Why develop in the newsroom

The Knight-Mozilla Fellowship is an excellent opportunity for developers, hackers and data-minded journalists to grow their skills in some excellent newsrooms around the world. Fellow data nerds (and friends) like Tasneem Raja, Ben Welsh and Chris Keller wrote about why they code in the newsroom last year. For the next crop of fellows, I give you my take (But apply first. Applications close August 16).

Code that means something

I'm often asked why I code for a non-profit journalism organization and not some VC-backed startup in Silicon Valley. I'd like to say it's because I believe more in journalism than the money chase but that's a lie.

I develop in a newsroom because, honestly, it's just plain fun.

On any given day you may have to write a web crawler to harvest crime logs from your local law enforcement agency or use Mechanical Turk to crowdsource analysis of PDFs you received from a public records request.

On other days you'll need a better map than Google offers and end up creating your own slippy map tileset. Or you may start picking up libraries like pandas and SPSS to do some serious data analysis on a 25 GB data dump you're trying to clean in another Terminal window.

Needless to say, you'll stay busy and you'll become a better developer than you ever thought.

And in the process of writing some of the most bespoke, gnarly, object-oriented, abstract code in the world, you end up actually making a difference. (Okay, so maybe I do believe in journalism). You may even contribute code back to the general software world that people will fall in love with. Ever heard of Django or Backbone?

Community

The Internet is full of trolls. And software developers are some of the worst. Just read the some of comments on Hacker News to see what I'm talking about.

Luckily, our ilk seems to be a little nicer.

The folks in the NICAR community are some of the brightest and humble people you'll meet. Whether you have a question about APIs or about the legality of scraping a federal website, someone will aide you.

And most recently, OpenNews has become the place for people in the journalism / developer world to share their code and ideas. The folks there are really amazing and are trying to build the best community possible. SRCCON is proof of that (hope to see you there!).

Impact

While many software developers write some amazing open-source code that does truly affect change (Linux for example), it's not often the code you write influences the politics of your community.

This all came home for me when an interactive map I created on the rise of opiate prescriptions in Veterans Affairs Hospitals was used with articles published by the reporter I worked with as part of a series of House Veterans Affairs Committee meetings. While the map alone did not lead to that outcome, it was amazing to see how a project I built created change. Real change.

While I started off as a reporter, I've always been a computer geek and it wasn't until recently that I realized I could combine two passions I've always had: software and storytelling.

The Future

While computer-assisted reporting isn't a new thing, I believe working as a news developer is one of the few jobs that really feels 21st Century. You get to use software and the Internet to inform the public. While it's not hoverboards or dinosaurs with lasers, I think this is as Marty McFly as one can get.

So what are you waiting for? Apply today.