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Just showing our work isn’t enough

“There’s very little current demand for the majority of reproducible code from newsroom leadership or the general audience.”

In 2019, I’ll be asking myself one question about everything I do: Is this work core, edge, or fringe?

Core work is everything that goes into the central product of a newsroom. For most online and print organizations, that’s people-reporting distilled into text-based stories (or audio- or video-based stories), along with delivery of those stories to the audience.

Edge and fringe work both happen at an organization’s periphery. But the edge is marked by “scalability, compelling differentiation, and aspiration.” It involves work that can initially be bootstrapped to meet an internal (newsroom) or external (audience) demand, then grow with later investment. It has the potential to fundamentally change how a newsroom operates. And the people who do the work believe that it’s transformational.

I’ve spent the majority of my journalism career in the periphery of newsrooms as a producer and developer. It’s not always easy to know which ideas are worth chasing. Should we work on a news-gathering tool that could take months to build, with no guarantee it could generate interesting stories? How about a chart-maker that any reporter can use? Or what if we collaborated with another newsroom?

How can you tell what’s edge and what’s fringe? Here are a few examples:

Fringe is — I’m sorry to say — “Show your work.” For me, that means releasing reproducible code for a project. “Show your work” happens to be a dear, precious axiom to me and other programmer-journalists, and there are certainly cases of showing our work that are core behaviors, like releasing analysis and materials central to a deeply reported investigation. But there’s very little current demand for the majority of reproducible code from newsroom leadership or the general audience.

There’s nothing morally wrong about working on the fringe. But if you are, you should examine what needs to change for your ideas to gain traction. (Consider the field of science, which is facing such a huge reproducibility crisis that showing your work is edge behavior at this point.)

Edge is hacking hiring processes to ensure every job candidate gets a fair shake. This practice — which can include setting an assessment rubric for a job before interviewing, reimagining job postings, and implementing blind applications — often leads to increased diversity. If everyone made a point of evaluating all candidates fairly, the newsroom would likely become more diverse. And having a diverse workforce would radically change what a newsroom covers and how it does it.

Digging for data, building election rigs, and making visuals are now mostly core work at many news organizations (though they’re still definitely edge work in smaller newsrooms).

Those of us who work on the periphery of newsrooms aren’t usually in the position to choose which ideas get implemented. We need to figure out for ourselves how our work fits in not only our employer’s overall strategy but also our community and the broader news ecosystem.

Take a moment to think about what you want to fight for next year. Go into 2019 with a clear head of what’s at stake.

Soo Oh is a data visualization reporter at the Wall Street Journal.

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