houston Chronicle, and is currently on a year-long reporting internship at the Texas Tribune.

I wanted to talk to Bobby because of his drive as well as his work on the Student Media Map. He coded the map, which shows how many student newspapers at public universities update their online websites on a daily basis. (On average, he’s found it’s less than 20 percent.) The website updated daily until recently, and took Bobby several months to dig up the data and then learn how to code that data. He also provides resources for anyone who would like to learn from the work he’s completed.

Bobby Blanchard (Submitted photo)

Bobby Blanchard (Submitted photo)

I find the way Bobby works to be inspiring, and I can’t believe he’s just a college senior. (If you read all of this and thought, “Hmm, that sounds like someone I could use in my newsroom,” you’re out of luck — at least for a year. Bobby’s heading to the Dallas Morning News’ Austin bureau, where he’s going to take on a full-time fellowship position.)

MK: You’re really smart. You’re really, really smart. How did you decide to focus on building apps and tools for journalism?

BB: Thank you SO much. That is way too kind of you. One thing I want to say is I am by no means an expert — I know how to dabble here and there. But I thought this was really important to be part of my tool kit and education as I head to graduation. I’m going into reporting, but it helps to know how app and tool development works, so if I work with news app developers, I understand what kind of timeframe they work in and what kind of help they need.

In general, I think apps and tools like the Student Media Map are really useful to readers. I think we’re seeing them become more and more common in news media, and I think it won’t be long before readers expect and demand them. Which is a good thing!

MK: You have seemingly worked everywhere and you’re still in school. How do you balance your journalism work with your school work?

BB: It is not easy. I have to be really honest here — students who intern or work while going to school have to realize that they’re probably not going to be “straight A” students. I have some friends that do that, and hats off to them. But I’m just not that smart. I live in a reality where C’s get degrees, B’s get me ice cream and A’s get me an extra glass of wine at night.

I can think of maybe only one or two journalism internship applications that asked for me for my GPA. And I never see editors ask for college GPAs on job applications. So I think journalism students have to figure out what their priorities are. Now, I am not saying someone should skip class and be a terrible student. There are life lessons to be learned and connections to be made in college. I would not be anywhere close to where I am now if it weren’t for the many awesome people in the UT Journalism School.

But making just a C on a physical science test so you can spend more time in your college newsroom is probably worth it. I’d rather be in the newsroom anyway.

Journalism is also a lifestyle choice. I love that lifestyle — I thrive in it. But I realized a long time ago that I was giving up certain things (like straight A’s), when I decided to pursue journalism. (MK note: I wish I had the perspective Bobby does. Smart words. If you’re in college, read them again. He speaks the truth. I’ve never been asked for my GPA, either.)

Screen shot, College Media Map

Screen shot,
Student Media Map

MK: I really like your Student Media Map. What gave you the idea to make it? Have any other colleges gotten in touch?

BB: I’ve been interested in this concept for a while now. In the spring of 2013, my student paper was facing some budgetary challenges. The paper has since had its issues resolved — for now — but at the time there was a major threat to cutting print. I heard a lot of people throw around the argument that even if we were no longer a “daily print” product, we would still be “daily” online. Luckily, we did not have to cut the print schedule at the time. But that got me thinking — in an age where the campus daily print product is declining, are more college newspapers turning to thrive online?

Well, I have my answer now: Not really, sadly. The percent of student papers that are daily online tends to hover around 16 to 17 percent. Sometimes it is a little higher, other times it is lower. What I don’t know — and I really wish I did — is why so many are not doing this. I suspect it’s because most college papers are not paying their staff. It’s hard to ask someone to commit to updating a website daily with good journalism when the salary is a “thank you.” It is hard to know that for a fact, mind you, without surveying nearly 500 student papers. But I would hypothesize that if I could filter the difference between student papers that paid versus ones that did not pay, there would be a very definitive line drawn in the sand.

I heard from a few papers when it first launched, but not much since. Someday, I would love to add private schools — I am really curious to see what the difference would be between public and private universities.

MK: You coded the entire site. Did you code before college? How did you learn?

BB: I took two computer science classes in high school (Pre-AP and AP Computer Science), which gave me a great foundation. In college, I mostly taught myself with Codecademy and Udemy. I absolutely swear by Codecademy because it is free, easy to use and makes the learning process straightforward and fun. Udemy is great for me because, personally, I am a big visual learner and having the videos to watch is a huge bonus. Udemy is not free, but if you play it smart and wait for the sales, the courses can be very low priced.

When I am working on a project, I reference Stack Overflow pretty much every minute. I think that’s still a great resource. While it is not a formal tutorial process, I’ve learned a lot from that community.

