January Book Club Recap

Ida Tarbell, as shown in the frontispiece of All in the Day's Work

For January the News Nerd Book Club read Ida Tarbell's autobiography, All in the Day's Work.

Tarbell details her growth from a child in the oil-rich lands of 1850s western Pennsylvania to the muckraker known for her investigations of Standard Oil. Her words take us to Poland Seminary of Poland, Ohio; The Chautauquan in Chautauqua, New York; the streets of 1890s Paris where she researched Madame Roland and wrote for McClure's Magazine. She wrote a series on Bonaparte, then one on Abraham Lincoln, then another on Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller.

Some of what we discussed:

  • Is true objectivity possible in journalism? Tarbell grew up affected by the oil industry, and targeted its illegal practices, but didn't align herself with the muckrackers of the era and tried to find a balance between different sides of the story.
  • The French citizens Tarbell encountered weren't concerned with life outside the borders of France. Are there are modern parallels?
  • Expatriate writers were in such demand that Tarbell funded her time in Paris with articles for American publishers. Are Americans today actually interested in other countries' events beyond just the story of the moment?
  • Her dedication to her work amazed us. She was truant in grade school until she discovered that schoolwork was a puzzle to be solved.
  • Are all journalists driven by an intense curiosity from childhood? Tarbell's story is but one example. If you interviewed every investigative journalist, would you find that the topics of their investigations were related to their childhood experiences?
  • Tarbell's greatest stories were serialized over months or years in magazines. Is Serial a sign that this format of publishing will return?

Next month!

Our book club hangout next month will be Wednesday, February 11, at 1 p.m. Eastern time.

Help us select the book for February's hangout by filling out this quick survey.

The three titles under consideration are:

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

The Design of Everyday Things is even more relevant today than it was when first published.
– Tim Brown, CEO, IDEO

Responsive Web Design, second edition by Ethan Marcotte

Day by day, the number of devices, platforms, and browsers that need to work with your site grows. Ethan’s straightforward approach to designing for this complexity represents a fundamental shift in how we’ll build websites for the decade to come.
– Jeffrey Veen, CEO and cofounder of Typekit, VP of Products at Adobe

In the Beginning... Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

In the Beginning was the Command Line is now badly obsolete and probably needs a thorough revision. For the last couple of years I have been a Mac OS X user almost exclusively.
– Neal Stephenson, in a 2003 post on his website and a 2004 Slashdot interview

You can also add suggestions to our book club reading list or tweet them to us @newsnerdbooks.

Ida Tarbell on pie:

Of the Monthly I have more distinct recollections. It was in these that I first began to read freely. Many a private picnic did I have with the Monthly under the thorn bushes on the hillside above Oil Creek, a lunch basket at my side. There are still in the family storeroom copies of Harper's Monthly stained with lemon pie dropped when I was too deep into a story to be careful.

How We Build Community

As a remote team, we pay special attention to how we communicate and build connections within our organization. But the need for community and connection extends beyond just our team — we're keenly aware of the challenges faced by the often lone technologists working at our member organizations. Even if you have supportive colleagues, it's not easy to be the only person at your organization who does what you do.

Organizing opportunities to learn together is a core component of our team’s commitment to “Always Be Learning.” To that end we have recently announced a number of new programs that we hope will help people connect and create affinity groups, ask questions of us and one another, and form a more tight-knit community and support network.

There are a number of existing online communities for news technologists — the NICAR-L mailing list comes to mind, as well as various Twitter chats, Google groups, etc. — but we want to create more opportunities for people to casually connect with each other online and to meet “face-to-face” (even if these face-to-face interactions are mediated by technology). This is why, as a team, we have a daily standup meeting, or scrum, using Google Hangout where we can actually see each other (via video chat) and communicate via always-on chat throughout the day (using HipChat).

Since part of our role is to support a network of organizations, we’re trying a number of things to create similar experiences for the broader community of technologists at INN member organizations and beyond.

Book Club

Our News Nerd Book Club is an idea that sprang from a discussion with Ryan Nagle about how we might replicate a shared team library as a distributed team. Instead of mailing books around to each other we decided to start a book club where we pick a book each month, read it and then get together to talk about it (either via Google Hangout or, occasionally, in person if we happen to be at a conference or other team gathering in the same physical space).

