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I built my first news app, and so can you!

By Daniela Sirtori-Cortina

Doubt quickly took over me when the "Build Your First News App" session kicked off Friday morning of the CAR Conference.

During the six-hour class — split into two three-hour seminars — Derek Willis from ProPublica and Ben Welsh from the Los Angeles Times guided the group through the process of building a website about the victims of the 1992 LA riots. I'd been assigned to write a first-person blog post about the session, and I was excited to get started.

Some class attendees had some experience with web development and others were coding novices. I was among the latter group. So, upon hearing phrases such as "command line" and "terminal," I thought about packing up my stuff, leaving the room and telling IRE: "I can't do this. I think I accidentally signed up for a session that deals with concepts way beyond my skill level. This is going to go way over my head."

Although I've been doing journalism for about three years, I first delved into computer-assisted reporting and web concepts only a few months ago. Quite honestly, I was terrified of not being able to keep up with the class. 

But Derek and Ben quickly assuaged my fears with their coding metaphors and jokes about living a “Pythonic” life. Ben, an editor of the Los Angeles Times Data Desk, compared the virtual environment where our code would reside with a Tupperware container, eliciting a few laughs from the group. He later likened the directories, folders and repositories we would use to a Russian doll, again making the group giggle. My anxiety dissipated, the adrenaline kicked in, and I got working. Here’s the result of our six-hour session, and here are some of the lessons I learned along the way:

  • When naming files and writing code, using straightforward language is the best way to go. It’s likely you’ll share your work with other people, so using self-explanatory terms will make it easier for people who’ve never seen your code to understand it. In Derek’s words, “Creative writing doesn’t really fit into this. If you get hit by a bus, your colleagues aren’t going to enjoy figuring out what ‘musical umbrella’ means.” 
  • Web development takes tons of practice. Your first projects will likely be modeled after other people’s work, and that’s OK. On their tipsheet, Derek and Ben provided all the code we used, which we copied and pasted into our working space. Then, they explained to us the actions each command would trigger. We learned the basics, and now we can keep practicing.
  • The command line is awesome. From there, it’s possible to edit CSV files and automate several processes that some of us still perform manually. I plan on learning the ins and outs of my computer terminal in the coming months.


Daniela Sirtori-Cortina is an Assistant City Editor at the Columbia Missourian helping coordinate state government coverage. Politics is her favorite sport.

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