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UNL’s Waite is ‘a kid in a candy store’ as tech-focused journalism professor

Matt Waite started at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in August and founded the school’s drone journalism lab shortly thereafter.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism practice professor Matt Waite will serve as a speaker and mentor at Hack Omaha this weekend. The path that brought him there includes ventures as varied as a book on wetlands preservation, a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and work on the cutting edge of drone journalism. But it’s a path that’s perhaps best appreciated chronologically.

A native of Blair, Neb., Waite entered the university where he now teaches in the fall of 1993. Within a day or two, he was writing for the campus newspaper, his first story about handheld parking ticket printers. He worked his way up to “computer-assisted reporting” (also known as “data journalism”) and in 1995, he produced his first project, mapping crime data that then-Lincoln Police Department Chief Tom Casady gave him in exchange for the promise that he would “tell him how I did it” (which perhaps ultimately contributed to later Casady-connected tech ventures).

Waite graduated in December 1997 and in eventually wound up at the former St. Petersburg Times, where in 2003 he reacquainted himself with computer-assisted reporting. He was (he thinks) the first newspaper journalist to do satellite imagery analysis, mapping 84,000-plus acres of wetlands to see if the federal “no net loss” policy was effective. The three-year project, for which Waite took a couple of graduate-level remote sensing classes, resulted in a book.

“It was around the end of that that I got kinda tired,” Waite said. Faced with 400 GB of data that essentially only he could access, he decided his next move would be to figure out how to put data on the web. At a traditional media outlet in 2003, he said, “the web was there, but not really a significant thing. Web was an afterthought.”  The Times gave him a desk (but no phone, he said appreciatively), and he commenced teaching himself programming.

PolitiFact and a Pulitzer Prize

PolitiFact made its own headlines in 2009, when it won a Pulitzer Prize.

Waite was mapping data from about 20 local law enforcement agencies in the spring of 2007, when the Times’ Washington bureau chief, Bill Adair, approached him with an idea for a new way to cover the upcoming presidential election.

“We didn’t have permission to do it,” Waite recalled, but he built a functional prototype on a computer that was “slated to be thrown away.” As soon as the higher-ups saw it, “the whole ‘should we do this?’ got taken off the table.”

PolitiFact, a political fact-checking site, launched in August 2007. The first week, traffic exceeded any of the Times’ other websites.

The problem at that point was that the Times “had no idea what to do if it worked.” The plan, Waite said, was to shut it down after the Florida primary. “It’s hilarious to me now,” Waite said, “to think about how much we cared about that Florida primary.”

In fact, something like 90 percent of PolitiFact’s traffic was coming from outside Florida, mostly from large cities during office hours. Later examinations showed that the demographics skewed upper income, better educated and male.

“(Politifact was) very much like a startup within a big, traditional media company – it takes a lot of leadership to let go.” – Waite

Waite and company fiddled with the details throughout the election, adding social elements and enabling reader comments for all of 14 minutes, during which they got three comments, including “a book-length rant” about Hillary Clinton murdering Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster and the supposed conspiracy to cover it up.

“PolitiFact and I have really low Twitter user ID numbers,” Waite said. “We didn’t know what Twitter was going to be. We thought it was pretty cool that 300 people were following our tweets. Then, they got 3,000 new followers during just one presidential debate.

It was all a big experiment, Waite said, “very much like a startup within a big, traditional media company – it takes a lot of leadership to let go.” In this case, it probably helped that it was a fantastically successful experiment.

“For PolitiFact to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 is just the biggest cosmic joke,” Waite said.

Coming home

In June 2009, Waite moved his wife, Nancy, and two children back to his home state and “founded the Lincoln, Neb., bureau of Florida’s largest newspaper.” He would log into Skype every morning from his basement, and work with his colleagues via web all day.

In his free time, he founded Hot Type Consulting with Chase Davis. The outfit builds apps for media companies, like the Texas Tribune’s content management system (below), which Waite and Davis finished in only eight weeks.

“I will die sooner because of that,” Waite said. But, he is also fond of quoting Horace Greeley: “Journalism will kill you, but it will keep you alive while you’re at it.”

He pours that enthusiasm for his field into his gig at UNL, which he started last fall. He devotes about a quarter of his time to research projects like the drone journalism lab he founded in November and a pending grant application to build and study sensor networks.

“I’m realizing that I am a kid in a candy store with this research commitment,” he said. “It’s like a drug to see the lights go on with [students]. They realize that they know how to do a thing now, and that’s really powerful.”

He also serves as a liaison for the college’s Design Studio project across campus at UNL’s Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management, which aims to create a tool to “showcase multimedia stories and prompt users to take action.”

“The future of journalism is this intersection between tech and experience,” Waite said. “It’s tech and content, figuring out how to tell compelling stories in that environment.”

And, of course, he teaches: beginning reporting, data journalism and basic programming for journalists, in which students learn Python and Django.

“Am I turning journalism students into full-on, heavy-duty programmers? Nope. I’m getting them familiar with a world they are going to operate in,” he said. 

His story certainly bears this out. “If you don’t think the world is becoming digital,” he said, “you aren’t paying attention.”


Credits: Photo of Waite courtesy of Waite. PolitiFact screenshot from politifact.com. Texas Tribune screenshot from hottypeconsulting.com.

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