OpenNews: Why Develop in the Newsroom (part 1)

One month from today, our search for our 2014 Knight-Mozilla Fellows come to a close. In the thirty days between now and then, news will break that will change the way you understand the world around you. It may be local, it may be national, it may have global reach. As with most news, you don’t know it’s coming until it’s upon you, and the way it breaks is unpredictable. That immediacy and unpredictability poses a challenge for the talented developers that work in newsrooms, but they wake up every day ready to face it.

As we talk with people about the fellowships, one question keeps coming up: I’m a talented coder—why develop in the newsroom? So this week, one month out from our deadline to apply, we’ve posed that very question to people who do this for a living. Each answer is unique, and worth a full read on its own—but a few important callouts are featured here.

For Derek Willis, who works on political and election-related applications and APIs New York Times, journalism offered “a beautiful opportunity, an underbelly filled with ever-changing stories and challenges, and a chance to make an impact beyond the web.” Willis continues:

If you’re interested in contributing to our shared civic life, where we learn about the issues that define us and our future, there are few better places to be. We are not campaigners in the usual sense, but our mission is a better-informed and active citizenry, and newsrooms have a built-in platform for driving that effort. We do things that are not popular in the conventional sense but are necessary for a free society or shed light on an important issue. Newsrooms are about war and peace, laughter and pain and every aspect of our world.

Miranda Mulligan, who heads up the KnightLab at Northwestern University, sees opportunity for innovation in news today: “There are few moments in time more innovative, entrepreneurial and exciting than right now in the news industry,” she writes.

Chris Keller, a data journalist and technologist for Southen California Public Radio, has found that newsroom development has taught him lessons beyond the code itself:

These lessons have very little to do with classes, functions and syntax and everything to do with helping to reinforce the core mission of journalism: hold those in power accountable, help people make sense of the world around them and celebrate their place in it.

Alan Palazzolo, who codes at the local news organization MinnPost, came into the newsroom after being a more traditional developer. It was the growing journalism-code community’s commitment to open-source that attracted him: “One of the biggest things that drew me to the newsroom was seeing some of the amazing code that folks were producing in newsrooms and putting up on Github,” Palazzolo explains.

Michelle Minkoff, a journalist-programmer at the Associated Press, writes an extensive lists of reasons to develop in the newsroom. One is the colleagues you’ll find in the newsroom itself:

Journalists are some of the most interesting personalities I know — people who literally learn, and impart that knowledge to others, for a living. The subject matter is always shifting, and never boring, so the people aren’t boring. Your colleagues will provide fascinating conversation, and stretch your mind. They’ll embrace your eccentricities if you embrace theirs. Life is more fun this way.

Tiff Fehr, a UX engineer at the New York Times, compares newsrooms to startups and finds that “lack of diversity in tech startups is a ongoing challenge.” Working in news, Fehr writes, “means being part of an industry that currently does a better job discussing, valuing and hiring diverse backgrounds and people.”

Finally, the entire development team at ProPublica wrote lengthy and GIF-laden argument for coding in the newsroom. Every one of their points makes a clear case, but the most powerful is the simplest:

Why not use your powers for good? Make apps that hold doctors accountable, show inequality in schools and reverse-engineer political targeting. Help readers make sure the nursing home they’re considering doesn’t have years and years of deficiencies. Or help voters look up whether their representative is for or against SOPA and PIPA. Let other journalists and researchers easily see how nonprofits spent their money.

These are just a few of the reasons to write code in the newsroom. We’ll excerpt more pieces as the week progresses.

As a 2014 Knight-Mozilla Fellow, as you spend 10 months at some of the greatest news organizations in the world, writing code, hacking with collaborators, and helping to push journalism forward, you’ll answer this question in your own way. So apply today—on August 17th, the window to apply closes for good.

PS. If you’re in New York City next Friday, we’re hosting an in-person infosession about the fellowships and you should totally come.