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Jan. 16, 2015, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

What Knight-Mozilla OpenNews has learned about preparing non-journalists for the newsroom

What would you tell someone who’s never worked in a newsroom what it’s like to work in journalism?

Since 2011, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews has selected 26 coders, developers, and technologists for their competitive fellowship program, which embeds fellows in news organizations for 10-month stints meant to educate both the organization and the individual. Of those 26 fellows, says editorial lead Erin Kissane, only about seven had previous experience in journalism. “It’s mostly the case that they’re interested in journalism and might be fans, but haven’t had direct newsroom experience,” she says.

The newsroom can be an intimidating place for newcomers. The journalism community has lots of rules, traditions and sacred cows that outsiders might not intuit or expect. “The community, broadly speaking, is warm, generous and helpful, but it’s also very passionate and focused and intense and very heads down, especially when under a deadline. And everyone is always under a deadline,” Kissane says. “If a fellow is already feeling out of it culturally, just the intensity of newsroom work and personalities involved can be off-putting or startling.”

After some rough patches in the first couple of years, the OpenNews team — which also includes tech lead Ryan Pitts, program manager Erika Owens and director Dan Sinker, who launched a few tweaks to its website design today — decided they needed to do more to help guide the OpenNews fellows through their entry into the world of journalism.

Marcos Vanetta is a 2014 OpenNews fellow who spent his year working at The Texas Tribune. In an email, he laid out a few of the surprises he encountered in his first foray into journalism, including hard deadlines and thinking in terms of stories. “Bugs are not optional,” he writes. “In software we are used to make mistakes and correct them later. We can always fix that later and in the worst case, we have a backup. In news, you can’t make mistakes — there is a reputation to take care of. The editorial team is not as used to failure as developers are.”

The biggest problem OpenNews has had with the fellowship program is communicating expectations. Whether it’s about what kind of work fellows are expected to do or what kind of supervision news partners are expected to provide, making sure everyone is on the same page has proved more difficult than expected. For example, at an OpenNews onboarding event in Los Angeles this week, 2013 fellow Brian Abelson described his experience with communication trouble during his fellowship at The New York Times.

“His supervisor was Aron Pilhofer at The New York Times, and they would often be at the same conference together. So Brian thought: Everyone knows where I am, I’m all set,” says Owens. “But it turned out, no one else knew he was there, so it was very confusing for them.”

Both Owens and Kissane pointed out the instability inherent to being a newsroom in the 2010s, which can make it even harder to create a stable environment in which fellows can work and learn. For example, in 2014, while Harlo Holmes was a fellow, Pilhofer left The New York Times to work for The Guardian; part of OpenNews’ mission is now to better prepare fellows for these eventualities.

But even if the assigned newsroom mentor sticks around, it can still be hard to predict what each newsroom will be like, especially considering the gulf between big organizations like The Guardian or L.A. Times and smaller, newer places, like Internews Kenya or ProPublica. “We can talk about newsroom culture, but the culture of the organization also varies, so we’re trying to do an on-boarding that doesn’t present journalism as a monolithic culture,” Kissane says.

OpenNews fellows have always participated in an orientation, though in 2012 the on-boarding was remote. In 2013, fellows met with IDEO as part of the process. “We actually did a great exercise during our on-boarding where IDEO came in and gave us ‘ethnography training,'” Abelson says. “We went around to different people in The Boston Globe newsroom and interviewed them, figuring out their work process and and the sources of their frustration. When I started at the Times, I tried to talk to as many people as I could using that same model.”

Over time, the on-boarding process has gotten more intense. In addition to the usual logistics, OpenNews introduced a project-oriented element in which fellows have to work together on a data set with the intention of building a publishable end product.

“What we try to do now is get people immersed in a genuine newsroom project right away. About half of that is, it’s good for them to work together on something they can see and have it be public in some form,” says Kissane. “The other half is, it’s a gentle way, with water wings, of throwing them into the deep end of newsroom work and deadlines.”

Last year, fellows met with representatives from ProPublica to work on a news app using tire safety data. But ultimately they were unable to publish the project due to “journalistic problems with verifying conclusions and data.” According to Kissane, the experience turned out to be a learning moment for fellows about how to get the information you need in a newsroom.

