Twitter for Newsrooms: first impressions

Tonight Twitter released a set of guides for newsrooms. There’s going to be a lot said about them in the next few days I’m sure, and it’ll be a while before we see what impact (if any) they have on the news ecosystem. But here are a few first impressions, in no particular order.

  • Newsrooms, not (just) journalists. This isn’t just about newsgathering, it’s about process and presentation too.
  • This is basic stuff – tools, examples, glossary, links, support. That’s as it should be, I reckon. The newsroom denizens who understand Twitter well enough to build their own techniques are still vastly in the minority. This is about bridging a gap.
  • The examples of engagement are very well-chosen indeed, and it’s genuinely heartening to see a range of reporters from the internationally renowned to the metro beat, with follower count ranges to match. I hope they keep this list up to date.
  • There’s that word “branding” again, providing more fuel for the ongoing branding debates. This is good basic advice about making yourself recognisable and accessible on Twitter, but I suspect a fair few journalists will bristle at the problematic word.
  • The focus when it comes to reporting is on the @acarvin style of curation and publication, not on live reporting or on breaking your own news. There’s a small section on mobile reporting, but the bulk of the reporting guide is around tapping into pre-existing communities, building on top of citizen journalism work, and finding sources. That looks a little like a missed opportunity to tout the real power of Twitter as a direct conduit for breaking news.
  • I’m glad Twitter is making more of its advanced search tools. They’re immensely useful for journalists, but unless you already know about them they’re next to impossible to use. Including them here, prominently, is smart. And it’s wise to explain there’s a difference between Top and All tweets, even if it’s still not clear what “most relevant” means in this context.
  • Twitter is protecting/building its brand. Some of these guidelines are about making sure the platform gets credit for quotes and information shared there. Others offer ways to embed Twitter functionality on news sites. It reminds me of Facebook’s Open Graph plugins, in a nascent and very specific way – proliferating its own platform while performing useful functions. Aiming to become needed, where it isn’t already.

Failing on your feet

This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism, and the topic for this month is failure.

If I hadn’t failed repeatedly, I wouldn’t be a journalist. This is all a bizarre accident.

See, I never wanted to be a journalist. (Blasphemy!) I remember deciding when I was about 9 that if I did become a journalist I would write for the Guardian or the Independent but definitely not the Daily Mail because it was rubbish, but all that was obviously only a back-up plan. I was going to be a Writer.

So I grew up a bit, wrote a lot, won at school, won at being homeless and failed at being sane, and eventually dealt with that enough to pack up and get to university for a literature and creative writing degree. I did my best to become a Writer by arranging words in attractive orders as much as humanly possible. I held down a part-time job designing books, copy editing, typesetting and occasionally redesigning the perspex plates on the front of all the postboxes in the UK, which at the very least meant that millions of people read my work every day.

And then came graduation, and the growing realisation that I had literally no idea how to be a Writer and still afford to eat. I applied to two post-grad courses, one in creative writing and one in literature, and failed at both. I went for editorial jobs at Oxford University Press and Taylor Francis and loads of smaller places, and failed – in fact I failed at more than 50 job applications in three months, that summer.

Around this time I split up with my long-term partner, and moved out of the house we shared, and while sleeping on other people’s sofas I spotted a job ad for Trainee Journalists for the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich where I was living and I thought, well, at this point, the part time job won’t pay the rent, let’s apply.

When I did the application test – an exam in a room with 100 other people – I was still on sofas and hadn’t seen the news in the best part of a week. That made writing a 200-word news story on a current news issue pretty difficult. Luckily, I blag well, and if nothing else the years of wanting to be a Writer meant I could write well. So I got the call back, and was sure I’d failed the interview (I wasn’t sure what a red top was), and then a few days before Christmas came the job offer. Paul Durrant – he of the most excellent moustache and Brummie accent – phoned me and said: “Got some good news for you: you’re going to be a journalist.”

Man. What a failure.

