Cracking the Code: My Pledge to Learn How to Web Scrape

I’d like to make a public pledge: I intend to learn how to code.

There, I’ve committed myself.  I figure, I’d better, since in my mind, coding is somewhat equivalent to math, which means right away, I might avoid it.  But, see, I really get how much journalists need to be math and data savvy in this information era.  So, while I haven’t yet introduced coding to my students, in the future I will.  Plus, while this has an awful close resemblance to math, it’s also geeky, and it turns out I’m into geek.

Of course, I’m going to need a lot of help with this one.  Thankfully, help exists.  Here are some of the sites I’ve started exploring that seem to be designed to help a complete idiot beginner start coding or working with databases:

Here’s the thing:  This language is so foreign to me that I don’t even know what I don’t know.   For example, I only yesterday figured out that coding is related to web scraping.  Heck, I didn’t even know what web scraping was.  Nor did I know that Ruby or gems or Firebug  existed.  I had only vaguely heard of Python before (and still am not completely sure what it does). And don’t get me started on Nokogiri!

All of this is to say that I haven’t a clue as to what I’m doing.  I only know that coding is something journalists and their educators are going to need to be familiar with.

Have I gotten anything wrong here?  Have any suggestions on what else I need to learn that’s connected to this?  Or know of any tools or training sites that might aid a novice?

For a compilation of the resources I’ve collected on the topic, see my Storify piece.


Paint by Numbers: Data Visualization for Journalists

IRE just had its annual convention. I followed it a bit from afar. One thing has become very clear, not only from seeing the tweets on the conference, but in seeing tweets from many others that data-driven reporting and data visualization is absolutely a must-have skill for journalists today. And it should be, as never before has so much information been available to reporters and the public as it is today.

Someone–the journalist–needs to make sense of the data. And what better way to make sense of data than to make it visual. As an information consumer, I say yes, please. As journalists, well, we often virulently prefer words to math. While there’s no getting off the hook as a reporter for knowing basic math skills, thank goodness for tools that help you do the heavy lifting, like spreadsheets.

Still, it’s always with some trepidation that I begin the data visualization/data-driven reporting unit with my advanced j-students. They are often as math-phobic as I am. (And when they aren’t, I feel like Oz at the moment when the crew peeks behind the curtain to see him.)

Here’s our schedule:

    1. They get a handout on the kinds of things data-driven and computer-assisted reporting can accomplish, followed by an exercise in which the students used tools such as Monitter and Topsy to track or find key words in Twitter.
    2. They watched a video on turning numbers into stories.
    3. They examined three data-driven pieces–one in the form of an article, the other two in the form of data visualization.
    4. They began working with Excel through several in-class exercises, culminating in a story that necessitates analyzing data.

And, finally, they watch a series of videos called “Journalism in the Age of Data.” Great series and one that I hope gets the students excited about the possibilities of using data.

Audio Stories Worth Creating and Listening To

Writing often feels like a putting together a jigsaw puzzle–only one that can be arranged a thousand different ways.  Audio, at first glance, seems to resolve that heavy lifting.  After all, your subject provides the words, tells the story–how hard could it be to put the whole thing together?

Like any piece of journalism worth spending time with, the answer is, “hard.”

Or maybe not so much “hard,” as “involved.”  Your subject may be providing the words, but chances are your subject isn’t thinking about what he or she is saying the way you will and should be.  When we are speaking or interviewing, we digress, we lose our focus, we hesitate.  That may be acceptable in close conversation, but when I’m listening to an audio piece, my time’s too valuable to waste time on audio that isn’t tight.

Further, the interviewee may not even be aware of the real story he or she has to tell.  One of my former students, now at San Jose State University, was just telling me about a recent interview he did with an older hula instructor.  He met with her a couple of times, asked her many questions, watched her teach. What he got was adequate, but not compelling.  His story had no center of gravity. It wasn’t until he was wrapping things up with her that she mentioned off the cuff a serious car accident long ago that left her unable to dance for years.  Suddenly, he had his story.

Determining what is interesting in a story is important. As Mark Berkey-Gerard points out, every person has a story, but not every story is equally captivating.  To help his students hone in on what is captivating, he has them apply Alex Blumberg’s “and what’s interesting” test.

Berkey-Gerard also looks to Ira Glass, who has a series of YouTube videos covering the art of storytelling.  Glass is known for This American Life, a favorite program for those of us who love a good story.  Glass makes it sound (and for a while look) easy, with his casual, slightly irreverent style.  But he’s nailed the elements that need to be a part of every compelling audio or video story:  the anecdote and the moment of reflection.  Berkey-Gerard sums up Glass’ point this way:

“An anecdote is the sequence of actions that builds the momentum and raises questions to be answered. Stringing together a series of actions (this happens, and then this happens) makes the audience feel that they are moving toward a destination.

A moment of reflection is the point when someone clearly says, ‘here is the point of the story.’”

But how you tell the story is also important.  That is, learning how to tell a story–how to pace it, how to order it–is also crucial to creating stories worth listening to. Mindy McAdams talks about the road map for effective storytelling as containing an opening, a climax and a resolution–these create the arc of the story.  Know where you are going, where you want to end up, and you’ll have a story listeners will stick with. The anecdote Glass talks about and the arc McAdams cites gel well with Deborah Potter’s suggestion (albeit for TV storytellers, but equally applicable to audio alone) to rely on “strong, chronological narratives” to engage viewers (or in this case, listeners).

So, as much as it might be tempting for the budding journalist to simply throw audio together, don’t. Consider carefully what the story is and how you can best tell it.  Then put that jigsaw puzzle together.