“You need to pick up the phone and call people to get answers to questions that may not be in a data set published to the Internet,” she says. “That may not be the first thing you think of if you don’t come from a reporting culture.”

This year, fellows are meeting with representatives from the California Civic Data Coalition — which includes the Center for Investigative Reporting, the L.A. Times Data Desk and the Stanford Journalism Program — to work together with CalAccess, a campaign finance database.

The project provides not only an opportunity to learn some of the journalism basics, but also for the class of fellows to get to know each other. In years past, Owens says, OpenNews coordinators noticed that fellows often didn’t have the opportunity to come together as a group until conferences midway through the year. “Most fellows aren’t near each other, physically,” she says. “A couple are even on completely separate continents.”

Since fellows work individually in their respective newsrooms, it’s important that they feel connected to each other, so that they can reach out for help with a project or advice on other situations as they arise.

The interview process is also an essential tool for setting expectations. The way it works is, OpenNews selects 100 finalists from the applicant pool. Then, the selected news partners and OpenNews collaboratively interview these candidates, focusing on what kind of projects the fellow wants to do, and what kind of work they find exciting. Together, OpenNews and the news partner narrow down the potential fellows to two options before the news partner then makes a final selection.

“This is a self-directed program in a lot of ways. The fellows are getting input, of course, from their newsroom teams on what they would be doing. But they’ve come in with their own ideas and plans; making sure those match up in the beginning…that seems obvious, but turns out to be important,” Kissane says.

2013 fellow Friedrich Lindenberg says his fellowship experience would have been more productive from the beginning if he had better understood the limitations of the newsroom he was entering. “I think my news org [Germany’s Spiegel Online] was a bit naive,” he writes in an email. “They had heard of data journalism and wanted me to make it happen for them. We did quite a bit of good stuff, but it took me a while to realise that my role in that scenario should have been more about convening people than about hacking up cool shit.”

Also important is making sure fellows know that it’s okay to ask questions. Many of them come from backgrounds in technology or academia where, according to Kissane, it’s more “important to look like you did the homework.” But in the newsroom, it’s important to ask for clarification. “Something that came up throughout the tour of the L.A. Times was old jargon that made sense when there were different structures for how things got done in news organizations — but people still use the same language,” says Owens.

Another big part of the new on-boarding process is working with fellows on time management. “They’re doing work related to the fellowship —, for example events we have them participate in — projects they might be working on with other fellows, and then they have work that they’re interested in doing,” says Owens. 2013 fellow Stijn Debrouwere agreed that finding time for everything he wanted to do as a fellow was difficult. “Your newsroom wants certain things from you, and then OpenNews also wants you to blog and give workshops and write open-source software and attend conferences, and — this really surprised me — people everywhere suddenly think you’re a guru who knows everything about everything…it ends up being a lot to juggle,” he writes in an email.

Owens recommends that fellows spend around a third of their time on each area to help mitigate the pressures of the newsroom, but still often finds herself saying, “That sounds awesome! Do you have time for that?”

Kissane says one focus of the fellowship this year is to make sure everyone gets to work on “real news apps or data projects,” and not be relegated to backend work. Perhaps this initiative could help keep more OpenNews fellowship graduates in journalism. Of the 18 or so alumni, only a handful went on to take newsroom jobs; the majority have taken positions at non-journalistic entities like civic startups, data companies, or NGOs. But Kissane says that’s not a concern for OpenNews.

“The fellows, whether they go into newsroom are not, are taking the coding for civic usefulness that brought them to the fellowship to begin with…and taking that somewhere else,” she says.

In a moment of generalized upheaval, journalism isn’t an easy or predictable place for anyone to be — even, and in some cases especially, the old-timers. OpenNews founded the Knight-Mozilla fellowship in an effort to breach the gap between the worlds of technology and journalism. It was inevitable, and in fact expected, that they would hit a few bumps along the way; those bumps have in turn undoubtedly been educational. Imagining the difficulties a new staffer would have walking blind into a newsroom helps to highlight what’s not working in newsroom processes and culture, and helps guide the community as a whole toward solutions.

Photo of the Daily Telegraph newsroom by David Sim used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 16, 2015, 10 a.m.
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