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Gone are the days when news organizations had just copy editors and page designers. Today, there are newsroom titles like digital optimizer, audience analyst and executive mobile editor. As social media platforms have evolved so have job titles, along with the tools journalists use to communicate with audiences. In this series, RJI will learn more about these titles and the people who hold them.

This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

Audrey CarlsenAudrey Carlsen is one of two news apps developers in the newsroom at The Seattle Times. Carlsen has held the position for a year and a half. Before the two developers were hired, someone from the IT department would work on news apps development, says Carlsen.

What does a news apps developer do?
This sort of position is new enough that you’ll likely find that news apps developers at different organizations have a wide range of responsibilities. Since there are only two of us at The Seattle Times, we end up doing many different kinds of work. We spend a majority of our time creating interactive graphics — maps, charts, searchable tables — for data-driven stories. Some of what we do would be considered data journalism – working with reporters to help them set up, clean and analyze data. We work on non-data-driven projects as well, including a great deal of collaboration with our photo, video and art departments to create customized online presentations for their work. We also occasionally build newsroom tools, including a watermark tool for photographs, and online templates to help our Web producers build story components like quizzes, tables and image sliders.
What’s a project you recently worked on and what went into building that?

We recently worked on a large investigative piece on seismic risks in Washington State and how the state has failed in their responsibility to prepare the state for a possible catastrophic earthquake. We gave it a much punchier presentation than just a standard story. We looked through data on historic quakes and created interactive maps to show that. I worked on another map showing the fault lines that have been discovered over the past 30 years. It involves taking heavy, thick datasets and visualizing them in ways that make sense to people.

For example, we had a data set on unreinforced masonry buildings. Those are the buildings most likely to crumble and fall and cause danger to people during an earthquake. People can search for their address and see whether their building is an unreinforced masonry building. It made the story more personal and engaging, and showed readers that this is something that affects us all.

What is one of the hardest projects you’ve built or designed?

I would say it’s the Seismic Neglect project.  This was a large project that required both of us over several months. We turn small things around in the course of a week or a couple of days.

Since we’re such a new small department, I think half of our work is also teaching and mentoring the newsroom on the new sorts of things we can do online.

What led you to pursue a career in news apps development?

This was not the plan a couple of years ago. I am skeptical of anyone in 2016 who is currently working as a news app developer who says, “I’ve wanted to do this for 10 years,” because 10 years ago no one knew this was going to be a job.

It came about just paying attention to where the industry was going in terms of what needs were showing up and, honestly, where it was easier to use my tools to get a job.   

I worked as a reporter for a year or so at various internships. It’s really hard right now finding a full-time job as a reporter or writer. During that time while trying to figure out what my next move was, I ended up finding a really great program specifically designed to get more women into the tech field. It’s called Ada Developers Academy. At the time it just seemed like a great opportunity. At the beginning of the program, my thought was, “Coding is clearly not a skill I’m going to regret having in a year.” And about halfway through that program I really started realizing that newsrooms were hiring for that job. When I first started that program, I vaguely thought, “Hopefully, I’ll be able to apply this back to the sort of things I’m interested in.” I didn’t really have a good idea of how that would pan out. By the time that program ended, it was really good timing. The Seattle Times was looking for someone who had those skills and a background in journalism.

What advice would you have for those who want to pursue a career in news apps development?

Learn to code. Start learning the things you need to tell the story you want to tell. Start small. Start working with free online tools. Try to build your own website. Don’t sell yourself short on having some good coding skills and some understanding of at least one coding language. And just pay attention to what other places are doing. That’s part of our job as well is just looking around and trying to get inspiration from other places.

Jennifer Nelson  
Senior Information Specialist


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