7 Strategies to effectively juggle between writing stories and software


Working as a data journalist means juggling writing stories and writing software. And even the most seasoned of us still have to sometimes re-remember how we wrote a script (documentation is key!) or more often why. Thus, we came up with seven guiding principles that we think makes it easier to manage these tasks.

1. Cron is your friend

Cron tabs help you script code on a server at regular intervals. This is much easier than setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to run a script from your work laptop at some awful hour.

Image: Cron.

2. Ugly code is good code if it does what you intend it to do

While it’s smart to write code that can go into production, often the scripts we write only need to do one thing (and not always well!) Unless you code has some sort of public facing portion, focus on getting the results you want so that you can spend more time reporting.

3. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box on data sources

We often gather data from APIs, open records requests, and databases, but data exists beyond that. For example, statements made on television by local politicians aren’t often collected into a single dataset. Collecting this data for the first time could lead to interesting stories and future reporting targets.

4. You don’t always need code

Picking up a phone may save you an entire day or two of work.

Image: a journalist on the phone questioning about the EU telecom package. Source: European Parliament.

5. Use your newsroom

Even if you’re a lonely coder in a newsroom, chances are some reporter has already tried to look at the data you’re looking at or at the very least has heard about it.

6. The data may not not be in one place

Much data that is collected across the country isn’t aggregated at the federal level. Pulling and combining data reported to state agencies can set your work apart.

7. If possible, open source

We’re all in this together, so if you solved a hard problem, or gathered data that seems relevant beyond your immediate newsroom, why not share it with the world? You can always publish your code or data here.

The news won’t stop and neither will the deadlines. It’s key to have tools and systems in place that allow us to do our best work without thinking about the specifics. Document your work and share it with your community. The more we share our work and data, the more we can focus on telling the best stories about our communities. And hopefully we’ll make democracy a little better, too.

This is an edited version of an article originally published by Source (CC BY 3.0). Image: Thomas Hawk.