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Whenever journalist-programmer extraordinaire Adrian Holovaty speaks at a conference, newspaper executives approach him to ask, “Where can we find another person like you?” Unfortunately, not a lot of people combine journalism with computer programming to create mash-ups like Holovaty’s seminal side project, ChicagoCrime.org, which feeds the city’s crime blotter into a searchable online database and onto Google Maps.

Holovaty has repeatedly called on newspaper editors to hire programmers, and many of them are finally heeding his advice and considering ways of getting computer programmers onto their news staff and out of the trenches of tech support or doing work on web classifieds. Inspired by Holovaty’s comments at a convention, Dave Zeeck, executive editor for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, hired Aaron Ritchey as a “news programmer” who has helped streamline the work for reporters and page designers while also creating online databases and map mash-ups for readers. And John Robinson, editor at the Greensboro News & Record, is planning to replace a newsroom job with a programmer as well.

In his time as an intern last summer and as a full-time hire since January, Ritchey has accomplished the following tasks for the News-Tribune:

> Built an interactive map of all the free Wi-Fi spots in the South Sound area near Tacoma, which users can update with spots the newspaper missed.

> Created a survey generator so that reporters or bloggers can poll readers, something the restaurant blogger has utilized.

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Northwest Hiking Guide mash-up

> Created a searchable database and interactive map for a Northwest Hiking Guide that lets people search for hikes according to difficulty, elevation gain, destination and round-trip distance.

> Built online databases so people can input and search vital statistics in the community such as births, deaths, marriages and news businesses.

> Created a “Wire Cleaner” application so the print newspaper staff can input sports box scores from wire copy without having to spend hours reformatting it.

Zeeck says that he initially heard some negative feedback from reporters who didn’t like the idea of a programmer filling a reporter’s job.

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Dave Zeeck

“I’ve had some resistance from reporters who say, ‘We had this reporting opening and instead of hiring a reporter, we’re wasting it on a computer programmer,’” Zeeck told me. “But people who work with him start going, ‘Ooo, I like this. This is helping me do my job. I don’t have to do that scut-work I used to do.’”

News-Tribune online editor Mark Briggs, who Ritchey reports to, makes it sound like putting the programmer into a room full of journalists had sitcom or reality-show potential.

“From a social experiment standpoint, it’s been interesting to put someone without journalism experience or even awareness, and plopped him into a newsroom in a sink-or-swim mode,” Briggs said. “They’ve really warmed up to his unique personality and the outside perspective that he has on our business. He doesn’t come with all the baggage of ‘this is the way it’s always been done.’ He comes with a fresh outlook.”

Salary and Cultural Hurdles

So can other newsrooms replicate the success the News-Tribune is having with its news programmer? The big hurdles are pay differential and the culture clash between computer science and journalism. Most programmers — even at the entry level — get paid more than most seasoned journalists. And most editors and journalists have no experience working closely with computer programmers on editorial work. Conversely, programmers aren’t knocking down the doors of newspapers for development jobs, when they can get stock options and more in Silicon Valley-type startup settings.

As for teaching journalism students how to do computer programming, that’s a long way from happening. Clyde Bentley, associate professor at Missouri School of Journalism, told me via email that there’s a disconnect between journalism skills and math skills.

“A huge number of journalism students select that major because they are math-phobic and they think they will get away from numbers,” Bentley said. “You don’t have to be a mathematician to program, but you can’t be afraid of math.”

Holovaty, who attended the Missouri School of Journalism, ran into that attitude when he was at school there in the ’90s.

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Adrian Holovaty

“When I was in J-school I remember several times, the professor would say something like, ‘Well that would involve math, and that’s why we all went to journalism school — so we wouldn’t have to learn math. Ha, ha, ha.’ And everyone would laugh,” he told me. “C’mon, this is just blatant anti-intellectualism. It’s deeply ingrained in the culture, which is ludicrous.”

So if newspapers have to reach out to computer programmers who don’t have journalism in their blood, how will they convince them to take a news programmer position? Ritchey himself had a very interesting answer to that question: “At The News Tribune, I am the programmer. If I were working at a company that hires dozens of programmers, I would be just a programmer. I enjoy the extra responsibility of being the planner, the developer, and the tester.”

Jacob Kaplan-Moss, the lead developer at the Lawrence Journal-World, made the jump from the San Francisco Bay Area to work as a programmer in Lawrence, Kansas. On a comment on Holovaty’s blog, Kaplan-Moss explains why he made that move:

If you find the right newspaper, working for a newsroom can be far better than working for any dot-com. My job is hands-down the best job I’ve ever had, in no small part because newspapers need us for their very survival. Most news organizations, although slow to adapt and late to the party, are finally realizing just how compelling web-based journalism can be, and they’re creating positions for us faster than we can fill ‘em.

So I think what I’m saying is that money isn’t everything. If you can catch a job with a newspaper that’s coming around to this new vision of journalism that Adrian [Holovaty]‘s been championing, you’ll probably never look back. I don’t know about most programmers, but I certainly don’t really do this for the money; I’ll take a good job at low pay over a crappy, well-paid one any day.

Finding Solutions Within

John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, expects to eliminate a newsroom position — it might not be a reporter — in order to hire a programmer, and hopes to find someone with journalism experience as well. He’s curious about the Tacoma experience, and says that newspapers have been slow to court programmers in the past and have failed that vision thing.

“We’re finding that there are fewer people wanting to go into print journalism than there were 10 or 20 years ago, and there aren’t a whole lot of people in programming who want to go into newspapers,” he said. “And part of that is the newspapers’ fault; we’ve been slow to seize upon the possibilities and slow to pay the costs for good people. Part of it is the journalism schools, so that at Tacoma they had to go outside the journalism community to find someone. I understand why they did that, but it’s an opportunity for journalism schools to train people for jobs that are coming. But it’s tough for journalism schools to get out of their entrenched traditions just like it’s tough for newspapers.”

