What do you mean, I get to do whatever I want?

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There’s this crazy boost of energy you get from moving to a different city and starting a different job. I joined the Guardian’s vocal choir just a couple of weeks ago. Did sewing lessons and can now mend torn pants. Figured out how to do reverse bridge and leg curls on a yoga ball, just because. Taught myself enough Spanish to read El PaĆ­s and enough Tyke and Manc to understand my Northern English housemates.

Energy is good, though. Here’s how an OpenNews fellowship like mine works: work on whatever with whoever, learn anything, and talk about it wherever. It’s the sweetest gig ever invented, but it’s also a bit of a brain melt. When the 2013 fellows got started the most commonly asked question was “So I get to do whatever I want? WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?” (First world problems, tell me about them.)

So what have I been doing these past few months as a fellow? For starters, all sorts of funky little side projects. I’ve written a tool do do literate programming in Python, wrote my own blogging engine, spent a week researching how reproducible research can help journalism. Learned about design thinking from IDEO and about programmable media from Mark Boas.

But there’s really one dream that I’m trying to turn into something real this year: track every big news website out there, so we can answer all kinds of wild questions about how the news industry really works.

I want to be able to see how news websites are different (or secretly the same), how news has changed over the years and how readers have responded. Are we less interested in international news than we used to be? What’s the ideal length for a piece of breaking news? What technologies does the New York Times use, what technologies did they use five years ago? How fast do different news websites load? What was the BBC‘s homepage like two months ago? Do people come to news sites through the front door, through search or through social? How much of journalism is still original writing anyway, how much is PR?

You know how professors in media studies will often have armies of students cut out articles from newspapers and put them in tidy little categorized piles to answer questions like “How often does the work of female journalists reach the front page?” It’s really messy and cumbersome but right now it’s the only way we have to get a sense of what the media is really like. What we need is the grown-up version, with less unpaid labor and more computers. We need it, and we’re building it.

Various people have been doing bits and pieces of this kind of data collection and news analysis. And now I get to add my own bits and pieces, something I’ve wanted to do for years, so, yeah, I guess I’m quite chuffed.

We’re starting really small and are tackling the easiest questions first: which news organizations produce the longest and which ones the shortest articles, that sort of thing. But who knows, eventually we might even be able to tackle the question of how to measure the impact of journalism.

But enough about me and more about you. I bet you have an idea like that. Something you’ve wanted to do for years that could make the news industry a little bit smarter and more au courant. Or you’ve always wanted to do something meaningful with your coding chops, not write the next enterprise back office whatever. You know what you want to do but you’re not doing it. You want do something that matters but you’re not. Frustrating, yes?

There’s something you can do. Apply to become a 2014 OpenNews fellow. It’s the best decision I ever made, and it will be the best decision you’ve ever made too.

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What do you mean, I get to do whatever I want? stdout.be/63 by @stdbrouw


Stijn Debrouwere works at The Guardian in London. This blog is about computer code and the future of journalism. Stijn is @stdbrouw on Twitter.

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