“that is my destination paper” — Me to pal Collin Sullivan, July 13, 2008, while discussing how awesome I thought the St. Petersburg Times was as a mere college student.
Fast forward to the next summer. It’s July 7 and I’m sitting in the office of a St. Petersburg Times managing editor. It’s eight weeks into my internship and she asks if I’d like to stick around. I say that sounds awesome. She offers me a job. I freak out. After checking with another place that wanted to hire me, I decided to take the Times offer.
That was more than a year ago. It seems so long ago, too. About three weeks ago I stopped working for the St. Petersburg Times. Now I work for The New York Times Regional Media Group in Tampa as a digital developer.
A bunch of pals have asked me why I stopped being a reporter and decided to be a guy who does whatever it is I do now. I’ll try to address that in this post and maybe explain what this job entails.
But some backstory on my career:
I had first heard of the St. Pete Times when some guy named Ben Montgomery gave a talk in Omaha about narrative journalism sometime in 2007. What the hell is that? I wondered. I went. I learned. I discovered an alternative to writing articles: You can write STORIES. Spin a yarn, evoke emotion, entertain and inform your reader.
I was intrigued. Didn’t take long for me to decide I was going to work there. Somehow, I found a way. But by the time I showed up, my priorities changed. Didn’t want to be David Finkel or Tom French anymore. Wanted to be like Derek Willis and Matt Waite instead.
When I took the full-time gig at the Times over being a cops/database reporter at print-centric place, I told friends this was going to be like graduate school. I’d learn from people like Matt and Jeremy Bowers. Build cool stuff, push the journalistic envelope and learn learn learn.
Then the economic realities of the newspaper industry hit. Hard. The eventual layoffs meant my reporter hat instead of dev skills was needed in the newsroom. I spent my days (Read: early, early mornings) covering, usually, the sadder parts of human existence. Car crashes, fires, arrests and murders. It became surprisingly emotionally draining, only I didn’t realize how much until many months later.
The stories I did in such a short time will probably provide a lifetime of memories. I saw a decapitated body, stepped in a murdered man’s blood, went on CNN and said “bare breast.” Covered the tale of a man who was stabbed, beaten, put in a duffel bag, thrown in a dumpster and lit on fire. He wasn’t dead, and witnesses could hear him screaming.
I wrote about a tow truck driver a few times, really really strong beer, a detective haunted by a murder, one serial killer. One day I wrote ten stories in only six hours. Two ran in the paper. Take that, Politico.
While the written word has been important to me, I’ve always loved interactive web applications. I grew up with the Internet. It makes sense to me, maybe more so than a newspaper. So whenever I had a chance to work on a project that was web-only at the Times, I jumped at it.
My time at the Times has been among the most rewarding and awe-inspiring parts of my life. Every day, they put out this amazing piece of journalism. Its metro section alone on some days probably has more original stories than the entirety of some large newspapers. Nobody covers a big story like the Times, and it was wonderful being just a small cog in a big machine on some stories that meant a lot to Tampa Bay, if not the state.
So, some have asked why I would leave this and go into something less comfortable. One friend called leaving “a serious leap of faith.” I think that’s the point: With this new job, I won’t be able to fall back on the skills of an everyday reporter. I’ll have to constantly learn new programming tricks, advanced tools and different techniques to solve problems.
That’s what journalism is at its core: solving problems. This person has information I need, so I need to find a way to get that information. Or this government agency keeps this person’s phone number in this record so I can call him or her to get a comment about yatta yatta. That’s how I see programming, too: solving problems, however possible.
In this new gig, I’ll be doing some simple stuff, like fixing CSS problems on sites, setting up new pages within the CMS for individual sites and making sure the servers are working correctly. Some of it involves building data-driven web applications, such as their various prep sites. Other times I’ll be adding new features for existing products. And other parts include just coordinating with a large amount of people at many newspapers to make sure sites launch properly.
This is just a natural progression in my I-must-always-be-challenging-myself-or-I’m-not-progressing-as-a-human deal. This job has been a big challenge so far, with a lot to learn (holyvendorsbatman!). But hey, I like a good challenge. And thankfully, I had some good tutors at the St. Pete Times who helped to prepare me.