May 12, 2015

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been profiling college journalists who are making amazing Web interactives for their on-campus publications.

In today’s column, you’ll meet Sierra Morgan, a senior at the University of Oregon who works as the The Daily Emerald’s Web developer.

But first a little bit about the The Daily Emerald, one of the most innovative college media organizations in the country. In addition to its editorial operations, The Emerald also houses a student-run digital agency, a real estate service for students and a photo booth—all of which help subsidize the ad-driven business model of the publication.

In addition, the site publishes a Instagram photo feed of pictures taken near the campus (and makes the code available to anyone who wants to use it at another publication.)

But lest you think such services preclude good journalism, take a look at some of the really well-reported web features that Sierra and her colleagues have worked on this year. They’ve created extensive Web packages covering everything from the University of Oregon Library, to profiles of a graduate student seeking asylum and a Heisman Trophy contender, to a deep dive into faculty diversity at the university.

All of those pieces were either designed or developed by Sierra, a senior who enjoys both front-end development and design. We chatted about her work at The Emerald, which is one of the few college newspapers in the country that makes all of its code available online, for anyone to modify and use for another publication.

Sierra Morgan, submitted photo.

Sierra Morgan, submitted photo.

MK: One of the things I really like about the Daily Emerald is that it is an open source publication, and a lot of the code is up online. What’s the benefit of open sourcing the newspaper’s code?

SM: At the Emerald we are all about pushing the envelope. We have found that the best ideas come to fruition through collaboration and an open idea marketplace. I believe open source code contributes to the idea marketplace. I have gained both ideas and knowledge by going through open sourced files, so by offering our code I would hope we inspire others to innovate and learn as well.

MK: I really like your features on the hockey team and the football team. Why did you decide to give them this treatment? How long did it take to code?  

SM: The Mariota for Heisman 2014 was a huge news story – Mariota is the University of Oregon’s first Heisman winner. My partner, David Baggs, and I knew it was something we wanted to cover. Mariota is an outstanding human being and we thought he deserved an incredible story and we sought to deliver one.

As for the hockey story, we debated covering another sports story right after the Heisman piece and the hockey story needed coverage. These boys were breaking their bodies and still playing, and this story needed to be reported on for the sake of injury awareness. The reporter, Anne Yilmaz, had great rapport with the team and she pitched and delivered a phenomenal story we couldn’t ignore.

Our projects take about a month from pitch date to delivery.

MK: Did you code before college? How did you learn? 

SM: I started coding a little over a year ago with absolutely no previous knowledge. Ivar Vong, The Marshall Project’s Director of Technology who was previously the Emerald’s Director of Technology, started a weekly workshop on campus that was designed to teach students how to code.

Ivar was always willing to help me out and teach me new things. I was very curious about coding and had the motivation to teach myself a lot of what I currently know.

Stack Overflow, open source code, and websites such as codecademy got me started. I have taken a few courses at the University but have found that I learn better through my own trial and error process.

MK: What’s your workflow like? What tools do you use to make your life easier? Software? Hardware?

SM: At the beginning of each month the Emerald’s editors, my partner and myself sit down and discuss pitches for innovation projects, which is what we call our long-form webpage stories. Once we agree on a story we get in contact with the reporter and map out a plan for delivery.

About halfway through the month my partner and I receive the final draft of the story. After we both have read through it, David designs what it will look like and I code the final product about a week and a half or so before we launch it.

Sublime Text is my favorite text editor, and I use Bootstrap framework for making my webpages responsive on different platforms.

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

SM: Jeremy Bowers from The New York Times has been a great resource. He’s answered late e-mails and Skyped in to talk to us about newsroom dev.

Also at The New York Times, Derek Watkins is a good follow for interactive mapping and graphics.

Vox is great inspiration, they do some cool things with design.

Rob Denton and John Heasly from The Register-Guard are both great resources and are both extremely helpful. Andy Rossback and Ivar Vong at The Marshall Project are both good follows. And the list could go on! All of the people above and their various news outlets keep me on my toes with cool stuff to aspire to.

MK: #adviceforyoungjournalists? 

SM: Never be discouraged by no. If there is ambition behind something, you can make it happen.

MK: The Daily Emerald publishes stats of how many people look at a piece on the piece itself. I have only recently starting seeing this and was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

SM: We are currently in the process of switching our website to a new WordPress theme and that is one of the features of the theme. It’s a feature we haven’t discussed in too much detail.

MK: What will you miss about Oregon when you graduate?

SM: I am going to miss football — I’m a pretty big fan, the network of professors that are always pushing for you to succeed and the extremely talented people I’ve had the privilege to collaborate and create with.

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

SM: Be curious. If you are interested in how things work dig in, don’t be afraid to Google it. The Internet can be your best teacher.

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

SM: In all honesty I don’t have any news apps, I use Twitter to follow all the large news outlets such as the NYT, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, Boston Globe, AP, Register-Guard, TIME, etc. I find that I get a better understanding of overall news rather than just one perspective.

MK: What are your career plans after college and what are you most proud of?

SM: I will have a career in advertising as a front-end dev.

I hope to someday work for an agency that can predict future trends in digital communications and thus be on the cutting edge of digital advertising.

Currently I am proud of where I am. A year ago, if you would have told me I would be developing long-form news stories, university-sponsored websites and looking ahead to internships in Web dev, I would have given you a blank stare.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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

More News

Back to News