So that’s me. I failed at Writing and won at writing. I failed so hard I failed myself right into a career that’s perfect for me, right into work I love and an environment I thrive in. I failed so badly that I wake up every day excited about what I do; I failed so hard that if you didn’t look at what really happened you’d probably call it deliberate success.

Since then, of course, it’s been slog and hard graft and an awful lot of trying incredibly hard all the time. It’s been monstrously long days and never turning my phone off and learning stuff in my spare time and making things happen. It’s been – it is – hard, and joyous. And I’ve never regretted the failures that led me here.

That’s my lesson. Sometimes failure is better than success. Sometimes you get better opportunities through failing than you do through succeeding. Sometimes the only way to win is to fall.

Playing – the future

Games are not going away. The gamepocalypse is nigh.

 

One of the biggest changes in the way we live and socialise at the moment is the rise and rise of game structures in everyday life. I’m not just talking points, badges and scores here – I’m talking about all sorts of game mechanics, the sorts of rich, rewarding dynamics that can help make reality better.

Games engage people. They provide the sorts of work that people want to do, using feedback systems and carefully structured designs to make for a fun experience. They provide a sense of satisfaction that’s hard to beat, from completing simple tasks to seeing a narrative through to its end. They let you explore and experiment, providing freedom within limits, and they reward players for developing skills or for learning information.

When it comes to journalism, stories – neat narratives with a beginning/middle/end or an inverted pyramid structure – are simply not sufficient for explaining most complex systems. They can explain a linear series of events, even one with complex factors, but they’re not good at really explaining how things work in a way that gets into the reader’s head. Climate change, or tax allocation, or the financial crisis, for instance.

Game design can be used to help create original reporting, as well as being a medium for its distribution. They can be used as powerful polemic or educational tools. And they can even be used to explore the process of newsgathering itself, illuminating its murky logic through the procedural logic of the game.

It’s not just video games that are important here, though they do have a wider reach than many other forms. Alternate reality games that merge fact and fiction to overlay a game onto the real world, or use real artefacts in a game environment, are growing as marketing tools. Board games have always had the widest reach (chess, anyone?) and are enjoying a niche resurgence. What could we do with them?

Journalists with game design skills are going to be needed, alongside journalists with data skills and journalists who can do video and code and take pictures. I believe that, once the nascent newsgames industry stops dipping its toes into the water and jumps in, newsgames are going to take off. Because a good game makes money. If we assume for a moment that engagement is king, not content, then games will win the war for our attention: doesn’t that look a lot like the situation we’re already in?

I want to see what we could do if we treated a printed paper as a site of play. If we made it fun, and thought about it from the perspective of someone exploring, learning, interacting with a game. It’s possible to be shocked, dismayed, distressed, saddened, touched, moved, and incited to action by good games that don’t dumb down their subjects. It’s possible to treat difficult subjects with respect within a game; there are myriad bad and good examples of this, just as there are of TV and of radio and of print.

And despite some assertions to the contrary, games are not inherently geared towards those who can’t pay attention (seriously, current 50+ hour game lengths of major studio titles obviously contradict this). Instead, games can make news harder, more complex, deeper and richer – and they might just be able to do all that while making money.

But news organisations aren’t there yet, and it’s not hard to understand why – MediaShift has a great analysis of the cultural divide between editorial and games design that’s proving insurmountable at the moment. As indie creators are creating games that explore the news journalistically, we’re in danger of missing the boat again.

So what I want to do, this year, is get some news people and some game people in a room, together, to see what we can do to bridge that gap. If you’re interested in being involved, let me know in the comments here or by emailing newsmary@gmail.com. Let’s build something fun.

This is the third of (I hope) four posts coming out of the Powerful Voices roundtable I attended earlier this month. The first was a resource-dump for concepts we discussed there and the second discussed the digital divide.


Words mean things: no, all journalism is not aggregation

Lots of people today on Twitter have linked to Robert Niles’ post on OJR spanking people for “whining” about aggregation, and reiterating a point he made last month – in essence, along with a lot of other very sensible and useful points, he argues that all journalism is aggregation.

