Tribune DataViz

Matters of interest, from the data reporters and developers across Tribune Publishing

From print to web and the lessons along the way

with 2 comments

About a year ago I moved from the Tribune’s graphics desk to the News Apps team. This was an initially jarring experience for a seasoned newspaperman who was used to creating whatever his mind imagined using Adobe Illustrator. Now it’s not like I had never written code before, but I certainly didn’t write code on a daily basis. So when all of a sudden code is the only way to do your job, it’s pretty easy to lose your mind and panic. After all, the expectation was that I would actually produce something, not flail about as I made my way through codecademy tutorials all day and read JavaScript: The Good Parts (seriously though you should read that book).

Today, after a year of banging my head against JavaScript errors, cussing at Internet Explorer and spinning my wheels trying to figure out how to transform data into usable JSON, I have a much clearer idea of what it takes to evolve. This journey is not unique and is one I know many of my brothers and sisters in news are making. So here is a road map for an efficient yet practical path to transitioning from print to web. Let’s start with two very important points:

First, the internet is hard and will likely make you either cry or drink heavily depending on your personality. That’s OK. It’s why you have friends. Stackoverflow, GitHub, Google and David Eads are all readily available when it’s 1 a.m. and you just broke something. I also suggest an SOS on Twitter.

Second, you already have a lot to bring to the internet besides your novice programming skills, even if it doesn’t seem that way. If you take nothing away from this article besides this point, I’m going to call it a win. No matter what your discipline, you already have a unique set of skills that apply to the web. You just need to figure out how to apply it right away while you learn to code. Trust me, it will help your confidence and growth. If you are a designer, you know how to organize information. That is something the internet needs. If you are an editor, you know how to manage a project and make sure no one forgot the ‘l’ in public. That is something the internet needs. See where I’m going with this? You’ll be surprised by how much you can already do.

Now that we have that out of the way, in no particular order:

The only way you will learn is by doing. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! You will write lots of code and most of it will be crappy and broken. That’s OK. Cry it out or drink a beer, then move on. The more you write the better you’ll get. Repeat after me: “The more you write the better you’ll get.” Find a project that starts with your idea then make it a real thing online. When you make something work the first time it will feel like performing a miracle and the internets will love you for it.

Plan on working more. You have to put in the time unless you are a natural and the only reason you’re reading this is because my words are simply that captivating. Plan on coming in early, staying late and working on your own time. You may not always be in the classroom but you should always be learning. It will be a lot of work, but learning to code should be exciting.

Don’t try to learn all the things at once. Pick a goal and stick with it. You will grow faster if you focus your time on a particular language or outcome. In my case, I focused more on Javascript than anything because I wanted to apply my data viz and design background. Focusing will also help you quickly discover the go-to sources to solve problems. Focusing right away will help you avoid becoming overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Once you are solving problems and making things, then you can start branching out.

Adjust your workflow. Break away from your print-centric processes. It’s easy to design your project with your favorite Adobe product, but I can tell you right now it’s going to hurt you. While it’s important to have a plan/sketches, you will ultimately spend more time than necessary trying to make your website mockup perfect. Remember, mockups rarely translate identically to the final product. Instead use a simple web sketchup tool like balsamiq or a pencil and paper. If your Stockholm Syndrome just won’t let you ditch Adobe, then simplify your process to use generic squares and remember it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Don’t cheat your audience. This is a particularly important point to keep in mind if you are developing on deadline. Know your abilities and what you can deliver. As journalists, we are here to tell clear stories. Shipping a half-baked, broken website doesn’t serve your readers. Look for solutions that fit what you can deliver and put you in a position to succeed. Don’t shy away from something hard because it’s hard. Just make sure it’s the right way to tell the story.

Don’t be afraid to be a fraud. When you first start writing code you certainly won’t know everything and the people around you will know a lot. So when someone starts describing technology with a bunch of acronyms that sound more like STDs than internet, just roll with it. Ask questions, but remember you can solve problems on your own. Pay attention to the point the person is trying to make then go back to your desk and Google the bejesus out of those acronyms. It’s normal to fake it till you make it. And sometimes you may never think that you made it.

The internet is hard. Don’t let it deter you. It’s hard for everyone. It’s hard to learn a new language or change your workflow or scale back your ideas or spend less time watching House of Cards, but it’s up to you to make that sacrifice if you want to evolve.

Written by Alex Bordens

March 12, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Excellent post, which describes my journey (and many others’, I’m sure) eloquently. I would add another point: find a mentor, especially if you’re a lone digital wolf in a legacy newsroom. StackOverflow and GitHub are great problem solvers for specific problems, but experienced people can impart hard-earned wisdom that those sites can’t. Join your local JS or Python or whatever meetup group and find an altruistic nerd who likes to see others succeed.

    Roberto Rocha

    March 13, 2014 at 12:09 pm

  2. […] From print to web and the lessons along the way | News App Blog […]

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