OpenNews: Why Develop in the Newsroom (part 2)

The journalism development community is filled with incredible people. This community of people—broadly described as “news developers” come from different backgrounds, have different areas of expertise, and impact journalism in different ways. But all of them are fascinating, and all offer compelling arguments for why other talented coders should join them in building new forms of journalism on the web.

This week, we’ve been asking some of the leaders of this community to explain why they do what they do. This is part two of a roundup of posts from folks answering the simple question: “Why Develop in the Newsroom?” Part one was posted on Wednesday. We’re doing this because we’re looking for people who love to code to join the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project as 2014 Fellows. As a Knight-Mozilla Fellow, you’ll spend 10 months in some of the best newsrooms in the world working on your own answer to the question we’ve asked people to answer this week.

Brian Boyer, who heads the News Applications team at National Public Radio, explains that “after nearly a decade in startups and corporate life, I grew tired of the products I was making.” He entered journalism and, he explains, the work spoke to him:

In my previous life I enjoyed the problem solving, the creativity, the process of making software. Programming is a fun and challenging career and getting to solve puzzles every day is pretty neat. But to what end? Making software to make money for people who have money to make software?

The day’s story could be a safety database or a voting guide or a warning system for floods – and for each, we ask “Who are our users? What are their needs?” We make software with a purpose, for people. The work you do in a newsroom helps people live their lives and participate in society.

Tasneem Raja, interactive editor at Mother Jones, writes about moving from traditional journalism to news applications because “I wanted to learn new tools and techniques for getting them online and in public, analyzing them at scale, and publishing the stories inside in whatever format would get the point across best.”

Ted Han, the developer on the DocumentCloud project, gives an account of using DocumentCloud to help get leaked documents onto the internet. News applications like Document Cloud are the start of something new, Han says:

Projects like DocumentCloud are part of an ecosystem of tools which have never before existed in journalism. Devs on these projects can help make journalists more powerful and dangerous, and information better accessible to citizens. While a vanguard has already proceeded us (people like Simon Willison and Adrian Holovaty of Django fame, David Nolen and Mike Bostock of the NYT, or DocumentCloud’s own emeritus Jeremy Ashkenas), there are so many more ways that developers can help improve the news and the civic sphere. Our forbearers have blazed a trail, but there’s still a civilization to build.

Ben Welsh, a database producer at the Los Angeles Times, writes about the opportunities available in journalism in an appeal straight to computer programmers:

Computer programmers, I believe you have it in you. You’re a curious, inventive, free-thinking lot. And there’s a way you can apply yourself that is more morally ambitious than a ridiculously violent video game or an empty money chase.

That is speaking truth to power. And it’s a career path that, with your skills, is so open to you today it might be shocking.

Greg Linch, who manages data and tech projects at the Washington Post, breaks down the “near limitless opportunities to solve interesting problems” in news. “Whether they’re hard journalistic problems or even hard computer science problems,” he says, “I’m ridiculously excited just thinking of all the possibilities.”

Ryan Pitts, who ran web development at The Spokesman-Review, and now works on data tools for CensusReporter (and is the developer of our own project, Source), tells an amazing story of the night code he wrote helped a elderly woman survive a snowstorm:

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.

Jacqui Maher, assistant editor of interactive news at the New York Times, gives a bullet-pointed list of the challenges she thinks engage developers in the newsroom. In the end, she makes the case as simply as I’ve ever seen: “Develop in the newsroom because you like challenges that come with rewards. Do it because you’ll love it.”

Loving what you do is important; passion counts. Developing in the newsroom is a chance for people that love to code to make a real impact on the world. And in 2014 we are looking for five people to spend ten months doing exactly that. As Knight-Mozilla Fellows you get to engage in the real challenges of journalism, get to spend time in the best newsrooms in the world, and get to write open-source code that makes an impact on the news and the world at large. Are you ready? Apply today.

PS. In New York City and curious to learn more about the fellowships? We’ll be holding an infosession next Friday, July 26 in Brooklyn. Come join us.