Let’s get one thing clear – I agree with a lot of what Niles says in these two posts, though I’d probably step aside from the aggressive tone of his second piece, on account of how chastising people for being defensive is only going to make them more defensive. He makes some excellent points and I wish more news organisations took them on board.

But claiming that all journalism is aggregation is akin to deciding that Flickr’s homepage list of interesting images is the same thing as taking all the photographs yourself. It’s not. It’s patently obvious that it’s not.

Words mean things. We already have the words “information management and presentation” to encompass the various skills that journalists use, whatever form their journalism takes – that covers both reportage and aggregation nicely. We already have the word “editing” to describe the process of deciding what to put in a newspaper or on a website. And we have the words “curation” and “contextualisation” too, though they’re much more jargon-ish than those others, to describe elements of aggregation that involve editorial decision-making, peripheral research and so on.

Speaking of jargon, though, aggregation has not entirely solidified as a term. The future-of-news field has a terrible habit of taking perfectly good words – like “entrepreneur” – and blurring the definition to include some very different things – like “self-employed freelancer”. Perhaps Niles’ thoughts are symptomatic of this sort of semantic land-grab – is he simply redefining the word “aggregation” to cover all forms of information management and presentation? Because if so, I fail to see much use in the term – it’s too broad to be helpful in understanding the specific challenges journalists and news organisations face.

However we’re defining it, news aggregation is not evil. It’s not the enemy. It’s wonderful that new web-based tools exist now that enable people to do this work faster, better, in new and exciting ways; it’s great that Google and Flipboard and Zite and so on are doing it algorhithmically in such innovative directions. Journalists should welcome the fact that our work reaches more people and that the job of curating content is becoming as valued and valuable a part of the journalistic ecosystem as the job of creating it. @acarvin’s work is just as important in reporting the Middle East uprisings as any single reporter on the ground. At my workplace, the daily newspaper roundups and tips collections and lists of big commodities stories are useful and valuable just as original content is.

But they’re not the same. They don’t serve the same function. And writing a three-line drop intro on a colour piece is not the same thing as deciding to include something in the paper or on the home page is not the same thing as Google News automagically deciding your story deserves to be the first link. Reporting needs different skills, tools and timescales from aggregation. And both terms incorporate multitudes of smaller specialisations.

Aggregation should be valued. I understand and can sympathise with the desire to conflate something that is valuable but not well-regarded with something which is already seen as respectable. But I doubt its wisdom in this case. We need to fight for news organisations to recognise that curation and aggregation are part of a holistic approach to journalism and add enormous value to their work, yes – that I can wholeheartedly and full-throatedly support. But telling them that they’re already doing it is not going to lead to the changes we need, or any greater understanding of the problems we face.

Journalism, entrepreneurialism and failure

I’ve been following with interest some conversations on Twitter about entrepreneurial journalism. @josephstash wrote up his take on the debate, advocating the creation of an “ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalism” – he raises some excellent points about support for new startups and access, and suggests that good graduates should be innovative, should be avoiding traditional media and becoming entrepreneurs. A post on Wannabe Hacks continues that conversation, arguing that fear of failure is a major element holding people back – that it is because new graduates and young journalists are scared that they are not already building the ecosystem Jo talks about.

Failure is a legitimate concern. And fear of failure is actually a pretty healthy response to the statistics – depending on which stats you believe, the chance of a small business surviving for five years or longer is between about 30% and 50%. Add to that the daunting realisation that lots of very smart business people work for media companies, and they’re still haemorrhaging money – so it’s very easy to wonder what on earth you could know that they don’t.

Even among the best and the brightest journalism entrepreneurs in the UK, most do not seem to be making enough money from their journalism to sustain themselves. (I have no stats for this, it’s based on a number of conversations and observations, so if I’m wrong in aggregate please let me know.) That’s not to say that no one is doing well, but that those who do are in the minority.

And I sound like a doom monger, which is sad, because I do think innovative start-ups are necessary for the media to continue to exist. But I also think that fear of failure is absolutely fine; it’s no one individual’s job to fix journalism, and if the risks outweigh the rewards then it is foolishness to plough on regardless.

