Why journalists should ‘show your work’ while learning & creating


Originally published by Matt Thompson on poynter.org on 24 October 2011. This excerpt is republished with permission. 


In a busy corner of the metajournalism world, a crowd of journalists are assembling what amounts to a public, open-source curriculum on how to do hacker journalism. In blogs, tweets, Git repositories, meetups and slide decks, they’re sharing code snippets, tutorials, data sets, How To’s and more, in ways that are often engaging and accessible to non-geeks.

If I lost you at “Git repositories,” let me back up a step. The process of becoming a hacker journalist is different for everyone, but the pattern is common. Eventually the tools of writers cease to be enough: Microsoft Word gives way to Excel, which gives way to MySQL. And then, almost without knowing it, you’re creating the tools yourself. Having conquered English, you start learning a few phrases in HTML, then PHP, then Python and Django. One day without warning, you find yourself tromping around a Git repository.[1] And liking it. A new journo-hacker has been born.

Right now, journalists just like you are publicly documenting their own process of learning and creating. And if any part of you finds this compelling, there’s never been a better time for you to join in.

Why the “show your work” ethos is catching on

I should clarify a few things.

First, this practice isn’t primarily about teaching you how to become a [better] coder. That’s really just a nice byproduct.

And although there are many points of entry into this network of public programmers, it’s a distributed phenomenon rather than a coordinated campaign. Like many things in the git-’er-done-minded “hacker/coder/data journalist/computer-assisted reporter” community, it doesn’t even really have a proper name. But it does have something of a rallying cry, borrowed from your high school calculus teacher and spread by the fast-growing muckraker mob in Chicago: “Show your work.”

Lastly, it’s not really new. Journalists on the NICAR mailing list and members of IRE have been incredibly generous with their ideas and knowledge for years. Folks like Derek Willis and Adrian Holovaty have been sharing their ideas online for the better part of a decade (in Willis’ case, even longer). As Willis pointed out to me by phone, the NICAR/IRE newsletter Uplink has been going for two decades. Outside of journalism, the origins of this cultural ethic have an even longer history, reaching back as far as science itself (yep, that again), which developed the expectation that experiments should be well-documented. It’s baked into the fabric of the Internet, the “view source” culture that celebrates and rewards openness.

And yes, said Brian Boyer, of the aforementioned Chicago mob, math class probably played a part.

What’s novel is the somewhat sudden and very public uptick in this phenomenon: more journalists are sharing their work than ever before. In his farewell post for the Chicago Tribune’s News Apps blog (note the post title), PANDA Project lead developer Chris Groskopf says: “We’ve found ourselves in the midst of an exploding community of news-oriented developers who are hell bent on using, contributing to, and releasing new open source code. There are now more than a dozen active news nerd blogs–almost all of them producing new open source code.”

Why? Willis points to several reasons. The barriers to entry are lower all around from the days when Uplink and IRE conferences were your best bet, he says. It’s simpler than ever to throw up a blog or a Tumblr, and the basic tools necessary to do this type of work are becoming easier and easier to master, or at least to get dangerous with. Also, more networking opportunities for journo-hackers means that the IRE conference isn’t your only opportunity to meet up with fellow travelers. Now, there are Hacks/Hackers meetups happening across the world, and most folks in this universe are in daily contact on Twitter and elsewhere online.

Another reason, says Willis, is that “we realize that our problems aren’t just our problems anymore, and maybe never have been just our problems.” While journalists used to imagine that their challenges were fairly unique, we’ve come to understand that we don’t have a monopoly on the need to gather, organize and sift through data, or to manipulate and visualize information. As the lines between media organizations and software companies have begun to blur, coders at news orgs and coders elsewhere have discovered they have a lot to share with one another.

Plus, once this movement started to get a foothold, whatever cultural resistance might have prevented newsrooms from opening up their processes and toolkits to potential competitors started to wither away. Now that organizations from the New York Times to the Bay Citizen to ProPublica to the Guardian are showing their work, it’s easier for coders in every newsroom to say, “We should do this too.” (Everyone I spoke to said that whatever resistance there might once have been to these ideas is pretty rare to find nowadays.)

I might also point to the rise in prominence and respect for journo-hackers in the newsroom as a reason more and more journalists are learning to code in public. Although there remain a few benighted corners of the industry where folks are still asking whether coding can be journalism, these skills are now in high demand in newsrooms both big and tiny. Michelle Minkoff — a freshly minted Associated Press programmer whose coding career began two years ago in Willis’ class at Medill — told me over the phone that she’s excited to have started in the industry at this time. While coders used to have to fight for their place in the newsroom, in Minkoff’s experience, the coders are — if anything — too much in demand. Everyone in the newsroom wants help with a data project.


Read the full article on Poynter.org.

[1] Git is software that manages revisions to files. It allows you to do things such as view previously saved versions of files, or work on a file in tandem with others. A “Git repository” is just a collection of files managed by Git. For more on version control software, check out this friendly guide.