According to the Pew Research Center, one in ten US adults now get their news on Twitter; four in ten read it on Facebook. The proliferation of new media, and the tools it uses to deliver the news are changing the face of journalism — and what being a journalist involves.
Wojtek Grójec, a Prague-based interactive editor and data whiz at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is part of a new breed of journalists who are at the forefront of new media. He doesn’t have formal training in journalism or technology – yet those are the two areas he has married in his work at RFE/RL and earlier at Al Jazeera.
I sat down with Wojtek this week over Skype to chat about his work, the current trends he sees in online media, and his thoughts on the contrasts between traditional text-based journalism and interactive production in the news business.
What Wojtek does have training in is international affairs. That was his undergrad as well as graduate school major at Uppsala University, Sweden, and Georgetown University. But he has been a tech geek since he was 12, and his professional work has always focused on technology in media.
In his current position at RFE, an international news organization reporting on regions where freedom of press is curtailed, Wojtek adds graphic and interactive elements to news. He also researches data, traces its patterns, and figures out the story it has to tell.
So what does a typical day looks like in the life of an interactive editor?
“I have a pretty small team of five,” Wojtek says. “Every morning we meet in the newsroom and discuss what we’re going to do. Writers and editors figure out their assignments, and my team gets graphic, web or photo pitches. I get to edit the products. For longer projects I would do coding or video, and my team members will pick up the slack in other areas.”
While editing for quick-turn projects typically takes a day or two, Wojtek also works on longer-term projects on the side, such as an upcoming anniversary. The team also looks for existing articles that it can enhance visually, like by adding a chart. Sometimes it might produce a quick, solely graphic piece that they can get out the same day.
“Like today, we heard about a Hungarian fashion photographer who did a photo shoot ‘inspired’ by refugees and migrants, using barbed wire in the background,” he recalls. “We turned that story around in half an hour (check it out below). That’s just the way a newsroom is.”
I ask what digital tools Wojtek likes to use on a daily basis.
“If working with a web page, I typically use text editor. Sublime is my favorite; it’s a can’t-live-without tool for me,” he said. “For graphics, Pixelmator, Photoshop, or Illustrator; sometimes all three. Each has its strength. For source control, I use Git, which is standard for web development. That’s my basic toolset.”
For video, he recommends Premiere for editing but also uses Final Cut and Aftereffects.
Wojtek spent quite some time in DC, a thriving tech hub. Did he use any of its networking groups to stay informed on industry trends?
“I did go to meetup.com’s programming networking groups, especially to learn Ruby. I’ve also heard that groups like Hacks/Hacker DC are good. That’s one way to keep up. But I also read a lot; tech discussion sites like Hacker News. And then there’s of course Twitter,” he said.
“I think there are good and bad ways to tell a story. Doing things graphically isn’t always the best answer…”
So what major industry trends does he see around him? And would digital production soon need to be a part of every journalist’s skill set?
For starters, Wojtek doesn’t think online journalism signals the demise of traditional journalism.
“I think there are good and bad ways to tell a story. Doing things graphically isn’t always the best answer. But standard data journalism and traditional can complement each other well,” he said. “The important thing to keep in mind is that data journalism is the best tool for making complicated, interconnected nodes seem comprehensible for the human mind.”
One example is a recent New York Times graphic on Syria. Wojtek found it doubly powerful the way it put text and data together to connect dots that tell a bigger story.
“The important thing to keep in mind is that data journalism is the best tool for making complicated, interconnected nodes seem comprehensible for the human mind.”
As far as technologies go, Wojtek thinks data visualization and D-3 are the future. He also thinks WebGL, which helps build interactive 3D graphics, can play a big role in creating interactive experiences for people with poor connectivity in remote regions.
On traditional journalists, he feels while it’s important at the minimum to have an awareness of digital production, it’s not possible for everyone to become an expert.
“There’s a trend now to encourage journalists to start coding and design work. I think that’ well and good, but that takes serious commitment,” he said. “It would be cool if everyone had editorial, statistical, program and tech knowledge, but that’s a lot to expect,” he said.
That said, an awareness of the various skills required in the newsroom can go a long way. He gives an example of their infographics team that serves the entire newsroom, but is under-utilized because it can’t make editorial decisions.
“People telling them what to do don’t always have design awareness. I think journalists learning how to code is important for that awareness. The same way, a programmer by trade should have editorial training, too” he says.