Perhaps we need to think about what success looks like – is it enough to be writing and doing something you love that gets out there? Or is it also important to not need to take on other freelance projects, or live in your parents’ spare room, or all the other things that entrepreneurs do to get by? How long before you break even, how much do you need? Because I know that what motivates some of my peers is not fear of failure – it’s fear of not enough success. Making something amazing but not being able to monetise it. Living the dream but not being able to pay the bills.

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be older (PDF report; Slate has a US-centred roundup of this point) – in part because they have assets they can put into their business besides themselves, and because they have experience they can draw on. The people currently carrying the can for innovation in journalism tend to be very young, with limited experience, and without assets (though in some ways that makes it easier to try; if you don’t have a mortgage then there is no house for you to be scared of losing). And not every unemployed journalist wants to be – or can be – an entrepreneur (I for one didn’t get into this game because of my business skills, and my startup is neither currently profitable nor a journalism business).

I don’t want to suggest that all entrepreneurship is doomed, or that those entrepreneurs who do fight through are not necessary – they are. We need innovation desperately. But in the process, businesses will fold, and young people will throw their hearts and souls into something they love passionately but that doesn’t have a business model, and some of those people will fail. That’s the reality.

And it is OK to be young and facing your finals and scared of sacrificing years of your life for things that may not work. It’s OK for the risks not to be worth it. It shouldn’t be assumed that being a young ambitious journalist must mean starting your own business or being self-employed, any more than it should be assumed that you’ll work for free for big media companies to get experience, or that you’ll end up with the one job at the Guardian. Everyone is different.

So yes, we need entrepreneurs. But we also need jobs. Jobs for graduating journalists. We need innovation from all rungs of the ladder – older journalists, media business people, people starting small enterprises as well as people going self-employed in self-defence. And we need to remember that we – the (relatively) young journalist types active on Twitter, blogging about journalism, getting excited about tech, talking about innovating, starting our own businesses, making stuff happen – we are still the minority.

Let’s fight to get support for small businesses, let’s encourage partnerships, and let’s try and break down the barriers between the old guard and the young sprouts. But let’s not pretend that becoming an entrepreneur is the only option, or even the best option, for most people; let’s not sugarcoat the potential consequences if it goes wrong. That way lies so much heartbreak.

While We Were Here – turning a festival into a newspaper

What.

While We Were Here is a 16-page free souvenir newspaper with a print run of 4,000. It was put together by a small team of volunteers during this year’s Greenbelt Festival. It included a 4-page black and white comic pull-out in the centre of the paper. You can download a copy of the main paper or the comic in PDF formats.

Where.

Greenbelt Festival takes place over four days at the end of August every year at Cheltenham race course. There’s no accommodation on site that’s not under canvas – so the newspaper team were camping out on the course along with about 20,000 other festival-goers. We appropriated a small box that’s normally used for watching the races and turned it into a newsroom, with two design Macs and three or four laptops at any given time. There were not enough chairs, the carpet went half-way up the walls, and we were constantly watched by pictures of small men on large horses.

Who.

In total there were ten people involved in making the main paper. We didn’t have much to do with the comic guys – they did their own thing and arrived perfectly on time with all their spreads in PDF form. Our team was brought together by Matt Patterson as hands-on managing editor and James Stewart as hands-off. I was the editor. James Weiner and Paul Abbott worked on data and infographics for the paper. Ben WeinerWill Quirk, Geraldine Nassieu-Maupas and Oliver Mayes made up our design and layout team, and Wilf Whitty dealt with some last-minute front-cover design issues.

The rest of the team were primarily design-minded folks and I was (as far as I know) the only one with newsroom experience. As a result partly of that and partly the fact that I’ll organise anything if it stands still near me for long enough, I took charge of content planning and making sure we had something interesting, well-written and appropriate for print on every page.

Why.

