Journalism, Technology and High School

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I had the opportunity to speak to a class of high school journalism students today since I’m back in Chicagoland for my cousin’s wedding. Actually, the wedding will be in Urbana-Champaign, but I’m back in my hometown for a few days before heading south tomorrow. My former high school journalism teacher and advisor for the North Star recently connected back with me and asked if I could speak to her students on working at the NYTimes and technology and journalism in general, and I was more than happy to oblige.

This year, the North Star underwent a switch from a physical paper to a digital-only publication. When I was working at the paper as a Sports Editor in 2005-2006, we barely had a web presence and instead our monthly editorial process was geared toward printing all our stories at the same time. This made it a struggle to produce timely, hard news content since no one reads a basketball game recap if the game was played two weeks ago.

A digital-first (and only) approach sharpens the mind and forces editors to keep busy and produce content on a daily basis. That said, a critical ingredient for producing great writing is the print word count. Mark Twain famously said that he always wrote long letters since he never had time to write a short one. Editing for a print paper forces space constraints and requires writers to think critically of each word and sentence they write since it consumes valuable paper real estate. The Web doesn’t have the same constraints, which can be empowering yet lacking in the discipline print constraints provide.

Anyways, here’s a rundown on what I touched on today:

Think of technology as the intersection between the artistic and the analytical…

One of the flaws in my thinking when it came to programming and engineering earlier in my life was the belief that technology equaled mathematics and science. I come from an engineering family - my mom is a database architect, my dad is a networking professor and my brother is a software developer - and most of my life I figured that I would go a different route. I was always really into history and social studies, loved discussing philosophy and politics/policy, and reflexively opposed going into engineering. This was in large part because I didn’t want to go the corporate route working for a large technology company that my parents went down. All that they did just seemed boring to me as an idealistic teenager interested in solving the world’s problems.

In that light, the irony is rich that I’m now working in software.

Looking back, I unreasonably discarded engineering as a career path when I was younger. I had thought that exploring the humanities and pursuing technology were mutually exclusive endeavors, that I could either try and solve the world’s problems (the defacto motivation for a social studies geek like me) or work for some faceless corporate conglomerate as a boring but financially stable engineer.

Since my youth, my understanding of technology has deepened, and I now appreciate technology for how it can bridge the intellectual divide between art, design and other traditionally creative fields and data-driven fields like finance, engineering or the hard sciences. Working in a product-focused group at the NYT has shown me how design, content and engineering can work together to build something both functionally useful and aesthetically pleasing.

…and realize that technology doesn’t replace your passions, it enhances them

This goes in line with my first point, mainly that you shouldn’t think of career opportunities as necessarily either/or. When I was younger, I thought that I could do journalism or I could do engineering or I could become a doctor. Once I got older, however, I realized that less black-and-white than that, and more of an ‘and’ proposition than I had thought - technology and journalism, for example. Sure, you can do journalism without the help of technology, but technology enhances the journalistic experience and enables a much wider audience. In many ways, this is an exciting fact. No longer did I have to clearly choose between well-delineated fields like I thought I had to when I was younger, but now I can apply elements of various skills or topics that I like into a single job. The siloed nature of my education started to unravel in and after college as I realized that what I thought of as monolithic career paths were actually much more complex, interconnected and diverse than I had thought. That said, this fact also raises the bar for success, since the best opportunities to bridge the gap between fields tends to accrue to those with a wide range of skills.

Therefore, I told the students to focus on building skills when you’re young, even if you can’t immediately see the connection between those experiences and what you eventually want to do in life. Learn to enjoy being a constant beginner and place a lot of small bets on different skills, for a few reasons. First, few people really know what they want to do early on in their life, even those who seem to be on a clear professional path (e.g., doctors or lawyers), so you never know when or what skills will be useful. Second, your brain is better at building procedural memory (i.e., skills) compared to declarative memory (i.e., facts) early on in life. This is why its best to learn Spanish or how to play the trumpet when you’re young, and leave the memorization of people, places and things for later. As you get older, you’ll naturally learn to focus and develop a specialization on a subset of skills, but having a broad base will help you recognize opportunities for innovation and creativity in different sectors that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Likewise, creativity and innovation abounds at the intersection of seemingly disparate skills and industries. Steve Jobs’ greatest innovation at Apple was integrating design with engineering, such that today we look at iPhones as artistic objects with beauty in their own right and not just functional tools that get the job done. Technology is a great tool for deepening your understanding of whatever it is you’re passionate about - there are few industries or topics that have not been overturned by technology. For me, that passion centers around journalism and public policy. But the same is true for music (Spotify, Soundcloud) or retail (Gilt, Etsy) or any other industry.

A globalized and connected society needs great journalism…

As the world has become more globalized and interconnected, there are countless more stories to be uncovered and connections to be explored by journalists. Technology creates relationships and links between people and institutions that previously did not exist. Software companies like Twitter or Facebook can emerge within a mere few years to command tremendous mindshare and influence. Journalism, at its core, is about exploring these relationships and structures of influence. The abundance of technology-enabled relationships and connections makes for a ripe environment for good journalism to shed light on these linkages.

Its mind-boggling to think about how many different companies and products I interact with on a daily basis. This morning alone in the span of a few hours I used products from the following companies or organizations: Toyota, Starbucks, Apple, ExxonMobil, Spotify, Evernote, Github, NYTimes, UnderArmor, Uniqlo, Procter & Gamble, Armani, Nike, 37Signals, Kikkoman, Bausch & Lomb and Google. The world is connected like never before, and because of that, there are abundant opportunities for journalists to probe the nodes of influence that operate below the surface yet affect the everyday lives of ordinary people.

…and great journalism needs great software

Data and technology can serve journalism well as a complement to traditional reporting and writing. Technology can benefit every part of the journalistic process, from research and data gathering to writing to editing. Broadly, technology helps journalism from both the front-end and the back-end, meaning that both creation (e.g., reporting tools) and distribution (e.g., interactive graphics, news applications, etc.) of journalistic content can be enhanced by technology. And I’m speaking about technology broadly defined, not just web development. Stories like this one on how millions of poor people are not covered by insurance under Obamacare are enabled by an understanding of data and delivered using code, which can produce cool graphics like this one using Javascript.

The Internet is the world’s greatest distribution platform ever invented. And while many lament the damage the advent of the Internet has done on media company balance sheets, great content can circulate the globe in a matter of minutes, expanding the reach of journalism beyond what paper media could provide. At the Times, I’m working every day to determine how to best deliver journalism across the Internet and on mobile platforms. Its still unclear to me how the integration of technology and journalism will play out when its all said and done, and that’s the exciting part. Journalism, and media more broadly, is at this turning point where some of the hemmoraghing of ad dollars from the mid-2000s has been stanched somewhat by the advent of the online pay wall (at least for the NYT). Technology is fast becoming a way to further distinguish good journalism from bad journalism, just witness the use of data-driven graphics and interactive news applications that the NYT has put out in the past 12 months (see here, here, and here).

Regardless of how technology ends up transforming journalism, I’m just thankful and humbled that I get to be a part of it.