This summer, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks on the East Coast visiting a range of digital media organizations. I had been planning to do this for quite some time, really embed with the most prominent teams doing data and programming in media, with the goal of bringing back real-world insight to the classroom. So I devised my own “fellowship,” supported by funding from my university, to spend time in New York City and Washington. I got an amazing crash course in the current state of digital media.
I spent four weeks in New York City, the majority of my time with ProPublica. I was also able to take several meetings at various other locations, including WNYC, The New York Times, BuzzFeed and Tumblr, as well as visit with journalism educators at The New School, CUNY and Columbia University. My final week, I headed to D.C. for a day at NPR. Along the way, I got to spend time with media friends and former students catching up on what’s new in their careers. Here are a few of the things I learned.
Playing to Strengths and Niches
This may seem obvious, but each newsroom is unique and has its own vibe. ProPublica has a generally more serious tone that complements their investigative coverage. The main projects I watched being launched were the reboot of Dollars for Docs and the Surgeon Scorecard, both important resources to better inform the public about the quality of their health care. WNYC has a decidedly local feel, and their projects uniquely reflect life in New York.
NPR is driven by its audio storytelling, which was evident in a meeting I attended in which a visual component was being considered for a radio story on the Web. Another interactive story, How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality, quizzes users on their ability to assess the quality of audio files. BuzzFeed’s feel is as playful as a kitten video, even as they move into more investigative work. But there is definitely a sense of innovation, urgency and drive, much like a technology company.
Data: Not Just Numbers Anymore
One of the misconceptions about working with data is that it’s all numbers, charts and graphs. That’s not always the case, as was demonstrated to me by ProPublica developer Sisi Wei when she showed me the project Money as a Weapons System. This project analyzes the reporting on military funding spent in Afghanistan that was characterized as earmarked for “urgent humanitarian” needs. The project organizes the descriptions of these payments into several categories that the money represented: Weapon System, Apology, Friendship Bracelet, Folded Flag, Bottomless Pit and abandoned projects — represented by the emoticon ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. For the academics out there, this is basically a framing analysis of the documentation associated with these payments.
Make Your Own Data
While I was visiting WNYC, developer Noah Veltman showed me the project In Search of the Longest Subway Ride. It’s a program that accompanies an audio report and looks at the vast NYC subway system to determine the longest one-way distance. It checks more than 200 billion possibilities. To create this program, distances between each station had to be determined. While the station names and locations exist, the distances had not been calculated. But that information is available. It just took several Google Map searches. The site gives users a chance to assess their own longest ride. According to the website, a user’s search even found a longer route than the initial computer analysis!
New Roles are Emerging
At BuzzFeed, I met with Alice DuBois, Director of Editorial Products, and Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Editor for Mobile, BuzzFeed News. My meetings with them influenced my thinking about product management in a media organization. This is a loosely defined role and often goes by other titles, like project, program or service manager, or various editorial and marketing roles. It’s origins are in software development, and these professionals are responsible for the overall strategy and execution of a product. This can include identifying user needs, defining functionality, coordinating technology resources and managing a product’s life cycle. Digital media products can encompass website redesign, creation of special project sites, developing mobile products and more. I’m beginning to see this role as an emerging opportunity for communication students who exemplify strong leadership and communication skills, but have the tech savvy to work in a highly technology-based environment.
Focus on Audiences and Engagement
Audience development is much-discussed these days in media organizations. At The New York Times, I met with James Robinson, Director of News Analytics. This role, in research and development, is focused on metrics meant to better understand audiences and impact. Andrew Losowsky of the Coral Project, a collaboration of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, is working to improve community on news sites. Both these activities represent progressive approaches to better understanding the relationship with the audience, and also represent new career paths for communication students.
Many data organizations also view their role as tool developer. They create productivity and analytical tools that can be shared within and outside their newsrooms. At NPR, I spoke with news apps developer Tyler Fisher about their audience intelligence tools, designed to bring analytics into journalists’ work processes, helping identify social media activity on various platforms over time, where traffic to their stories originates and what users do when they leave a story. NPR has also developed an app template, so developers aren’t reinventing every time they start a new project. They use GitHub to openly share code with other developers.
Meetings are Quick and Communication Open
Most of the newsrooms I visited had regular meetings, scrum-like in their format, with members standing and giving updates on what they had worked on, were planning to work on and any problems. At NPR, they’re not even allowed to lean. The goal is to not get too comfortable, so the meetings are quick and painless. Communication across the organizations I visited was routinely handled by open-source productivity tools, like Slack and GitHub.
The most obvious takeaway from my trip is that the activity of developing news applications is quickly becoming a complex proficiency. No longer are we talking about a few charts that let the user hover over a bar to see the data points. These projects have unique approaches, interfaces and applications of data that are customized and innovative. These roles will continue to be in demand as the leading organizations charge ahead and other media companies strive to assemble people with these skill sets.
It was fun to catch up with many former students along the way to hear about the progress of their careers. They work at The New York Times, NPR, United Nations and for various other private and public organizations integrating digital skills and tools in a range of functions. I am always proud to see Texas State alumni thriving in their professional and personal lives.
I want to thank everyone who welcomed me into their organizations during my East Coast media expedition. Having direct exposure to professional issues and practices is a great benefit to curriculum and students, and I am grateful for their generosity of time and expertise. Along with a head full of learning, I attended a Daily Show taping, got a few good slices of New York pizza and did a lot of walking around ogling skyscrapers and landmarks. It was a fantastic summer. I return to the classroom with fresh ideas from the real world, ready to challenge and inspire the next generation of digital professionals.
All photos by Cindy Royal.
Cindy Royal is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University, where she teaches Web design and digital media topics. During the 2013-2014 academic year, she was in residence at Stanford University as a Knight Journalism Fellow, working on a platform to teach programming skills to journalists. In 2013, she was awarded the Charles E. Scripps Journalism and Mass Communication Teacher of the Year, presented by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the Scripps Howard Foundation. More information can be found at cindyroyal.com.