This post was written by Ryan Graff of the Northwestern University Knight Lab and originally appeared on the Lab’s blog as part of a series of Q&As with smart people who are shaping the future of media. Follow the series here.
Last month Travis Swicegood announced he’d taken a job at the Texas Tribune that some of us might’ve assumed he already had: news apps and data editor. After all, Swicegood has been a staple and leader in the news developer community for a few years now, publishing two books, speaking at conferences, and shepherding Armstong, an open-source news platform. All that time he’d been director of technology, responsible for everything from keeping the servers up as Texas Tribune provided one of the few live streams of Texas Sen. Wendy Davis’ 13-hour filibuster to wrangling data for the site’s famous salary, prisons, and campaign finance databases.
Can you tell us about your new role and how it’s different from what your were doing before? Why was it important to make the change?
It might surprise a lot of people, but until this summer there wasn’t been an official news team at the Trib. We’ve done all of the interactive and data work so far without anyone focused solely on that. It’s been part data reporters like Ryan Murphy (our first news apps developer) and Becca Aaronson and part tech team. I was split responsibilities between business and editorial, which made it a constant balancing act. Ryan had to cover House and Senate hearings this past session and I was constantly switching gears.
This new structure means both Ryan and I are going to be able to focus full-time on everything that falls into the news apps category. We’ve done a ton in the last three years without a news apps team and I can’t wait to see what year four brings with the new structure!
How did you get your start in media?
Quite by accident. I started doing web design and development in the late 90s and one of my early clients was an alternative news site in El Paso, Texas, now called NewspaperTree.com It covered politics and culture in the area. I helped them build out parts of their custom CMS and loved their site, but my involvement was just technical. I moved on to other clients. Fast-forward a little over a decade and after spending time in the technology start-up world I was back to running my own consulting shop with a focus on non-profits and political causes while living in Lawrence, Kansas — the birthplace of the Django web framework which came out of the Lawrence Journal-World.
Austin had come across my radar as a place I wanted to move to. I started keeping an eye on what technology jobs were available here and I came across a job posting for the Texas Tribune. I wasn’t initially sold on working in the media. I had too many friends who had worked or were still working for papers and they weren’t happy — overworked, constantly worried about their job, and not feeling satisfied with the work they were enabled to do. I had never heard of the Texas Tribune before, but it seemed interesting since it was at the cross section of where I was doing my consulting work: non-profit and politics and policy.
I came to the interview expecting to meet a few interesting people and spend a day or two in Austin, then go on my way. When I heard about the projects that were in the works and the business story behind the organization, I was sold. Less than a month later, I was in Austin.
You have been very active in publishing and blogging. What inspires you? How do you decide what topics deserve a book or blog post?
I started blogging in 2004 on my personal site and have blogged on varying topics ever since. I enrolled in college (didn’t attend) with the intent of becoming a professor. The part of me that wanted to become a professor found an outlet explaining the solutions I’ve found to problems so others can learn from my experience.
It’s selfish, but the biggest reason I like helping others is that it forces me to learn more. I knew a lot about Git before I wrote my first book on it, but by the time I finished writing the book I had learned so much more that I felt like I had started out without knowing anything! Questioning your assumptions from the point of view of someone just starting out forces you really understand the topic or tool.
Tools and processes are the things I enjoy explaining the most. Talking about those two things gives me an opportunity to get others creating more great things. That’s not to say that it’s all in the tools and processes (see Pillar Management), but having a kick-ass text editor configuration or feeling completely confident when you’re experimenting with code because you know Git inside and out leads to better creativity. Getting people to the point that the tools disappear and become an extension of you is something I strive to do.
Have your goals changed since you started at Texas Tribune?
At the big picture level, not really. I left the start-up world in 2009 because I wanted to work on projects that could change the world. Almost three years in, and I still feel like the Texas Tribune is the place where I can best do that.
At a micro level, yes they have changed. Until this summer, editorial was always “the others.” I’ve talked at length about that being part of the problem of doing really amazing technology work in the newsroom. You can’t have an “us and them” mentality and expect to get anything amazing done.
It needs to be us. We’re all in it together and everyone on both sides of the equation needs to think about everyone else as equals rather than others. I hope my move over to the editorial side of things full-time is one step toward tearing down division in our newsroom.
I hope to get the journalists in our newsroom more interested in the code side of things. I’m not looking to turn them into programmers; just make them more aware of what guys like me and Ryan do. It’s not black magic and hopefully I can help them realize that.
Likewise, I want to get more programmers interested in journalism. Programmers and journalists are both trying to answer questions. The only difference is in the question. One asks how does this policy effect someone and how can I convey that in words. The other asks how can I solve the problem this user is having and how can I convey that in code.
What advice would you give to aspiring programmers looking to enter the media industry?
Find a mentor!
There’s a turning point in my career as a programmer that correlates directly with finding someone who inadvertently acted as a mentor. He was the lead programmer on an open-source unit testing framework for PHP. Having my ideas and contributions to the project vetted by him made me a better programmer and put me on the path my career took. I had no idea what a design pattern was, until he mentioned that I was using the Visitor pattern. He was able to point out the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. A mentor doesn’t have to be in-person either. Look to the amazing open-source projects with a strong mentorship culture. The Django project recently set up a new mailing list for developers who are looking to get started contributing to the project. It’s a less scary place than the django-developers mailing list to ask those “stupid questions” about getting started as a core contributor. When I was involved in the PHP community, there were members of the core PHP team who would take you under their wing and help you learn the ropes to become a contributor.
