Author Archives: Savannah Stephens

Cool people. Awesome development tricks.

This week I got to talk to someone I really admire at The Post. My Q and A with Matt Callahan was a really nice way too see the “after” of what you can do in web development. I very much am in the “before” category, so looking at all the amazing enterprise pieces that Matt had a hand in was an education in itself.

We’ve been toiling away learning the foundational lessons in coding, and this was a really nice break to see how far we’ve come and where we can go with this. Like many of my classmates have mentioned, a lot of our work can feel overwhelming but to see someone else who has used this platform and made amazing storytelling vehicles was a nice way to see the forrest from the trees.

As for other work, the slideshow was a pretty hard assignment. I asked around for some tips and help, and without that I honestly don’t think I would have been able to complete the assignment. Going over it in class was helpful, but it would have been better to go over it on the outset. Again, I understand that the aims of this class aren’t to spoon-feed us, but it would have been extremely helpful to have some footing before we began the project.

I am relieved to hear that the class takes a pivot now to longer projects. I’m looking forward to thinking about final projects, and trying to conceptualize what I can do after learning the basics in development. I still think that I’m interested in front-end design, and making things look pretty. It would be really cool to design something for The Post that we can use for the fine arts team, but I’m going to continue to mull what my options are. Until next week!

Midterm Q and A: Matt Callahan

Matt Callahan is an Art Director at The Washington Post. I sat down with him recently to talk about how he has used his work in the design department to modernize The Post digitally, and use different approaches with big stories. Matt has recently worked on pieces about the Galapagos, the slow death of the electric guitar, and an interactive approach to the National Parks’s 100th anniversary.

Some of the answers have been shortened for both length and clarity.

Would you describe yourself as a coder, art director, or journalist? Or a mix of them all?

I’d describe myself as an art director foremost. My greatest strength I find is conceptualizing ideas and finding the most effective manner of communicating an idea. What I find most exciting about web development is being able to carry out these ideas and concepts in new and different ways. Furthermore, you get to communicate with people with an immediacy that is unlike print. You can reach them on their phone, computer, tablet and do it all instantaneously.

When did you start coding?

My first class in computer programming was in high school in 2007. I took a course in C++ as a misguided attempt to learn Photoshop (the person I knew who was most skilled in Photoshop had just taken that class, so…). That said I didn’t use coding in any real capacity outside of class or personal websites until I worked at The Post — end of 2014.

What’s more important, good storytelling skills or coding skills, when taking on a custom project?

Good storytelling skills are imminently more important. You can always pick up the actual programmatic skills. Understanding how animation works and what function it provides, versus images, versus video versus audio is something you can learn from watching and listening, but it is hard and takes practice. If you understand how it works you can communicate ideas and work with others to help create an overall vision. If you just understand the tools you’re at the mercy of someone else’s idea.

 What’s the most valuable thing you know when it comes to coding?

Sketches and rapid prototyping. Never get too near and dear to your first idea or version. Honestly, don’t spend much time working on it — do a sketch with pencil. Envision it. Think how someone will approach it. Then do a quick wireframe. Then an unstyled HTML doc. Don’t worry about how it actually looks until it works right — because people actually need to read it and use it. Otherwise it’s design for the sake of design — which is neither functional nor useful.

Let’s move on to more specific projects you’ve worked on recently. Which enterprise template were you most proud of?

The Marine story was probably one of the pieces I’m most proud of. It was an opportunity to explore so many different modes of storytelling all within the same story. I was able to be so close to the project because I was brought in just as the story was being rewritten. I had almost-daily meetings with the reporter, John Cox. We talked about what shape the story was taking — and he understood that I cared about telling this story every bit as much as he did. When the reporters know that you care and how much you care, you can have conversations and arguments, discussions, and it’s okay because you’re all playing for the same team.

With the Galapagos template, how long did that take to construct?

The Galapagos story was probably about two months or longer in total planning time. Though not all of that time was spent actively working on it, and it wasn’t my only project (I was designing travel on a weekly basis as well). Most of the time was spent trying to just get our heads around what this story would be. Then some time on how to conceptualize how to tell this story — whether it would be map based or story based, and how to navigate from video to video. Later we ran into the technical limitations of 360 video, which included probably a week of just last minute bug squashing and changing out a video player just a few days before publication.

And finally, were you surprised that the national park “find your park” interactives were so popular?

Certainly — though gratified might be a better word. This one in particular was a very long term project. We started brainstorming ideas for this at the end of 2015 and it didn’t run until summer 2016. We’ve talked about it since and we could and Alexa, Nicole and I don’t remember who came up with the idea of checking in or logging which parks you’ve been to, but we all loved the idea — especially because national park lovers are very devoted and very passionate. This was also great fun because I got to help shape the length of content and what type of content we wanted alongside Nicole, which made it a truly great experience.