As a tangible souvenir, something to commemorate the experience of being at Greenbelt for those who were there and something to express a little of what it was like for those who weren’t. Something that’s separate from the blog or the Flickr stream or the Twitter conversations, a document that physically exists and can be handed around families, shown to children, given to grandparents, in a way that the internet still can’t.

And, in a very real way, we did it because we could.

When. How.

I was one of the last of the team to arrive on site, on Friday morning. At 2.30pm the team met for the first time and found out our general brief. Over the next four hours we hammered out a page plan for the paper, focussing on what we felt were the major themes and events from the Festival that people would recognise and want to read about. We decided who would be covering what in terms of writing content specifically for the paper. I briefedthe Festival’s photographers about what we’d need and when. We made up a flat plan and stuck it to various pictures of horses, and I wrote up a schedule working backwards from our hard deadline – 6pm on Sunday.

We made the paper in just over two days. The design team did a lot of work on Friday night and Saturday morning putting templates and grids together, while I did vox pops and got quotes from various festival punters. I started to put content together on Saturday afternoon, which is when it became clear that we couldn’t use most of the content from the two people who were blogging the festival over the weekend. One person’s writing was very long-form, personal and intellectual, while the other’s was very short-form and timely – both made for great blog posts but wouldn’t work in print. I started roping in people to write reviews and snippets of content, as did managing editor James Stewart. The infographics team finally managed to get hold of some data they could use and started drawing golf buggies in Illustrator.

By Sunday lunchtime we had about half of what we needed copy-edited and in formats ready to put on the page, and we had two neat infographics ready to place. I spent the next three or four hours writing, helping choose pictures, deciding what content needed to go in which boxes, copy-editing and being very rude to other people’s work so it would fit in print-sized boxes, while next to me the layout team collaborated to pull it all in to InDesign and make it look perfect. By about 4pm we had collected all the content we needed; the next two hours involved me pacing around the newsroom, making sure we had everything in the right place, picking different pictures when the ones we had didn’t work out, and occasionally taking a seat and making changes to the text or the design when things simply wouldn’t fit right.

Matt started uploading it at about 6.45pm. Network sloth meant it finally finished at about 8pm. The printers in Peterborough turned their presses on for about a minute and a half, and we had a print run of 4,000 copies. Four hours later thanks to some strangers who drove through the night for us, it was back on site ready for the first copies to be distributed at the last show of the evening.

Lessons learned.

  • Planning is vital, much more so for print than for online journalism. If a blog post doesn’t go up or goes up late, few people will notice. If there’s a hole in your print paper, they definitely will. Thematic planning for something like this is crucial too – content should fit together, images should complement each other, pages should balance. That’s impossible to do with slapdash content delivered at the last minute.
  • Briefing, therefore, is another crucial element. You can’t simply say “Write me 450 words about the music scene.” You need to make deadlines clear and make sure you’ve agreed which bits of the music scene are necessary. You need to talk about tone, audience, readability, style, voice. You need to make clear what’s needed, even when you’re both up against deadline, so that the content you get back is useful and takes the minimum of editing or rewriting.
  • Build in redundancy. One of the reasons the paper worked well despite some of the content-related setbacks we had is that we did our best to get hold of more content than we needed – about half as much again. If I was doing it again I’d be shooting for twice as much, if not more. If it’s not used in the paper, it could go online; if it’s something that works better online, we wouldn’t have to force it into a print style. And if it doesn’t turn up, it doesn’t matter.
  • Get data well in advance. Infographics are awesome but they can’t be created without data. If you have a tight deadline and you’re including data-driven charts or graphics, that’s the bit you should sort out first. We didn’t, and that’s why we only have two in the paper.
  • Basic newspaper design skills are invaluable, even if you’re not a designer. If you’re planning content for pages, you need to understand how boxes fit together on a page, how headline size and positioning alters layout, what a baseline grid is, the difference between a 3-col and 4-col layout for a page, and a dozen other little things that don’t bother you while you’re writing but that become vital as soon as you’re laying out. You need to know the rules, what they are, how they can be bent and when they can be broken. Otherwise you end up coming in and asking questions like “Are we really wedded to a serif font?” and “Do we really need to lock to grid?” half an hour before final deadline. (Yes, this happened. No, it wasn’t me.)
  • If you’re distributing content across multiple channels, a convergent newsroom is potentially a huge timesaver. This would have prevented completely the problems we had with last-minute content and having to repurpose pieces that were not right for print in their original forms – but it takes a lot of advance planning. Having a pool of writers – not necessarily bloggers or writers for print, just writers – who could be briefed individually by the blog editor and the newspaper editor, and whose work could be pulled to be used in one or both formats, would have been very valuable. Doing the same with images and video could mean a converged team in three parts: content creators at one end, putting their work into a big pool; editors in the middle, picking out the best of the bunch or the most appropriate for their medium; and distributors at the other end, feeding that work into the newspaper, the blog, Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, the various other channels including feeding out to the magazine shows and round-up events on site – and making it easy for the press office to pass out the best of what’s on offer too. I think this is the biggest thing I’ve taken from the experience – I grok convergence much better now I’ve seen it from the editor’s point of view.

