Writing code for journalism:
why I love what I do
About five years ago, one of those generational snowstorms buried the town I live in. I’ve got photos somewhere of the berms at the end of my driveway, towering over my head. The storm canceled school, collapsed roofs, and pretty much shut down Spokane for days.
As snow piled up the first night, the forecasts for the next few days were relentless. It was obvious we’d be busy at the newspaper where I worked as a web developer, so I slept downtown, afraid that even if I could get up the hill and home, there was no way I’d make it back down in the morning. The newsroom started the next day early, filing weather reports and cataloging damage, figuring out local agencies’ emergency plans, and marveling at photos from a community that wasn’t anywhere close to digging itself out.
Late that night, I was still camped out in the newsroom, tinkering with a project I hoped might cover the story differently online. Sometime after midnight, I posted an interactive feature. It was strapped together with a lot of duct tape and baling wire, but readers could find their neighborhood on a map and drop two kinds of markers: “I need help” and “I can help.”
I woke up the next morning to points on our map. People you don’t know using something you made is an incredible feeling, and that’s as true for me now as it was then in 2008.
The page also gave volunteers a way to reach out to neighbors who needed help, logging messages so I could shut things down in case of abuse. There was one message in the inbox that morning. It was from a high school kid with the day off and a snowshovel. He lived near an “I need help” marker on the map from an elderly woman was snowed in, and he wanted her to know he’d be by that morning to dig her out.
I stared at that message for a good long while.
It still breaks my heart in all sorts of ways. I’m not so good at building things with my hands and I’m too spooked to change the oil in my own car, but this one time I made a thing on the internet that brought two human beings together, and it made both of their lives better.
I still chase after that feeling. I get to do that every day.
Maybe journalism isn’t one of the noble professions, but it also doesn’t look like what you see on TV. It’s full of good people with noble intentions, and sometimes it looks like your face reflected in a computer monitor late at night, facepalming over code until you finally spot the semicolon that’s out of place.
I didn’t know any of that as a lit major a couple decades ago, although I suppose I gained a great appreciation for punctuation in the right place. But I did know that I couldn’t decide what I was most interested in because I was still interested in everything. And loved the way telling stories helps people understand the world around them, and discovered that if you’re lucky enough to work as a journalist, they’ll pay you to do it. Not much, not in my first job as a reporter, but I never had to quit learning new things.
A couple decades later, I’m still interested in knowing more about everything out there, and journalism still thinks that’s smart. Somewhere in there, one of the new things I learned was how to code, and the stories I tell as a web developer look different these days. Right now they revolve around census data, helping newsrooms dig out facts about their communities and answer questions like “How many people in our town live in poverty?” Which is the kind of thing you have to know before you tackle a question like “How do we fix it?”
I don’t know how many journalists self-identify with that kind of idealism, but the goal is implicit in what we do. We connect people with information that helps them live their lives better.
We’ve got all sorts of tools to make that happen, but we need more people who have mastered them. There are stories buried in datasets and statistics and geolocations, hidden in patterns of events that should have happened but never did. Some of them can’t be told best through conventional narrative, they need multimedia or interaction or thoughtful design on a mobile device. There aren’t enough journalists to tell all these stories, but there are an awful lot of people who need this kind of information. Communities don’t start to make good decisions until individuals understand the place where they live.
Even the big stories affect one person at a time. I’m so thankful that my friends at the paper let me post this photo, captured a few months ago at a public forum north of Spokane. Neighbors had gotten together to discuss a local crime, and the woman in the photo is reading one of the newspaper’s background stories about the case. A story reported and written by one of my colleagues, edited and photographed by more of my colleagues, and delivered to her cell phone on a mobile website that my team built. It’s a small moment, but it’s a moment that completely changed the way she thought about her town. It took a whole newsroom. It’s perfect.
The way I practice journalism looks like database columns and command lines and CSS, but the reason I practice journalism looks like this.
I chase after moments like it every day.
I spent 15 years in the newsroom The Spokesman-Review, the last 10 of it in web development. Right now I work for CensusReporter, building tools to help people explore census data. If writing code that changes people’s lives sounds interesting to you, the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project has an amazing fellowship program that embeds technologists in newsrooms. You should apply.