Today’s demand for programmer/journalists is one sign of how the Internet has changed the newsroom. While the role has become crucial to many forward-thinking news organizations, traditional newsrooms are often still struggling to integrate programmer/journalists into their everyday workflow.
I spoke to some programmer/journalists about their hybrid roles in news coverage. They had much to offer about the new frontiers of journalism, and how programmer/journalists are bringing unprecedented value to both major and startup news organizations.
The Hybrid Role
“Some stories are just better told as databases and interactive web apps,” said Adrian Holovaty, founder of the neighborhood news site EveryBlock, which was funded by a Knight News Challenge grant and acquired by MSNBC.com in August. He explained by e-mail that “newspapers already understand that photography tells a story in a different way, and video tells a story in a different way, and those subdisciplines are well established in news companies. But custom Web apps haven’t crossed that chasm in newsroom culture yet.”
Mike Davidson, CEO of Newsvine, which was acquired by MSNBC.com in 2007, said he was initially more interested in the tech side, but become more vested in the storytelling process. It’s increasingly hard to separate the two roles, he added.
“We’re beginning to discover new ways to tell stories,” said Davidson.
He said that those who think of themselves as journalists first will always be thinking of the larger picture. Those who think of themselves as programmers who happen to work at a newspaper may not be serving anyone very well.
Holovaty added that people who love information don’t tend to get frustrated by changes in journalism because for them, it’s still just information. The problem for media companies is finding and recruiting these people because they have job opportunities in many other fields.
“I’ve only met a handful of people who became journalists because they like information. And I think that helps explain why there have been some major cultural issues in the journalism world in the age of the Internet,” he said.
Integration in the Newsroom
Programmer/journalists need to have initiative, a thick skin and a relatively outgoing personality, said Levy.
“If you come up with ideas, or insist that you get involved with project planning from the start, you can help everyone else understand not only the limits of the technology, but also the capabilities they didn’t even know existed,” he said in an e-mail interview.
Sree Sreenivasan is the Dean of Student Affairs at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism where he teaches digital journalism, and is also a contributing editor at the hyperlocal startup DNAinfo.com. He has seen firsthand how important it is for both the journalism side and the programming side to work closely together.
Only in recent years has there been an understanding of the value of people who can speak both languages, according to Sreenivasan.
“One of the things we’ve seen [is that] many engineers want to change the world and that’s a common characteristic with journalists … changing systems and making them better,” he said.
“Journalists these days spend more time thinking about what they’ve traditionally done and how they can survive, and not enough on the simple question of what people want,” Holovaty said. “Put aside any legacy baggage and ask: What information needs aren’t being filled?”
At a time when news organizations are facing economic hardship, the programmer/journalist could help add value without requiring additional resources.
“Hire a developer to make a couple of Web apps that run themselves … and you’ve expanded your media company’s product offerings without adding to the staff’s daily workload,” Holovaty said.
“The newsrooms I’ve worked in have many inefficiencies that a good developer would balk at and a great developer would see as a huge opportunity. Having a programmer in the newsroom is a great way to kill some of those inefficiencies.”
Interactives, Applications, and Tools
Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News at The New York Times, has a team that has completed about 60 projects since the group was formed in 2007. He said the projects differ by scale and scope and fit into three categories: data-driven interactives, news applications and newsroom tools.
An example of this project type is the Word Train, an interactive user-generated tag cloud reflecting people’s state of mind on Election Day.
The Word Train generated more than 250,000 page views and 73,000 words were submitted in 18 hours, according to a Times project document.
News applications, which are sites built around events or to compliment coverage, are generally made to have a longer shelf-life. These projects may be updated for weeks or months, or they may have no specific end date.
Examples of this type of project are the Represent tool and the Guantanamo Docket. Represent lets New York City residents find their elected officials at local, state and federal levels and provides an aggregated activity feed about what those officials are doing.
It’s a “personal feed aggregated in one place to give you a cross-section of news you couldn’t get any other way,” Pilhofer said.
The team launched Guantanamo Docket, the first database of its type with public documents on each of the 779 detainees.
“It has become the definition about that kind of information about detainees,” Pilhofer said.
The third category includes newsroom tools that The Times built to solicit and incorporate user-generated photos into news coverage. He said the tool was completed the same day US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River so they were able to use it for that breaking news story.
How to Measure Success
Pilhofer said metrics such as page views are least important to him in determining a project’s success. He measures it the way any editor would: Did we succeed in telling the story? Are we having the impact we intended?
“I think those are extremely blunt instruments when you measure the success or failure of a particular [project],” he said. “I think the metrics I care about are more qualitative than quantitative.”
He added that the metrics are useful in seeing how a web application is used. They allow journalists to make small changes that have an immediate impact.
This immediacy makes it easy for news organizations to see the value that programmer/journalists bring to their publications, and solidifies their place as a mainstay in the new media newsroom.
More journalism resources from Mashable:
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