Why I’m a hacker journalist.
When long-form reporters cross over to “the dark side.”
When I was a little kid, constantly under questioning by grownups who demanded to know how I planned to earn a living when I grew up (why did they care so much? did my parents owe them money?) I always had the same answer.
I would work at either the newspaper or Nickelodeon News, and I wanted to help people in my neighborhood.
This was the late 80s, when slightly fewer people questioned your life-planning acumen if you went into journalism.
(I was also under the impression that the Philadelphia Inquirer was “the newspaper” for the entire nation, with Nickelodeon News serving the global broadcast audience.)
My options widened in college, and I moved to Chicago to write for the Chicago Reader, the New Yorker of alternative newsweeklies in my opinion. I threw myself into long features on the general metro beat, my editors and a whole team of fact-checkers and copyeditors laboring ferociously down in the trenches with me to transform huge stacks of research copies, interview transcripts, data files, freedom-of-information requests, and clips from magazines and newspapers from around the world into a coherent, persuasive, and hopefully interesting take on a local issue that mattered.
When a big story of mine hit the streets, I gave myself a mental high-five, thanked my editors, and headed to my tiny office to transfer the huge stack of research files and reporting notes weighing down my desk to a dusty graveyard of similar stacks from old stories living under my desk. (You gotta have a system.)
The Reader had spent serious money to acquire some of those documents. I’d spent many hours arguing my way through bureaucratic firewalls and digging through obscure archives to get my hands on much of that material molding away in my office. Over drinks, I’d commiserate with veteran journo friends about how so much of the “good stuff,” important findings and facts gathered over the course of reporting, always ended up on the newsroom equivalent of the cutting room floor.
Good reporters take a page from good screenwriters, I was advised—you learn to let go.
This was the mid-2000s, right around the time when a few hacker journalism pioneers at a handful of major metro papers around the country were patching together new teams in their newsrooms like nothing I’d ever seen or heard of. They were on the lookout for socially-conscious crack coders and web designers bored with their day jobs, and recruiting them to work alongside data-savvy veteran investigative reporters and rookie j-schoolers learning stuff like Python and SQL.
They weren’t writing stories, exactly, but they were definitely doing journalism: deep analyses of records and research on anything from nursing home violations to campaign finance to racial profiling, putting all of their data and materials online with online visualizations and search tools and inviting readers to dig in.
This was a whole new way of working at a newspaper, and doing stories that could make a difference. You couldn’t possibly publish all the “good stuff” gathering dust under my desk in print, and no single reporter could squeeze all of the potential discoveries out of them. But those documents were valuable, and I wanted to learn new tools and techniques for getting them online and in public, analyzing them at scale, and publishing the stories inside in whatever format would get the point across best.
I’m now the interactive editor at Mother Jones, where I lead a small team of hybrid reporter-coder-designer-data scientists that works closely with all of the other reporters and editors on our staff. Our ethos is “storytelling by any means necessary.”
Sometimes that means helping a reporting team scrape, store, and visualize hard-to-get data, like our Guide to Mass Shootings, the first-ever comprehensive database of such incidents. Sometimes it means transforming the audio recordings a reporter captured in the course of her field reporting into a whole new multimedia version of her story. Sometimes it means writing a long feature based on a code-driven analysis of massive amounts of records. It’s always journalism, and it’s almost always a lot of fun. (No one who’s ever worked with ArcGIS can claim it’s never not fun.)
I’m bringing this up right now because there’s a great way to get into hacker journalism that you should know about if you’re interested. The Knight-Mozilla Fellowships, which embed people with serious data and digital chops in some of the best newsrooms around the world, are accepting applications right now. Maybe you’re a coder who wants to help build journalism that has a shot at making a difference. Maybe you’re a reporter who wants to tell important stories in fabulous new ways. Why not be both?