Three-tier journalism

There are three tiers of journalism in the UK at the moment – national, regional and hyperlocal – but in all the discussion and excitement over open data, the voices of journalists working at the coal-face in the middle tier tend to be absent. That’s a shame, because regional news offers some fascinating and unique challenges for data journalism and computer assisted reporting.

At one end of the scale there’s national journalism, which covers big issues affecting all regions of the country or stories of national interest. In most media national journalism tends to be biased towards the south in general and London in particular, and in newspaper terms there’s a partisan/issues bias too, along with a clear character.

Then at the other end of the scale there’s hyperlocal journalism, geared around my street, my postcode, my community. These are organisations tackling incredibly specific situations, interested in minutiae and detail, as well as the impact of wider stories on the communities in question. It’s all about applying the national news to a very specific set of circumstances.

Somewhere in between, on a sliding scale depending on the size of the news organisation, is regional journalism. At the moment that’s where I fit in – at the city- and county-wide level depending on which paper I’m writing for. The stories I follow up are a mix of both – national stories with an impact on the communities I write for, and street-level stories with wider implications. We also cover wide regional stories with an impact on a substantial proportion of our readers – council stories, crime cases, the sorts of stories which nationals would not cover at all while hyperlocals would cover only the relevant parts.

After a conversation with the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum at Hacks and Hackers, I started to understand that regional journalism has a particular set of needs and problems when it comes to data journalism. National news needs big picture data from which it can draw big trends. Government ata that groups England into its nine official regions works fine for broad sweeps; data that breaks down by city or county works well too. Hyperlocal news needs small details – court lists, crime reports, enormous amounts of council information – and it’s possible to not only extract but report and contextualise the details.

Regional news needs both, but in different ways. It needs those stories that the nationals wouldn’t cover and the hyperlocals would cover only part of. Data about the East of England is too vague for a paper that focuses primarily on 1/6 of the counties in the region; information from Breckland District Council is not universal enough when there are at least 13 other county and district councils in the paper’s patch. Government statistics by region need paragraphs attached looking at the vagaries of the statistics and how Cambridge skews everything a certain way. District council data has to be broadened out. Everything needs context.

The great thing about that? There are unending opportunities for good data journalism in regional news – opportunities to combine new technology and open data to produce something that’s relevant and useful to as many individuals as possible. The question is how we exploit them. I believe that we start by freeing up interested journalists to do data work beyond simply plotting their stories on a map, taking on stories that impact people on a regional level.

How do school catchment areas affect house prices? Since the county council decided to turn the lights off at midnight on certain streets, has there been an increase in crime? How have mental health service closures hit NHS waiting lists in the region? We should be using open data and freely available tools to do good regional journalism and helping people to find out.

The NCE News Practice exam: resources

I discovered on Wednesday that I’ve passed my NCE exams – and did particularly well on the News Practice exam, winning the Ted Bottomley award. (I love the name. Love it. Probably too much.)