Big picture though, I am a big learn-by-doing person. I had no idea how to make the Student Media Map before I got started on it, and a lot of my time in the beginning was researching and trying to figure out exactly what I would need to learn. I almost think that’s the best way to learn. Figure out a few basics, pick a project idea and then figure out what you need to learn to complete that project.

MK: It doesn’t look like the site is live right now. Is it down temporarily?

BB: I pulled the plug on it last week — the web hosting services fees were starting to be a bit of a strain. I am really sorry to tell you that. Essentially, the site kept timing out when I tried to update the SQL server that had all the data that was tracking how many papers were daily. Because there were so many RSS feeds for the site to go through and check once a day, the site would time out before it could make that complete loop. I needed a longer timeout period. I needed a dedicated server for that…which got to be pretty expensive eventually.

Like I’ve said, I dabble. I just know a few bits and pieces to make some cool stuff. The crux of the problem is I needed the site to go through 500 RSS feeds on a set schedule without timing out and without being done over a dedicated server. There is probably a way to do that (a friend pointed me to cron, but I am not sure if that would apply to my situation). So for now, the site is down. Luckily I graduate in a few weeks and I’ll have time then to tackle the problem.

MK: I wonder if someone out there reading this could help you….I love that you plan to tackle it after graduation. I’m sure a lot of people may want to know: What’s your workflow like? What tools do you use to make your life easier? Software? Hardware?

It sort of depends what I am doing. When I was building the Student Media Map, I was actually working in Bluefish — but that was mostly because the Udemy tutorial I was using to learn PHP was recorded in Bluefish. I really love to use Sublime Text because it is easy on the eyes, and makes everything look pretty. The way it color codes what I’m doing also helps me catch mistakes as I make them.

Lastly — when I was working on my student government campaign connections project, I was working in Text Wrangler because I was naive and didn’t know any better.

I work on a MacBook Pro, just because I’m one of those fanatic Apple fan boys. And Nicki Minaj is pretty great music to work to, but that’s just a personal preference.

MK: Who do you follow to stay on top of what’s going on in news?

BB: I read Nieman LabPoynterRomenesko and College Media Matters very closely.

MK: I’ve read that you once said there’s no better time for students who want to enter journalism. Why? 

BB: In a digital world, I think journalism can be more fun than it’s ever been. I know it is a grim outlook for many news organizations financially, and I know many people have lost jobs, and I don’t mean to dismiss that. But I think we have so many tools at our disposal that we can tell stories in ways that journalists never could before. That’s what this is all about: telling stories. And in an age where all the world’s information and resources can be accessed by something you can hold in your hand, the amount of stories we can tell and ways we can tell them is limitless.

MK: How do you get your news?

BB: I’m really mobile. I read so much more on my phone actually than I do on my computer. If I’m reading something that is really long, has beautiful photos or has some remarkable interactive — then I’ll read on my computer. But I spend a lot of time in elevators, waiting for the bus, walking on campus and at stoplights reading news stories on my phone. That also might be because I have way too many news apps on my phone, and I get push notifications all the time.

I subscribe to various email newsletters and email blasts from news organizations like the Houston ChronicleThe Texas TribuneReutersThe Washington Post and others. I scroll through those when I wake up in the morning, typically while I’m still in bed (again, on my phone).

I have online subscriptions to The New York Times and the Austin American-Statesman. I don’t get any newspapers delivered to my door. I wish I did — I love print. But the online subscription rates are just cheaper, and I got to budget. I do have an unhealthy amount of magazine subscriptions — i.e.: TIMENew YorkerTexas MonthlyAdvocate, OUT and a few others.

MK: What will you miss about UT-Austin?

BB: I’m going to miss the people; that’s what made the last four years here so memorable. It’s a little like high school again, you’re leaving behind your favorite teachers and mentors and all your friends are going different places. I definitely have that feeling of déjà vu.

MK: If you were giving people who might be interested in learning how to code one bit of advice, what would it be?

BB: I would tell people to just try it — just for thirty minutes. Complete the first few rounds of tutorials on codecademy, and see where you go from there. I think the word “coding” terrifies people. All it is, however, is learning the English language with a different set of rules. I cringe when I hear people say “learning to code is really tough for journalists,” because it isn’t. I am no expert by any means, and I only know how to poke around with a few different tools. Yet I can make something like the Student Media Map and theATtracker with the very limited knowledge that I have. There are so many resources out there that make it easy and so doable for anyone to do it. I really believe that if people just tried, then they would not feel so intimidated.

MK: Last question: What are some news apps that you like? Why?

BB: I love the Texas Tribune’s salaries explorer, just because I know its crazy popular and is a great example about how a news app can be executed. I’m a big reader, so I loved NPR’s Best Books of 2014 app. I also really look to the Chicago Tribune for inspiration. I especially love the different ways they visualize crime.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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