Updates from Poynter programming for journalists/journalism for programmers seminar

I’ll be gathering tweets and posting updates from the Poynter programming for journalists/journalism for programming seminar (see previous post) in this CoverItLive blog.

SXSW 2011: +1 for “Why Journalists Need to Think Like Geeks” panel proposal

In sharing some SXSW links on Twitter yesterday, I mused about proposing a panel on rethinking our thinking and computational thinking.

But — alas! — Blake Eskin, editor of NewYorker.com, proposed a session on Why Journalists Need to Think Like Geeks (thanks for the heads-up, Will Mitchell). Based on the description and questions (a few are excerpted below), it seems to cover the bases pretty well:

2. How can we teach journalists to think about technology?
3. What’s the difference between how journalists and programmers think?
5. If technology gets better and easier to use, does journalists still need to understand its inner workings?

If you think it’s a good idea, mosey on over and give it a thumbs-up.

P.S. I really want to go SXSW Interactive 2011. Perhaps I could get invited to join a panel (nudge-nudge, wink-wink)…

UPDATE: Hacks/Hackers co-founder Burt Herman tipped me off to a related session he proposed. Check it out and vote it up, if you’re so inclined:

Hacking the News: Applying Computer Science to Journalism

STEM for kids, teens and me. And my sister.


…programming should be used as a means to introduce kids to ways of thinking and problem solving that will be useful to them in many different spheres of human endeavor. If in the process they get hooked to computer science and end up in careers involving programming, that would not be a very shabby outcome, either!

Shuchi Grover said this in a post about Computational Thinking, Programming…and the Google App Inventor on SmartBean (read other highlights).

I sat down Sunday morning to read that piece (which I found through my handy Google alert for “computational thinking”) and it reminded me of something I’d almost completely forgotten about:

In summer 2000 — before eighth grade — I attended IMACS (no relation to Apple) for a few weeks. IMACS, short for the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science, offered STEM-related activities in a day-camp format for different age groups.

My faint memories from IMACS include programming some rudimentary commands to control a robot, working with simple electronic circuitry to illuminate small light bulbs and completing various logic/reasoning questions.

So why did I, as 13-year-old who was mainly interested in writing, do this? Honestly, I don’t remember exactly beyond these two basic reasons:

  • My good friend Chris was going to attend
  • I’d had some technical inclinations since elementary school

You see, Chris and I had been aftercare aids at Country Isles. Yes, we sometimes clutched clipboards and walkie-talkies as we deposited toys in classrooms. But we also assisted with tech and AV — even Winterfest in 1997 (I will never forget what it’s like to be a 10-year-old running cables and duct-taping down wires for a school-wide singing show. Oh, and what ever happened to MiniDiscs?).

Earlier in elementary school when people would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would say, “A scientist and inventor.” Surely, even a few years after such a notion, that too factored into my decision to attend IMACS.

My larger point in recapping all this history is that earlier interests, such as from childhood, can stick with us as we grow up and it’s never too late to start appreciating other areas.

Honestly, math was my least favorite subject in high school. I used to think journalists and math didn’t mix. I was young(er) and wrong. In the year or so since I graduated college, I wish I had done at least one stats class (in addition to psychology, but that’s for another post).

So why am I now fascinated by computational thinking and programming? My passion for journalism and how the fields relate, sure. But it’s also clear that my earlier interest and experiences, even one as limited as IMACS, play some role. (I also always have to credit Daniel Bachhuber specifically on the computational thinking front because he shared the first things I read/listened to on that topic.)

All of this is not to say you can’t develop a tech inclination later in life. You certainly can. What I am saying is how it’s helpful to evaluate what and who might have influenced you — and what comes of that.

Case in point, yesterday I talked my sister through setting up a blog on WordPress.com. I didn’t succeed earlier in the summer in getting her to host her own cooking blog, but in June she did buy her domain. What changed yesterday? I don’t know. We were just video IM chatting and it happened. Michelle, a rising college sophomore interested in finance and business (she digs math), is now set up to be a creatornot just a consumer.

Even if she never sets up her own hosted blog, never touches a line of code or never goes any further, it has — thus far — certainly been worth my brotherly nudging. And, to borrow from Grover, it wouldn’t be too shabby if she did.

What were some of your most noteworthy technical influences? Where did those influences lead?

Correction: The opening quote, originally attributed to Charles Profitt, has been updated to reflect the actual source — Shuchi Grover.

Quick thoughts on journalism and version control (now known as Github for News)

(Update: Read Daniel Bachhuber’s notes from the #bcniphilly 2011 session I led on GitHub for News)

Today at work I got my own sandbox for web development. In a Skype conversation with the lead developer, he said I could get a branch off the trunk for certain projects I might work on.

Basically, I would have a testing environment (sandbox) and it would make sense to also have a place (branch) to work on something separate from core development code (trunk) that the development team uses.

The larger theme here is version control, which I’ve known about generally for a while and am now exploring further as I start using — and reading up on — Subversion.

Version control is one of the parallels I drew between journalism and programming concepts in my second post inspired by computational thinking. Specifically:

Version control: When creating software, a core principle is keeping track of each iteration of the project. In the editing workflow of a news organization, you ideally keep track of different revisions, either on a single document (for The Hurricane, that would be in the WordPress admin) with a history or by saving a new document and noting who last saw it (as The Hurricane did before switching to WordPress).

Now that I better understand the tree, trunk and branch terms in the context of version control, I wonder why we don’t apply these principles to journalism — and how we could.

  • How can we best apply principles of version control to journalism?
  • How much easier would it be to collaborate on journalistic projects if we did?
  • How could it help open up the process, both inside and outside the newsroom?

In short, another instance of rethinking our thinking about how we practice journalism and what areas can better inform what we do.

A conceptual example

Say I’m a reporter working on a story about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, that story would have its own “trunk.” The journalists in my newsroom would all work off that trunk. But we only have limited resources and we’re not personally experiencing the disaster, so we open up branches for business owners and residents affected by the spill to help them tell their own stories.

Or maybe I’m working on another on-going story, such as unemployment. There’s a trunk that the newsroom works on and branches for unemployed workers to also contribute.

In either case, you can bring in others to directly collaborate in some way. The branches could be working versions of content the collaborators are producing and need to be checked before being added to the trunk.

This is already being done in many places where people submit personal stories, photos, videos, etc. Applying version control concepts would be a way to better incorporate outside material (from other newsrooms or amateur contributors) on a level field, rather than relegating it to a separate and/or lesser space or doing so haphazardly.

The tool

Maybe the platform could be a simple system such as how Wikipedia, WordPress or Google Docs show revisions history. But it could also be as advanced as using Subversion itself, which is

a general system that can be used to manage any collection of files. For you, those files might be source code—for others, anything from grocery shopping lists to digital video mixdowns and beyond.

The ideal would probably be something in the middle that’s more robust than the three examples mentioned above yet simpler and more user-friendly than Subversion.

Applying version control — and other programming concepts — to journalism makes sense to me because of shared fundamentals such as working collaboratively, checking each others’ work and updating/revising.

Anyway, it’s an idea that popped into my head and, to reiterate the questions, made me wonder: could we apply version control concepts to journalism? And, if so, how could we best do this?

UPDATE: (7-11-10) Two posts relevant to the version control and journalism discussion that I’d completely forgotten about: Version Control for Campaign Promises by Brian Boyer and ProPublica’s ChangeTracker Lets You Watch Government’s Moves by Megan Taylor, which is about one of Brian’s projects.