ProPublica’s Sisi Wei on teaching journalists to code: It’s ‘just like learning a foreign language’

Sisi Wei’s career as an investigative journalist and developer has been “both straightforward and crazy at the same time,” she said. It’s a path she figured out on her own, cobbling together design and graphics internships and jobs on her way to becoming a news apps developer at ProPublica.

In a way, she’s now helping other journalists do the same by learning to code.

Wei cofounded Code With Me, which held several events to teach journalists how to code. Wei, a guest faculty member at last week’s ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, spoke with Poynter via email about how ProPublica has changed, building games for journalism and teaching journalists to code. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How has ProPublica changed since you started there?

I started at ProPublica three years ago, and I think I’ve almost seen the staff double in size, which is kind of crazy. We’ve gotten a lot bigger. We’ve moved to a new office. The team that I’m on specifically has doubled in size. We went from about four to five people to maybe 10 to 11 people, including folks like fellows and interns that come in and out every year. We’ve been an extremely healthy company as a nonprofit, getting more and more financially secure and healthy, and that’s been amazing here. But also in terms of the editorial work, we’ve done more projects every year. And obviously the reporter side of the company has gotten larger, too, as well as the business side. It feels like a startup that is really starting to accelerate and grow quickly.

The one thing I have noticed that’s pretty cool as well is how ProPublica hasn’t changed. We don’t have a lot of turnover. When I was hired, on my team only one other full time staff person had ever left, and I was hired to fill his role. And since then, no one has left the team. And that’s kind of amazing because I get to work with the same fantastic people every day and we learn together and grow together.

You co-founded Code With Me, which teaches journalists how to code. What are a few things you’ve learned about bringing these two worlds together?

I’ve learned a lot. There are a few things that you notice right away. Certain journalists with certain backgrounds take to coding much more quickly because of things people might not think are related right away, but once you think about them, it makes a lot of sense. So for example, we found that anyone who has a copy editing background does really well programming because they’re already fine-tuned to paying attention to details in the actual letters and punctuation of words. And a lot of programming is getting those fine details of literally what you type and the punctuation that goes around it correct so the computer can actually understand the commands you’re issuing. We also found that people who already do data journalism, people who are in the NICAR community, they’re already really interested in data analysis, and so for them, learning how to code either helps them accomplish their data analysis more quickly, or it allows them to do an interactive presentation of the analysis that they do. So they can already see how it’s useful to them as journalists. We’ve found there’s a lot of great compatibility there, as well.

Otherwise, the thing we really try to do at Code With Me is to tell people that coding can be difficult, but it can also be easy, and it’s really a matter of perspective. A lot of times, it sounds like such a foreign concept that people become scared of it without even having tried it. And our goal was really to start everyone off with the very simple idea that coding is just like learning a foreign language. Instead of speaking to someone who speaks Greek or Russian or Chinese, instead you’re speaking to a machine that speaks code, and there are all of these dialects that you can learn, different ways to speak to the machine, but it really is just a way of communicating what you want it to do.

And we learned anyone is capable of learning these things if you don’t start from a place of fear.

One of the things you’re interested in is the role of games in journalism. You’re actually working on one now, right?

I love news games, and I think that the industry hasn’t really been making a lot of them. I think we make a lot of playful interactives that are fun in nature but don’t actually take advantage of what an actual game can bring to a journalism experience. ProPublica is working on something right now, we’ve been working on it on and off between other large projects, so I still don’t know when it’s going to come out. But what I’m really excited about is it’s not gamification. It’s not taking game concepts and just adding them on as another layer to an interactive graphic, but rather it really, genuinely, in and of itself, is a game. The most important thing, honestly, is games allow us to experience things that other storytelling formats don’t get to do. Not everything should be a game. But when you find a story that has a lot of systematic inner workings that you really need a simulation to dig into, that’s a great potential. But the other potential is decision making – when games allow people to make decisions and be held responsible for them later on and you know what the consequences of your actions are. And that invites a level of participation that other mediums just can’t provide.

I’m really excited for the game that we’re making, and I’m hoping that once it comes out, it really helps people see what games can do for a story.

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