The examiner [pdf] was very, very nice about my paper, saying:

A textbook example of how to tackle the Newspaper Practice paper. A comprehensive law answer citing relevant cases and law, followed by practice answers that clearly demonstrate the candidate’s imagination and ability. It is clear from this paper that this candidate is already putting into practice the skills that the Newspaper Practice paper looks for. One of the highest Newspaper Practice scores in recent years. A very impressive performance.

I’ve been trying to find the paper I wrote so I could work out what on earth I did right, but so far haven’t managed to unearth it. I’m pretty sure I arrived home and thrust it as far out of sight as possible along with the other papers.

But from what I remember, a staggering amount of what I wrote for the second half of the paper was about the internet. Specific, useful, relevant ideas about how to use it to move stories on, to facilitate comments and let the community take control of the conversation. I talked about topic pages, context as an integral part of news reporting, data journalism in many forms, visualisations, mashups, maps, timelines, social media, FOIs, online reportage in all sorts of guises and the importance of the hyperlink.

Anyone revising for News Practice exams – my best advice is read the links, think about how you can apply the theory to the practical, and good luck. Oh, and know your McNae’s. Nothing can beat that.

JEEcamp thoughts on data journalism

Information VisualizationI spent some time talking to Martin Belam (@currybet) about data journalism and the importance (or otherwise) of journalists learning to code.

He said, as he’s said before, that it’s more important for journalists to know whether something is or isn’t possible than for us to necessarily be able to do it ourselves.

And for working journalists whose day to day job doesn’t carry a coding requirement already – and particularly those of us who are lucky enough to be in a workplace where there are developers or programmers who can take our ideas and make them flesh (ie. not me), he’s almost certainly right.

Those skills are becoming more and more important. With the birth of data.gov.uk and the increasingly open approach to information that the new coalition government is likely to take, sifting and analysing data to find the stories is going to be a vital skill for a lot of journalists.

We need to know our way around a spreadsheet. We need to be able to spot patterns in data and understand not only what they mean but also how we can use them to reveal stories that are not only relevant but useful.

We need to know where our skills can get us. We need to know our capabilities and our limits – and, crucially, we must be aware of what we don’t know. That’s not just knowing that there are holes in our knowledge, but knowing the shape of those holes so that we can try to get our problems a little closer to a solution.

Journalism is about asking the right questions. We research stories before we interview subjects so that we can ask pertinent questions whose answers will illuminate the subject. We need to be able to do the same thing with our data – we need to know what questions to ask and how, so that even if we can’t make the tools ourselves we can hand over the task to someone else without asking the impossible or wasting their time.

But most of the time, certainly for journalists on regional papers and I would wager for many in other areas, those people who know how to make the tools just don’t exist. I have friends who code, but I can’t ask them for a favour every time I want to create a news app, or diff two versions of a stack of documents, or visualise a complex dataset, or tell the story of 100 people’s losses from an investment fund going bust in a way that conveys both the scale and the humanity of the problem.

Regional journalists work on hundreds of stories that could be made vastly easier or more beautiful or more accessible through a touch of computer work (spreadsheets, maps, things that aren’t quite coding but sort of almost are and look like it to the untrained eye). A few of us can create those additions; the rest just write the story, and our papers and websites are poorer for it.

We work on a few stories – and the number is increasing – that are perfect for news apps, web coding, multimedia packages or other more complex solutions that very, very few of us can create. But no one else will do it for us.

On top of that many of us struggle with inflexible content management systems that penalise or make it literally impossible to display data-driven work online. Faced with that problem, some budding computer-assisted-reporters give up before they’ve even started.

So I’m not going to stop learning Python. It’s not a complete solution to the problem – for that we need real, systemic change so that the businesses we work for all value data work, understand its increasing relevance, reflect on current practice and support training journalists to do an evolving job.

But for me, it means that in the future I might be able to create better stories, automate processes within series or campaigns or multiple follow-up stories, make my job easier and make a better experience for the reader all at the same time.

At least, until we all have newsroom developers.