Using the theory ‘Hire humans. Not skills. Not roles.’ as inspiration, the Lab’s profiles are Q&As with smart people who are shaping the future of media. Catch up and/or follow the series here.
Meeting the lovely Tasneem Raja was the highlight of my week during 2012’s South by Southwest Interactive Conference. Formerly a staff writer at The Chicago Reader and the news apps editor at The Bay Citizen, she is now an editor at Mother Jones leading their interactive storytelling team. She is kind, tremendously witty and scary smart. In fact, Tasneem is perhaps best known outside of the news nerd circle for brilliantly writing about the “Brogrammer” problem and sexism in Silicon Valley and about being a woman in the video game industry last year. Read on to learn about her adventures in the MoJo newsroom, how she manages an interactive news team and her approach to knowledge-sharing between teams of journalists.
Miranda: What are you working on these days?
Tasneem: Our data visualizations and interactive graphics need to look awesome on mobile, and they don’t right now. MoJo’s numbers are the same as everyone else’s: mobile traffic growth is outpacing desktop audience growth. And even if it weren’t, designing interactive stories with mobile in mind is simply the right thing to do. As Brian Boyer has put it, if it doesn’t work on mobile, it doesn’t work. We’re working on an open-source charting template that handles data comparisons in a slick, engaging way (aka D3), and we haven’t done the best job ever of prioritizing a fluid layout. So, it’s time to course correct.
What do you like about Mother Jones?
Tasneem: It’s funny: my first job in data journalism was as a news apps editor at an ambitious startup journalism outlet that garnered a lot of “future of journalism”-buzz when it launched in 2010 (RIP The Bay Citizen). Here I am working at Mother Jones, which I first learned of in high school while visiting a beloved teacher’s house for tea, where I had to step over dusty stacks of old Mother Jones issues to cross the living room. And yet this 36-year-old news organization has this incredibly nimble, risk-loving, and straight-up fun spirit that I’ve found lacking in many upstart media ventures, which supposedly got to sidestep all the legacy problems of old newsrooms.
For instance, I don’t have to convince anyone here that iterative product development is awesome. Just yesterday, I heard a news editor encouraging a reporter to “think iteratively” about how to chase down a major story.
There’s a top-down culture of testing out emerging possibilities and new ways of doing business if there’s a reasonable chance they could further the mission. And, more importantly, when something isn’t working, even if we’ve made a significant investment in the endeavor, it feels totally safe to say so.
Tell us about your team. How is it set up?
Tasneem: There’s three of us on the Interactives team at MoJo. My producer Jaeah Lee is completely amazing. She comes from a reporting background with superpowers in research and policy analysis, and over the year and change that she’s been on my team, she’s morphed into this scarily competent front-end developer, interaction designer, and data wrangler.
She started out at MoJo as an intern on the magazine’s research desk, and I would be completely lost without her deep knowledge and appreciation for how our newsroom actually *works,* from fact-checking to magazine production to the evolution of our web operation. That’s one of my biggest points of pride: our team has worked really hard to insert ourselves into the storytelling process here at MoJo, and my editors-in-chief tell me that we’re totally fused with the editorial DNA of the place at this point. Jaeah’s been really vital to that win, always making sure we’re looping in the fact-checkers, copyeditors, and story editors when we need them and at the right time.
We get to work with delightfully irascible MoJo developer Ben Breedlove, who splits his time between my team and our core technology team, which works on building out the CMS and making the whole site better. (You know how the site never crashed under the traffic tsunami that was our 47 percent scoop? That was all them.) Ben is a veritable machine of open-source news tools who’s coded over a dozen critically useful pieces of software for us (and everyone else!).
Our ethos is “storytelling by any means necessary.” Sometimes that means building reusable tools to answer newsroom needs for which we can’t find a good existing solution. (We are highly allergic to “not built here” syndrome here—if someone else has already built it better, we rejoice and head to the bar.) Sometimes it means spending a couple weeks designing a D3-powered interactive “universe” of campaign finance data, because we think that’s a better way to tell the super-PAC story than plopping a bunch of tables on the page. And more and more lately, it means training our fellow journalists in the same tools we use, from spreadsheets to JSON to GIS. To me, that’s where the real win happens; making everyone’s journalism better a little bit at a time, across the whole newsroom, not just doing spectacularly better journalism every now and then.
What’s one of your biggest wins?
Tasneem: Last year, I started a skill-sharing series at Mother Jones called “Skillz Thursdays,” a one-hour brown bag session where someone at MoJo teaches everyone else about one thing. It might be “how to make a map,” or “how to understand MoJo’s revenue streams,” or “how to not freak out when getting interviewed on-air by NPR about that awesome story you just did.” Since Skillz is organized by the interactive team, there’s a tech-heavy focus, but IMO our best sessions are when a group of folks in our company who don’t often cross paths get to come together and simply chat, in an unstructured, super low-stakes environment. Skillz Thursdays has become enormously popular among our staff, and I have a requests list for future sessions that’s a mile long. (Our CEO just generously offered to supply lunch on the MoJo dime, so I have a feeling they’re about to get even more popular.) We’re currently figuring out ways to archive the sessions, via slidedecks perhaps, and set up a satellite series in our D.C. bureau, which currently videoconferences in.
Tasneem: After the tragic shooting in Aurora, MoJo senior editor Mark Follman wanted to look at data on mass shootings over the last several years to gauge whether this type of incident was on the uptick. Turns out there was nowhere to look; a comprehensive data set on mass shooting incidents in American history didn’t exist. So, we set out to make one. Mark and his team of two junior reporters from the MoJo fellowship program began the exhaustive process of culling very detailed information on these shootings from the last 20 years, from local news reports, calls to local police departments, and research studies on gun violence in America. From make of weapons used, to known history of mental illness among the shooters, to how the weapons were obtained, no one had ever put this information in one place before.
My team worked with Mark’s crew to scrape and patch together various partial data sets on the topic, compile them in one database (we simply used a Google spreadsheet), and analyze the findings for patterns and trends. We also created a map showing where the incidents occurred, with a full case profile on each one. The map and data findings have been cited in countless news reports, including a New York Times op-ed on our country’s escalating gun problem, and was namechecked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein during a hearing on a proposed assault weapons ban.
There’s been a lot of interest in the last few years in journalists scouring publicly available government data sets to monitor our officials and agencies, and a push to force more agencies to put their data online in formats that don’t suck. That’s all awesome, necessary, and yields valuable findings. But we all know that a lot of the stories aren’t just sitting there waiting to be found. I’m personally very interested in the magic that happens when you put unconnected data sets together for the first time, or create new data sets that don’t exist yet.
I’m really interested in the possibilities of “preemptive” data findings: identifying problematic industrial plants via a crosscheck of several regulatory databases before the next explosion, for instance. It’s not quite that simple (and doesn’t really even sound very simple now that I read back), and it’s no new concept—see Philip Meyers and the Detroit Free Press’s survey data collection efforts after the city’s 1967 riots—but it’s one I’m particularly invested in. And, in my opinion, one Mother Jones is in a uniquely good position to mine, given that we still have a hefty fact-checking desk and the groundwork we’ve laid in the last couple years to beef up our data wrangling skills across the newsroom.
What is the biggest luxury in your life?
Tasneem: Last year, for the first time, I moved into my own apartment, a little one-bedroom in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood with a lemon tree shading the front windows and, gasp! garbage disposal. It’s just me in here, no partner, no siblings, no roommates. This may not seem like such a big deal, but in my family and the culture I come from, it is. Sitting on my couch with a beer and a magazine and quiet all around me feels like an incredible and hard-won luxury.