In the journalist programmer’s world, this is a new thing. We’re all so busy telling stories and building to the tools that help enable those that those communities aren’t as fleshed out, but that’s changing. The energy at NICAR is really picking up and there’s a lot of activity on the NICAR-L mailing list. There’s the PythonJourno‘s mailing list which is great. There’s a tribe forming of people at the cross section of programming and journalism that’s constantly growing.
Show up at NICAR and talk developers and journalists you respect. Hop on the mailing lists and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Asking questions is engrained in journalists, but lots of developers aren’t used to that.
Don’t become a specialist, but do become an expert then start over.
Had I specialized in the late nineties when I started programming professionally, I would have probably become a J2EE programmer. There were a lot of people who did that. They made a lot of money. There are still a lot of people who do that today. Many now have jobs that resemble a Dilbert cartoon. Specialization puts you in a box. Many managers love that. It’s easy for them to understand you, even if they don’t fully know what you do. You probably don’t want to work for those people. I want someone who can do everything, but is really good at their core competency. If you’re a programmer, I want you to be an amazing programmer (or show the signs of becoming one), but I also expect you to know a little bit about typography and layout, have a basic understanding of what information architecture is, and have the ability to think about your application in the context of multiple devices. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, but it’s what we have to do every day working in a newsroom.
I sang in a church choir through high school. The choir director was a principal, but his formal schooling was music. Music theory, to be exact. He was the first person I met who could make any instrument sound good the first time he picked it up. He’d fiddle with it for a few minutes as he learned how to make the instrument play certain notes, and then he could play the instrument and make it sound good. Now, that’s not to say he was amazing, but it sounded good.
Practicing as a programmer and experimenting with other tools can help you get to that point in programming. It really does take a long time, it was nearly a decade before everything just started to click for me, but now a new programming language is simply a new tool to solve a problem. Once I got to that point, however, I didn’t stop. I had no background in design, so I started talking to every designer who would listen to me and asked all sorts questions. Where do I start? What books should I read? I found mentors and am now trying to become a better designer.
Learn to communicate.
This might sound obvious, but it’s hard. It’s even harder for programmers. I’m constantly fighting my tendencies toward absolutes. Programmers live in a world of absolute right and wrong. Code runs, or it doesn’t. The data we need is available, or it isn’t. The real world is rarely so cut and dried, and others outside our world aren’t normally used to communication that is absolute.
Why is technology important to the media industry?
The media industry doesn’t exist without technology. Pamphlets, books, newspapers, radio programs, TV news, and now digital-only news websites like the Texas Tribune — not one of these exists in absence of technology.
What journalists do is distill and distribute information using technology — it’s just a matter what technology they use. Getting caught up on “technology” as some other thing that exists out there is a problem. The modern journalist needs to have technology and its possible uses so engrained into their every day process that they don’t even realize they’re using it.
Put another way, to be a journalist is to be a technologist. Media companies are technology companies. Some journalists and media companies already understand this. They’re the journalists who are taking the time to learn to code. They’re the companies investing in technology and those who can create it. They’re the ones who are still going to be around and thriving in the next decade.
Who is the most creative technologist out there right now? What companies or media outlets that we might not know about are doing exciting, innovative media, tech work?
Paravel Design is doing amazing work. The designs that come out of there are mind blowing, but what’s better is that they’re sharing their knowledge. They release so much code and spend so much time blogging and talking, it’s crazy. I don’t know where they find all of the time.
How can people use technology to create change in the world?
By telling stories. There’s so much raw data out there that it’s impossible to make sense of it all. You have to be a domain expert to understand most state and federal data on how your local high school is doing. So if public education is what you’re passionate about, find some data, become that expert, and tell a story around it. Be the user’s guide through the data so they can explore.
What is good design?
“Any fool can write code that a computer can understand. Good programmers write code that humans can understand.” -Martin Fowler
Stay with me, I know this is a design question, but when you write code you are designing. Fowler is focusing on the design of code, but I believe it’s equally valid for visual design. When you use something that’s been designed by someone who really understands the problem they’re trying to solve, it shows regardless of whether that something is code, a coffee machine, or a cell phone.
What is the biggest luxury in your life?
A good set of noise-reducing earbuds. They let me disappear from where I’m at and focus 100% on something.
What could the world use a little more of?
Gummy bears. There’s never enough gummy bears.
What could the world use a little less of?
Misunderstandings. They’re at the root of most strife, big or small.
Ryan Graff joined the Northwestern University Knight Lab in October 2011. He previously held a variety of newsroom positions — from arts and entertainment editor to business reporter — at newspapers around Colorado before moving to magazines and the web. In 2008 he won a News21 Fellowship from the Carnegie and Knight foundations to come up with innovative ways to report on and communicate the economic impact of energy development in the West. He holds an MSJ from the Medill School of Journalism and a certificate in media management from Northwestern’s Media Management Center. Immediately prior to joining the Lab, Graff led marketing and public relations efforts in the Middle East.
The Knight Lab is a team of technologists, journalists, designers and educators working to advance news media innovation through exploration and experimentation. Straddling the sciences and the humanities the Lab develops projects, prototypes and innovative bits of code that help make information meaningful, and promote quality journalism, storytelling and content on the internet. The Knight Lab is a joint initiative of Northwestern University’s Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Medill School of Journalism. The Lab was launched and is sustained by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the National Science Foundation.