CW: Right, and there’s no way you’d be interested in playing this game if you weren’t. I haven’t looked yet at how it compares to other actual polling yet. But what would be really fun is, after the election, we would then have this day by day picture of who was leaning and locking to whom, so we could go through and look at which day was the most accurate. It would be very cool if, for instance, everybody was correct, like, three weeks before the election, but then psyched themselves out and chose wrong.
To wrap up, do you think that more journalists should learn programming?
DP: Yes. There’s just no doubt in my mind about that. Looking for new talent, that is something that is very, very high on my list, someone who can use data and use the tools of software and the tools of the Web to make things work in a different way. I say this whenever I speak to aspiring journalists: my number one piece of advice is to learn some technical skills. It makes it possible to do better and more interesting journalism in the medium we are working in.
I’m not so foolish as to think that you can learn technical skills and be as good a writer as Norman Mailer. There’s a limited capacity, so that people who spend time learning technical skills won’t spend as much time learning on their writing, and that’s a tradeoff. But Web journalism right now is long on people who can write really well, and short on people who can do interactive visual journalism. So that’s the opening I see, and people should rush to it.
What’s your advice for journalists who want to start learning programming?
A lot of people who are writers by nature are probably intimidated by programming. It’s a whole new language to learn.
CW: It really doesn’t take that much time to build a couple of skills that will put them way, way ahead of the pack, and really make them better reporters. Particularly with things like screen-scraping, where you can build these data sets, that’s very much directly in the service of gathering information and reporting, and making sure the information you’re providing is much more thorough.
The hardest thing is getting over that fear, but really there’s nothing that you’re going to do that’s going to cause any damage to anything. There’s no programming function that causes your computer to catch on fire. On the Labs blog soon I’d like to write up some tips for journalists who want to learn this stuff—partly as a public service, but mainly because we’re all in this together, in terms of figuring out what’s going to work and what isn’t.