Takeaways: Talking to Matt was really helpful. He’s someone I’ve seen in the newsroom, and he always has his computer open with JavaScript. It was really exciting to learn that a lot of the mold-breaking stories The Post has done involve his handiwork. He had a really cool approach to web development as well. Like he mentioned, attention to storytelling and the end goal are paramount, and you can learn the code along the way.

Another trying week

This week was a culmination of putting a lot of the languages we’ve touched on together. And it went poorly. The slideshow project was an interesting take on putting all the pieces together but it still felt overwhelming.

I’ve found that learning all of these concepts has been hard because we haven’t really gone through them together. In a different class I took last semester, Data Journalism, we went through a lot of technical platforms like SQL and Python, but we went step by step together. Only then did higher level concepts start to make sense.

It would be really helpful if we had class time where we went through things like how to make a slideshow step by step, so we could see how something came to fruition, before we are expected to create one on our own. Like Greg said in class, teachers do teach you how to write a sentence, but they don’t release you into the wild to then write an essay. To take that metaphor we had in class to its logical conclusion, you’re leaving out important building blocks like essay structure, paragraphs, and thesis statements. I feel like we only cover abstract concepts in class, only to have questions moved past because we don’t really go over assignments or take a look at the building blocks we need.

While some could say that Codecademy is what bridges that gap, I’ve continued to have problems with that as well. Currently the interface seems to delete sections I’ve done or doesn’t add a check mark to things to say items have been completed. That’s been really hard, especially when I’m trying to figure out why some lines of code are right or wrong.

I understand why a lot of the class is geared towards making sure we can figure out how things are broken on our own, but I feel like I’m operating at a huge handicap every week because I don’t quite understand what the best practices are to begin with. It would be really helpful to work on foundational things in class so that way outside study can be used to hone things, not figure out what square one is.

As for my Midterm, I will be interviewing Matt Callahan. He works at The Washington Post as a designer, but mostly does what we call “enterprise” templates. These templates are for our bigger stories and are always custom designed using jQuery and JavaScript.


Wins and losses from my first homepage

This weeks work made me warm up to Codecademy a lot more than I expected. I really enjoyed learning about CSS and seeing what more “front-end” web design looks like.

After this week I definitely want to focus my time on front end changes during my bigger projects. First, it more closely reflects the type of web development I would do at work, and secondly I enjoy making things look pretty. CSS gave some immediate gratification when it came to making changes, and learning about all the options I had when it came to color, sizes, and fonts was really interesting.

There were some minor things with Codecademy that I didn’t like. Perhaps the main thing was that if I got stuck on a lesson that had 3 or 4 different steps, the program would often give all the code for those steps, not just the one I was stuck on. That make it harder to learn the later steps, since they were already done for me.

I also had some struggles with getting Sublime Text and GitHub to play nicely together. I was able to make some basic code, save it, and drop it into my monitor and see it, but when I imported it into GitHub I couldn’t find the code. I tried looking around on the internet to see where I went wrong, but to no avail.

If possible, it would be nice to do these things in class together as a trial, so I know if I’m moving in the right direction or not. With the on your own work I felt like I was poking around in the dark, which to some extent is fine. However, since some of these concepts are so new to me, it would be really helpful to see things get done in class so I get a better idea of the flow of these programs, like GitHub.


Web development sounds hard. But if you do it right it can be easy.

If someone told me, a former history major, that I would be enrolled in a web development class I would laugh at you. Then I would log off Twitter, because the trolls shouldn’t get you down. But… here I am. Ready to learn.

This week’s reading was a helpful collection of foundational texts for the class. Since I am starting out with no programming skills whatsoever it is helpful to read about how a lot of platforms aim to be as simplistic as possible.

The idea of simplicity not only as an esthetic but as a mindset was also discussed in Greg’s blog posts. Oftentimes journalists can get bogged down and not see the big picture. Thinking pragmatically and putting effort into making sure you’re being as effective as possible is an important mantra to have at the beginning of this class. I’m sure there will be a lot of bells and whistles that can be added to things, but remembering to stay in a minimalistic mind frame will be important for the class.

It also serves the actions of reporting as well. Sometimes I can get thrown into a tailspin looking for the perfect kicker, or spending an inordinate amount of time on things that a reader doesn’t care about. Getting out of my head and making sure that I’m working smart, and not hard, is an important lesson.

I also really enjoyed the basic primers of how the internet came about, and how it functions. It’s really easy to forget all the channels things have to go through to ping back and forth, and having a healthy sense of how things came to be from a historical and, well, factual standpoint can only help. When learning about a whole new field, a solid foundation of how we got to where we are today is important.

Overall, this coming semester looks like it will have challenges, but web development is a very exciting thing to dive into. After all, I use the internet for 95 percent of my job, so understanding how it works, and how we strive to make it simple is a good starting place.

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