My Fellowship So Far

I’ve always been able to say “I’ve spent the majority of my life in school” without really thinking about it. But today, I started to type that out (for a point I’ll eventually make, somewhere down below) and I had to pause. I was born in mid February, 1986, call that 341 months alive. K-12, Undergrad, and a 2 year Master’s, at give-or-take 9 months out of the year (OK, maybe that’s highly questionable methodology, — arguably I was “in school” during summer breaks, but it certainly didn’t feel that way 1), that’s 171 months. So I’ll have spent more of my life out of school than in it when I’m…342 months old… Oh man. Barring the arrival of my Hogwarts letter in the next three weeks, I’m about to be more not-a-student than student.

So how am I going to keep learning?

The dedicated readers of this blog (my Mom et al) might recognize learning as a common theme of these posts. In trying to report back on my fellowship, I’ve constantly been mentioning new skills, languages, tools, or lessons I’ve learned. It’s become clear to me that room-to-capital-L-Learn lies at the heart of what makes this fellowship so mind boggleingly wonderful.

If you’re thinking of applying to the fellowship, chances are you’re 341 months old, ± a small or large bunch of months. You might be hovering around, or somewhere past that 50/50 school/not school mark. If you’re like me, you’re wondering how to keep learning every single day (EVERY single day) without sitting in a classroom. Well, for a start, apply to be a Knight Mozilla Fellow.

Over the course of my fellowship, I’ve learned so much, in so many different contexts. You can read older posts to see a bit of what I’ve learned, but now I want to outline how I’ve learned it.

Learning from the newsroom

If you’re like I was a year ago, you’re thinking about applying for this fellowship but have zero newsroom experience. That’s so ok. I’m not here as a journalist (although I’ve worked on some graphics and research and done journalistic work (one time I even called someone to ask questions; a terrifying prospect for someone used to gathering data through API calls and SQL queries)). However, I am learning so much from working in a newsroom. When stories break, it’s absolutely amazing to watch the content creation process unfurl. The process of team communication and collaboration — over e-mail and chat, huddled around screens, in pop up meetings and lighting fast editorial sessions — is inspiring. I’m learning about how to report and publish, and to do it fast. I’m learning about how to ask for help how to give it.

I’m also learning from some amazing developers here at the Post. Like a lot of reasonably large organizations, there are tons of developers working with a variety of technologies: front end, back end (although five minutes ago I was chatting with a dev about how this is a pretty false distinction), mobile, interactive graphics, etc. But unlike a lot of big organizations, they’re not buried in an IT department. Many of these developers and journalist/developers sit across an aisle from me, right in the thick of things among investigative data journalists, designers, and the graphics team (and just down the hall from a room full of reporters). I can ask them questions directly related to a newsroom project, pair program on a graphic or tool, sit over their shoulder and watch them work (it’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise), or just chat about what we’re working on. It’s amazing.

Learning on my own

In this newsroom, I’m never working in isolation, but I can make a conscious effort to drop everything and learn. I’ve bought a few textbooks (on Javascript, D3.js, and a handful of other languages and tools), read documentation, and scoured stackoverflow threads. Anyone writing code is learning constantly, often in these same ways, but as a fellow it’s an integral part of my duties here. If there’s a new tool we could find using, or a little problem we could solve, or a chunk of code to be refactored, a full Washington Post employee might just not have the time to dig into it. News happens. Projects have deadlines. But as a fellow, I can take a day or a week to learn what’s going on, to pick a problem apart, to help out because it’s interesting and exciting and fun. Have a side project you’ve been dying to work on but never had the time? A new language you wish you could hack on? A tool you know newsrooms and journalists would love? Apply to be a fellow, and work on it.

Learning from the OpenNews community

A fellowship this cool attracts really, really cool people. There are two classes of former fellows (and during your fellowship there will be a third), there’s the amazing crew who runs OpenNews and Source, and there are hundreds of others who are part of our family. There are people working on Knight Foundation projects, and people former fellows have met and pulled onto projects, and employees of newsrooms (both those where fellows have worked and those where we haven’t) who love the work we do and want to chat about it. You may have sat in or talked on an OpenNews community call, where some of these amazing people talk about their work. I highly encourage you to call into the next one, and to dig through the archive of past calls (there are detailed notes kept in public Ether pads) to see the kinds of amazing people you could be learning from.

I learn from the OpenNews community during our calls. I learn in our IRC chat room (#opennews on, plus a small channel for the unbelievably cool current fellows to tell me all the unbelievable cool things they know about). I learn at the dozen or so conferences I’m attending this year, about half of which are part of the fellowship (where all the current and fellows attend (fully funded) and hack on projects together), and about half of which I’m attending because they sound interesting and fun and are also funded by my fellowship (and where I inevitably bump into at least a few people in the OpenNews family, because we share opinions about what’s interesting and what’s fun). I’m not going to stop learning from these amazing people — I’m developing what I know will be life-long connections with brilliant, kind, shockingly talented people who I will always learn from, and will always learn from me.

This fellowship has already changed my life. I know so much more than I did half a year ago, and have so many more people and communities I can learn from. I may not be in school anymore, but I’m certainly a student. Today, tomorrow, and for the rest of my career, I will be learning every day, and I’m figuring out out how to life-long-learn because of this stupendous, magical, yes-it’s-really-that-great fellowship. Hit me up @benchartoff on twitter or bchartoff on IRC if you want to hear more. Let’s learn.

1. There may be a lesson here — I’m using questionable, or possibly even incorrect data because the analysis makes the numbers tidy, makes them tell a good story. This is a pattern I’ve fought against in data journalism during my fellowship. I’ve argued with reporters, chatted with data analysts, offered comments and criticisms in meetings. At times I’ve been contentious or even obnoxious, but I think that’s part of what this fellowship is all about — having the freedom to act as an outside observer and offer (hopefully) objective criticism. So why, you ask, did I leave the maybe-wrong data analysis in this post? I decided that this footnote made a more interesting contribution than a silent edit. It’s in a footnote, because it digresses a bit from the post’s general thread, but if it helps you realize why this fellowship is so special, I’ve done my job.

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