How we got a Python story published
This past Monday, the unlikely occurred. The morning newspaper here in Fort Wayne, Indiana ran a small article on high school kids using Python. That’s unlikely for a few reasons – first, while “tech” school programs around here tend to get news coverage, you almost never hear about programming (that’s because even in “tech” high schools, very little programming is taught). And when programming is taught in high schools, the language tends to be Java or Visual Basic. (I know, I know… don’t even get me started on that topic.) And most people around here, reporters included, have never heard of Python.
The story was about my Python class, and it wasn’t an accident. The class is a project based class intended to be accessible to non-programmers, where we’ve been exploring the capabilities of Georgia Tech’s combo of a Scribbler robot with their Fluke bluetooth board. If you missed Jay Summet’s poster at PyCon, the cool thing about this pairing is that you can run Python on a laptop and use it to control and interact with the bot by way of the bluetooth connection. So my kids have been drawing shapes, solving obstacle courses, taking and processing images, playing music, etc. with the little guys. Along the way they’ve also learned about looping, branching, functions, modules, documentation and sharing code, among other things. It’s probably been one of the cooler classes I’ve ever taught, and I’ve been enthusiastic about promoting it internally here at school – to the school newspaper, the school web site, teachers, the school administrators, really anyone who would listen.
It’s a great bunch of kids and they’re doing some fun and interesting projects, but I know from experience that alone won’t get you much press. In this case I think we did some things right to get the word out about my class and Python. Since I’m pretty sure that my class isn’t the only bunch of people in the country doing newsworthy things with Python, I thought I’d outline what we did in the hope that it might make a small contribution to the Python advocacy front.
What we did
I’m not a publicity expert, but here is my take on how we got our 15 seconds of fame.
The first thing I did right was the internal promotion. Maybe it’s having a book to promote, maybe it’s just advancing age, but I’m getting less shy about promoting projects these days, and it does make a difference. If even the people you work with don’t know you’re doing something cool, how can you expect anyone else to care? By making sure that everyone internally knew about my class, I got the support of our administration and the even more valuable support of our publications director. Having her help made things easier for me, although if you don’t have that help, some time and research can cover a lot of the same ground.
Getting our story published came down to 3 main pieces:
- knowing who to contact
- knowing what they want/need
- giving it to them
Who to contact
In my limited experience, just sending out press releases to the newspaper is rather like cold sales calling, resume carpet bombing, or handing out leaflets on a street corner – the return is vanishingly tiny. Instead, you have to make personal contact with the right person.
These days newspapers departments in particular are understaffed and overworked, so don’t even begin to think that anyone on the other end will take the time to figure out where your news belongs. It’s your job to make things easy for them – before you do anything else, figure out what kind of story you have, where it would go, and who would write it. In my case, it’s our publications director’s job is to help find the answer to those questions, but even without that help our situation would have been pretty straightforward. The paper does a weekly “Education Notebook”, with a small education feature and education announcements, all done by the same person. She writes education stories, we have an education story. That’s the person we contact.
What do they need?
As I said, newspapers are under pressure these days – falling circulation, staffing cuts, and so on. For example, these days in Fort Wayne, with over 200,000 residents there are now a total of only four full-time newspaper photographers, and they are on the run all day. So if I want a reporter to run my story, she has to be able to see easily what the story is and how it fits in her section. So we had to tell the reporter what Python was, what our kids were doing with it, and why she (and her readers) might care. For us, that came down to 3 things:
- High school kids were using the same programming language as Google and NASA.
- Robots make for a more beginner-friendly approach to learning programming.
- Kids were doing some seriously cool stuff, like programming “intelligent” behavior in robots.
Give it to them
The story was good enough that the reporter and a photographer came to visit the class. Here again we made every effort to give the the story they came for. I spent a little time before class giving the photographer some background info, and once the class started they had full access to talk to the kids as they were working, and to ask me more questions for background. It’s a bit of hassle, but worth the 45 minutes or so of time it takes.
Finally, after the article appeared, I made sure to send a quick thank you email, which is not only polite, it helps keep the connection open for the next time. And I also made sure to circulate the article link to the Python education community and other interested parties. Oh, yeah, then I blogged about the whole thing here… making sure to get the absolute maximum mileage out of one tiny article. ;-)
So that’s it – I hope our experience inspires other efforts to publicize interesting Python projects in their communities.