Profile of the Data Journalist: Jeremy Bowers

As in 2012, when I published a series of profiles of data journalists at Radar, I’ve conducted a series of email interviews after the annual conference of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR). They’re part of my research into data journalism’s past, present and future, helping me to debug debates about “what it all means.

The following interview is with Jeremy Bowers, a news application developer at NPR. (He also knows a lot about how the Internet works.) It has been lightly edited for clarity, content and hyperlinked for context.

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

I work on the Visuals team at NPR.

Our team adheres to modified scrum principles. We have a daily scrum at 10:00am for all of the members of our Visuals team. We work on projects in one-week sprints. At the end of each sprint we have an iteration review and a “ticket shuffle” where we decide what tickets each of us should work on in the next sprint. Our typical projects rarely exceed four sprint cycles.

Our projects involve minimally four people: One developer, one designer, one project manager and one stakeholder . Some projects add more designers or more developers as necessary. And sometimes we have a lot of stakeholders.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special degrees or certificates? What quantitative skills did you start with?

I started in data journalism at the St. Petersburg Times. I’d been working as the blog administrator for our “online” team and was informally recruited by Matt Waite to help out with a project that would turn into MugShots.

I have no special degrees or certificates. I was a political science major and I had planned to go to law school before a mediocre LSAT performance made me rethink my priorities.

I did have a background in server administration and was really familiar with Linux because of a few semesters spent hacking with a good friend in college, so that’s been pretty helpful.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

Matt Waite from the St. Petersburg Times got me started in data journalism and has been my mentor for as long as I can remember. I don’t call him as much anymore now that he’s “Professor Waite,” but I still use a lot of our conversations as guidelines even now.

I also owe a debt to Derek Willis, though we’ve never worked together. I’m pretty much daily inspired by Ben Welsh and Ken Schwenke at the Los Angeles Times. They build apps that matter and make me look critically at what I am building. Finally, my co-worker Chris Groskopf is a great source of inspiration about keeping my code and work habits clean and professional.

What does your personal data journalism “stack” look like? What tools could you not live without?

I live and die with three tools.

First, a terminal emulator. Right now, I’m using iTerm2 with a customized Solarized theme.

Second, a text editor. Right now, I’m using Sublime Text 3 with a ton of installed packages.

Finally, I need a Web browser. Right now, I’m using Chrome.

At NPR Visuals, we’ve documented our stack so that anyone can code like we do.

What are the foundational skills that someone needs to practice data journalism? Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

I think the foundational skill for data journalism is curiosity. Rabid, all-consuming curiosity has done more for my career than any particular skill or talent.

I also think that good data journalists are passionate about their projects. Unlike many tech or newsroom jobs, it’s difficult to punch a clock and work 9-to-5 as a data journalist. I’m constantly pulling out my laptop and hacking on something, even when it’s not directly tied to a work project.

What are the biggest challenges that newsrooms face in meeting the demand for people with these skills and experience? Are schools training people properly?

The easy answer would be to say that there aren’t enough data journalists to go around. But that’s not exactly true. With Knight and Google fellowships, recent college graduates, interns, and proto-news-nerds miscast in other roles, media companies are surrounded by possibilities. Our challenge, as I see it, is building an environment where hackers and the hacker ethic can thrive. And that’s a tough thing to do at any large company, let alone a media company. But we’ve got to make that our personal mission and not be confounded by what feels like an impersonal bureaucracy.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

Without a doubt, PolitiFact is the most exciting project I’ve worked on. I also really enjoyed working on the Arrested Development app for NPR — so much so, that I binge-watched the fourth season and coded up the jokes over 24 hours the day the episodes were released!

What data journalism project created by someone else do you most admire?

I love everything about the Los Angeles Times’s data desk. Their homicide and crime apps are nothing short of miraculous.

How has the environment for doing this kind of work changed in the past five years?

I released my first news app to the wild in April of 2009. At that time, there were only a handful of groups that I knew of writing code in newsrooms — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and Ben Welsh at the Los Angeles Times. About 300 people attended NICAR that year, and it was focused on print CAR reporting.

This year, NICAR hosted 997 people and had well-attended sessions on JavaScript and D3, tools that basically only work on the Web. There are probably 20 teams writing code in newsrooms today, and there are entire college classes dedicated to producing hacker journalists. So the environment has gotten much richer and larger in the last five years.

What’s different about practicing data journalism today, versus 10 years ago?

I can’t speak generally since I only started doing “data journalism” about five years ago. I hesitate to argue that what I’m currently doing is really data journalism as opposed to newsroom product development.

As not to cheat you out of an answer, I can say that my job now involves much more rigor. When I first started writing code at the St. Petersburg Times, we didn’t use version control. We didn’t sandbox our code. We didn’t have automated deployment tools. These days, we have GitHub to store our code, tons of command-line tricks to keep our code in separate virtual environments, and we have fantastic deployment tools that make updating our code a snap.

Additionally, my organization is much more aware of what I’m doing. My manager and his managers are much more cognizant of data journalism generally and specifically about how our work fits in with the organization’s strategy. When I started, we basically worked invisibly on products that almost nobody really knew or cared about.

Is data journalism the same thing as computer-assisted reporting or computational journalism? Why or why not?

I’m terrible at semantic differences. I’ll take the broad view on this one: If you’re writing code in a newsroom, you’re probably committing acts of journalism. I don’t feel terribly strongly about what we decide to call this or how we decide to slice up what an investigative journalist, a news librarian or a news apps developer might be doing every day. If they’re writing code and making journalism, I want them to have every opportunity to succeed. I don’t feel any need to give them labels or have their titles prevent them from writing code to get their jobs done.

Why are data journalism and “news apps” important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

I think that Scott Klein said it best, and I’ll paraphrase: If you’re not using algorithmic or computational methods to analyze data, someone is scooping you on your beat.

There’s hardly a beat in journalism anymore that doesn’t involve structured data, which means that there’s hardly a journalist that wouldn’t benefit from automated methods for analyzing that data. Folks who are passing up that aspect of their jobs are just handing that opportunity over to someone else.

Print and radio are so time- and space-limited. If you’re not using the Web to tell all of the stories rather than just one story, you’re probably doing that wrong as well.

What’s the one thing people always get wrong when they talk about data journalism?

I don’t like it when people talk about how “organizations don’t get” data journalism, and I don’t like it for a very specific reason: The inability to create a news hacker culture doesn’t rest on the shoulders of some amorphous “organization.”

We should place that blame where it belongs: Squarely on the shoulders of individuals in your newsroom.

What we’ve got is a people problem. Editors and other newsroom opinion leaders should be making an environment for their reporters or others to participate in hacker journalism.

The same ethics that Eric Raymond elucidated in the Hacker How-To should guide journalists in newsrooms everywhere:

  • The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
  • No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
  • Boredom and drudgery are evil.
  • Freedom is good.
  • Attitude is no substitute for competence.

To make your organization a place where hacker ethics are practiced requires positive action — it won’t just spring into being because of a memo. So, don’t blame your company because there’s no room to operate like a hacker. Instead, blame your boss or your boss’s boss. It’s most effective when you discuss this with them personally. But make sure you give those people an opportunity to correct their wrongs. Few people are actually hostile to the hacker ethic; most are just unfamiliar.