Share Your Knowledge


Derek Willis


August 3, 2012

Unlike my friends at The Chicago Tribune, I have no logo to display, but my message here is as important as “Show Your Work”: Share Your Knowledge. In fact, it’s hard to do one properly without the other, so consider them a package deal.

In the more than seven years since I wrote “The Information Gap“, segments of the journalism community have gotten a whole lot better at preserving some of the things that we value and make our work better. Some of this is thanks to plentiful and cheap storage, some of it to code-sharing sites like Github, and some thanks to outfits dedicated to building, preserving and sharing best practices and groan-inducing foibles.

What we’re less good at — still — is setting down the tasks and background information that doesn’t make it into the news but makes getting the news possible. But the same tools that make it possible for us to create an awesome tool for processing federal campaign finance filings also make it easier to collect and organize the secret sauce that makes our journalism remarkable – or just possible. All we need is the willingness to share our experience and the ability to keep it up.

There are some examples of this in action, including one by my former Washington Post colleague Nathaniel Vaughn-Kelso, a cartographer now with Stamen Design. Nate has been working on an open source GIS how-to that explains how and why to get started with open source mapping solutions. The section on setting up PostGIS alone makes a visit worthwhile.

Now imagine if we had similar efforts by journalists experienced in various subject areas like food safety, or the energy industry or the criminal justice system. I’m not asking for, or expecting, people to voluntarily surrender key information like sources or other information very specific to a local beat. Instead, I’m thinking about the common materials of a beat or topic, and the right and wrong ways to make use of them.

One of the issues with this approach is that it works best if you’re able to gather a number of people to bring their experience and vantage points to bear. More hands make for a better result, and collaboration hasn’t always been the strong suit of journalists at competing news organizations. Let’s see if we can’t change that, in just one instance.

Along with Huffington Post developer Aaron Bycoffe, I’ve been working on a developer’s guide to working with Federal Election Commission data. This is geared towards people working with the data for web applications, but it also will include tips on using them for reporting in general, since our web apps are products of journalism. If you work with FEC data, or are just getting into it, please join us on the wiki. If you’re feeling a little shy, you could fork the entire repository and add a page or edits and we’ll get them back into the wiki.

And if you’re not into campaign finance, then maybe you have other expertise to share. Your colleagues, to say nothing of journalism in general, will be better for it.