Bentley at the Missouri School of Journalism says everyone in journalism needs help learning technology. He says that journalists’ initial focus on learning the Basic programming language and HTML has hindered their progress.

“[Basic and HTML] were so easy that copy editors and reporters played with them and thought they could program or create web pages easily,” he said. “But just as higher-level languages quickly made Basic obsolete, complicated web programming makes HTML a simple background tool. You don’t create ChicagoCrime.org unless you know what you are doing. And most of us either don’t or don’t have the time.”

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Bill Grueskin

Bill Grueskin, managing editor of WSJ.com, says that he has programmers working closely with reporters, though they report to different bosses. Grueskin says it’s a very dynamic time for print journalism jobs, as they morph to encompass many more multimedia and technical skills.

“People who have multiple skills, or the desire to develop multiple skills, are more valuable than ever,” he said via email. “I would like to see J-schools turn out candidates with broader skill sets. We still get great applicants, but many of them haven’t yet gotten the breadth of skills we need. To an extent, we can do some of that training here, and we do, but it helps a great deal if people come to us with some of that background.”

Holovaty, who now works for washingtonpost.com out of its Chicago office, believes that many newspapers already have talented programmers — they’re just trapped in IT jobs or doing grunt tech support work. He also notes that every big newspaper employs Computer Assisted Reporting folks, who might be able to help with creative web site development. CAR specialists harness technology and public databases to help investigative journalists gather data.

“The main reason for the [CAR people’s] existence is to create a newspaper story and not to make that data interactive on the website,” he said. “So another potential way to broaden news organizations, and get them into this work is to take advantage of the resources they already have, the CAR people. I think a lot of [the CAR folks] want to do that but are behind a lot of red tape and don’t have the server access that they need.”

While The New York Times has combined its print and web operations, the Washington Post has kept those divisions separate. Holovaty, who says he works in Virginia at washingtonpost.com one week per month, would prefer that they combined those operations to streamline web work.

“My preference would be to combine the teams, because there’s a certain level of overhead, like you’re not on the same network so you have to jump through hoops to get on the intranet,” he said. “And there are cultural things, like you can’t get a reporter to do something because he doesn’t report to us, he reports to another editor. I can see how it was advantageous at the start to have them apart and let them do their own thing while the print folks weren’t paying attention. But now that everyone’s saying ‘the web is important and it’s front and center as the future of our company,’ it makes sense to roll them together now.”

At the News-Tribune, they decided to combine web and print operations, though Ritchey told me he doesn’t think journalists should have to learn how to do computer programming. Instead, he feels they should just learn more about the software they already use.

“I think reporters would benefit from learning to use all of the features of software they already have,” he said. “Being able to create Microsoft Excel formulas to track information or Perl scripts to format text from the news wire or learning HTML to add photos or hyperlinks, for example, would be good for reporters to learn depending on what they’re doing on the job. I guess from a layman view you could call that programming.”

Will the Tacoma and Greensboro examples motivate other newsrooms to hire programmers? Holovaty isn’t holding his breath, and says he’s heard much more talk than action on the subject. He believes the tipping point will come when Google and Yahoo move into local markets, or other local sites start using mash-ups that garner web traffic.

“It’s the same problem as [newspapers had] not understanding why they would have a website,” he said. “Finally people are realizing, ‘hey we should have a website and it shouldn’t just be shoveling the print content.’ This is the next step in that progression. Not only should we have a website, but we should do interesting stuff on it.”

What do you think? Should newspapers consider hiring programmers onto their editorial staff, and should that come at the cost of a reporter’s job? How do you think the skill set of a print journalist will change in the coming years? Share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you work at a newspaper with a programmer on the editorial side, tell us how it’s worked out.

UPDATE: Brian Hamman, who was the online managing editor at the Columbia Missourian while at grad school, has taken a position at The New York Times a couple weeks ago. Here’s his take on what’s happening at the Times and elsewhere:

The argument of being “the” programmer as opposed to “a” programmer is definitely an interesting one and something I’m experiencing now, after moving
from the Missourian, where I was “the” web/programmer to the Times where I’m still trying to figure out where they all are.

I was also recently at a computer-assisted-reporting conference which was fairly thick with programmer journalists swapping stories and techniques. There was a good bit of gossip about whether anyone had considered making the jump from journalism to “real” programming. Without fail the answer was “not a chance.” These people consider themselves journalists first and programming is simply a tool to do journalism. A journalist programmer is not the same person — at the core — as a programmer making tools for journalists. These are people who see journalistic problems and opportunities and just happen to have the technical skills to make things happen.

While I agree that’s a rarity in the academy and to some degree the industry — though I’m not convinced there aren’t people there who just haven’t been noticed — I think that the journalism programmer is an important person who can help a news organization see their role in a very different way. As an example of this, I’ve been at the Times for only a couple of weeks and already I’ve seen DOZENS of examples where some database reporting or an online graphic would unquestionably improve the story, but the editors don’t have the tech knowledge
to know it’s a possibility and the programmers either a) wouldn’t have the credibility and standing to suggest something or b) are nowhere in the building to even be given the chance (and the Times has plenty of programmer/journalists in the building doing other sorts of jobs, myself included).

It’s a hunch, sure, but I think there ARE programmer/journalists out there — or will be soon — and I think these people provide a crucial bridge between two ways of looking at what journalists do: the narrative storytelling of reporting and writing and the structured formats of databases and computers.