A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2008 Online News Association conference in Washington DC. Laura Cochran of the Washington Post invited me to join a panel on mapping crime, along with USAToday datacruncher Paul Overberg and LA Times power couple Sean Connelly and Katy Newton.
The conference got off to an inauspicious start when Tina Brown capped off a terrible keynote Q&A by called a journalism student an "easy lay". Fortunately, the How We Built It track featuring MSNBC, New York Times, Las Vegas Sun and others was a perfect way to spend a conference Friday. News organizations producing interactive pieces for the web described the various challenges they encountered, and it was fascinating to hear about the sausage-making process from the inside.
One of the most important things I learned in this series of talks is that no one likes their IT department, not even at the New York Times. Presenters repeatedly described ways in which they had to circumvent or overrule their own IT infrastructures to get anything interesting done. Two stood out. I asked the designers and developers at the Las Vegas Sun about the political/technical environment in their organization that allowed them to explore and refine iterative, agile production methods, and they said that it was necessary for them to go straight to the top for a mandate from the editor to give the group decision-making power over their development and deployment environment. Matt Ericson and Aron Pilhofer of the NYT described a more circuitous approach. Apparently, the NYTimes.com online election coverage is hosted entirely on Amazon's pay-as-you-go EC2 service, and totally detached from the content management and other server infrastructure at the Times. They use Ruby on Rails and other open-source software components to develop and deploy their work, and their seven-person team is wholly responsible for the care and feeding of these servers. This was a shocking thing to learn, and it raised my opinion of the NYT team by a solid order of magnitude.
Despite such a high-level of problem solving ingenuity, the majority of people in the business are journalists first and programmers last. The technical proficiency and funding available to publishers less blessed or lucky than the major dailies is substantially lower, and forces them into products like Caspio. This company had a substantial percentage of ONA attendees by the short hairs with their hosted solutions for data-driven web pages and mashups. I'm convinced that this is bad news, but I'm already predisposed to suspicion of turnkey software for this kind of work. I've also read plenty about the product in particular from journalist/technologist Derek Willis, who offers six reasons to look past Caspio in his blog archives.
The silver lining on this particular cloud is Django, the Python web framework developed by Simon Willison, Adrian Holovaty, and others. Django is finding a solid niche in the journalism world as a thoughtful, educated, D.I.Y. response to hosted rentware, and a kind of software Schelling point for journalists looking to really understand data-driven reporting.
The end-of-conference Online Journalism Awards ceremony was a parade of excellent interactive and data-driven work. The impression I got here was of deadline-motivated ingenuity on a tight budget. My co-panelists Sean and Katy especially illustrate the point with their 2007 winner Not Just A Number, a look at homicide in Oakland. Despite focusing on the same geographical area and the same topic, it's such a wildly different project from our Oakland Crimespotting. By narrowing their sights to the year's killings and entering the community itself to talk with those affected, Not Just A Number shows how narrative rigor can color statistical data with a backstory.
Overall, the conference had a distinctly different feel than the tech-oriented events I generally participate in. For one, there's an undercurrent of a siege mentality in journalism right now, with newsrooms cutting staff and print operations frozen stiff in the headlights of the internet. The focus on narrative and story gives a softer edge and an escape valve, though - this group is not primarily a tech-driven community, but they catch on to new developments quickly and bend them into the service of storytelling.
I've never met an IT department that worked well from a developer's point of view. Their job is to be the bricks and mortar and getting them to do anything new is always a pain in the ass. Thank god I'm out of that industry.
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