We decided to open the book club to anyone because we view these get togethers as not only a time to gather and discuss the book itself, but also as a scheduled time every month to convene a community that might not otherwise have an opportunity to come together outside of conferences (and, for people at organizations without a significant travel budget, that might not meet at all).

If you’d like to join the club, we have a crowd-sourced list of potential books (we’re trying to keep the selections accessible to a general audience and not overly technical), a Twitter account you can follow and our next hangout is scheduled for December 10.

Office Hours

We now hold monthly open office hours where anyone can sign up for a slot to come talk to our entire team about projects you’re working on, questions you have or really anything you’d like to chat with us about. The aim here, again, is to set aside time each month to get people together to learn from each other and for us as a team to spend time thinking about different problems than we typically work on in our day-to-day work.

We see these office hours as part of our commitment to transparency (all of our office hours are open by default, meaning that anyone can drop by and listen in or join the conversation) and a way to give back to the community. They're also a great way to generate new project ideas and possible leads for our consulting work.

Additionally, we hope that these office hours provide students, recent grads or prospective team members a non-threatening opportunity to get to know us, other members of the news and tech community, and to see first-hand how we work.

Open Chat

Another tool that has become indispensable for our team, as for many distributed teams, is some sort of asynchronous, always-on chat (we use HipChat and Slack is another popular choice).

In addition to our private team chat room where we talk about projects, share interesting links and post the occasional animated GIF, we now have a semi-public HipChat room that is open to any news technologists (particularly from INN member organizations, but we’re not too picky) who want to come hang out with us, ask occasional questions, share projects and interesting things they’re reading, and generally feel like part of our extended team.

If you’d like an invite to this room, we need to add you to our HipChat account (HipChat is kind enough to offer free unlimited accounts to nonprofit organizations), so just send an email to nerds@inn.org and we’ll get you an invitation.

Weekly Newsletter

Finally, just last week we sent out the first edition of our new weekly newsletter, Nerd Alert. This newsletter is a collection of interesting things our team is reading, open source tools, projects we're excited about, some random fun stuff and, perhaps most importantly, an opportunity for us to highlight "guest stars" whose perspectives we value and want to share with our readers.

Our aim with this newsletter is to capture and share some of our team's collective knowledge that might otherwise be trapped within our HipChat room or relegated to Twitter or an inaccessible email thread, while also highlighting voices that are less-often heard (particularly, again, the "lone wolf" technologists at our member organizations).

You can sign up for the newsletter right here and if you believe you or anyone you know would make a good guest star for a future newsletter, shoot us an email and we'll add you to our list.

Those are a few recent things we've been trying to help build strong networks among INN members and the broader journalism and tech community. While they're not a replacement for spending time together in real life (something we're hoping to do more of in the new year) we hope they're at least a start.

If you have any ideas for other things we might want to try, feel free to leave a comment or get in touch. We'd love to hear from you!

How To Hold An Event Using Google Hangouts That Anyone Can Attend

After scrambling to find a way to set up a public Google Hangout for our last Book Club meeting, I thought it might be helpful to share my initial frustrations and how I finally managed to set it up.

First, I tried creating a new Google Hangout via Google Plus, inviting the public and saving the URL to return to later. Turns out that Hangouts created this way are ephemeral. After about five minutes with no attendees, the Hangout ends.

So the second thing I tried was adding an event to my Google calendar, since I knew that calendar events with video calls (Google Hangouts) attached are persistent (we use the same Google Hangouts link for our scrum every day). Unfortunately, I found that I was unable to invite the general public to a Google Calendar event.

The third thing I tried, after stumbling upon this documentation, was creating a Google Plus event. Not only was I able to create a public Google Hangout with a persistent link, but this also gives you the added benefit of having a place where people can RSVP and/or find more info about the event.

From what we've been able to tell, you're still limited to ten attendees on video at any one time and 100 concurrent users total in the chat but this at least gives you a link you can share without anyone in advance of the event and a place where people can RSVP.

I created a quick how-to for this so that I don’t have to spend time head-scratching next time I need to schedule an event. You can find the complete how-to in the INN docs repo on Github.

Hopefully, you find it helpful, too.