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    Web Focus Leads Newspapers to Hire Programmers for Editorial Staff

    by Mark Glaser
    March 7, 2007

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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.

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    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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    i-5a0592bd3767100531d788c057e7655c-Northwest Hiking Guide.jpg
    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.

    Tagged: newspapers programming
    • It really boils down to this: you can’t create a web page without programmers. Not anymore. At least not one that does anything useful.

      There was a time when the web was basically made up of HTML pages and a few images. Then, it was possible for anyone to create a web page that wasn’t too far behind what professional web folks could do. That’s simply not the case anymore. Web sites these days — good ones, anyway — require heavy-duty programming and graphic designers who understand the web medium.

      There was a mindset created in the 90s that anyone could make web sites. That it was easy, and that it didn’t require especially skilled people. Every professional web designer has lost at least one job to the neighbor boy down the street with a copy of Frontpage, thanks to this mindset. Until companies, including news organizations, change this mindset, they’re not going to go very far on the web.

      The web it’s a medium unto itself, and it’s one that can be every bit as graphically rich as print, but is far, far more technical. Where print is two-dimensional, the web has four of five dimensions to deal with. It’s completely unreasonable to expect people who are not trained in web programming and web design to do these tasks at a level that exceeds — well, something embarrassing.

      I think the Adrian Holovaty’s of the world are few and far between. By that, I mean most newspapers aren’t likely to find themselves a world-class programmer who happens to have gone to J-school and understands journalism inside and out. But, great programmers are everywhere. It shouldn’t be hard for most papers to scoop up a bright young programmer or two and put them alongside some ambitious reporters who are interested in this new medium, and let them run wild together.

      It’s important that these programmers be treated as a member of the news team. Most of them aren’t trained journalists, but they can’t be treated as second-class citizens because of it. They should be encouraged to learn the basic elements of journalism, though.

      The salary factor definitely is a problem. Frankly, it’s one the news organizations are just going to have to get over. If you care about web-based journalism, you’re going to have to pony up for good web people. If you don’t care about web-based journalism, then you will slowly fade away. The choice is yours.

      Thanks in large part to Adrian’s work, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the need for web programmers in the news world. That’s great. I would love to see the same kind of push for quality design in online news, as well. The state of online editorial design from major news outlets is pretty pathetic, really. Even some of the publications doing more innovative things on the programming end are failing miserably on the design front. Just as you need trained programers to do great things on the web, you also need trained web designers to present these features in professional, informative, engaging, and aesthetically pleasing ways.

      Great article, Mr. Glaser. Thanks so much for talking about this issue!

      Disclosure: I am a senior web designer a The Lawrence Journal-World. Although I am not a programmer, per se, I do some programming on the side, and I work with our great programmers (such as Jacob Kaplan-Moss, quoted above), every day.

    • Money, meh, it’s not all about money.

      I can make 90K as a Unix system administrator.

      I can make 80K as a PHP or Perl programmer.

      If the local rag said they wanted me to help them revolutionize their web site, I would do it for 55K. Because I would go in knowing that I was going to have a *much* more interesting job and that I was going to make a difference.

      In the last few decades, people have talked a lot about hiring liberal arts majors for positions in business, because the business benefits from their broad background. Time to start talking about hiring technical people into typically non-technical environments. Some of us are generalists who could bring a lot to your tables!

      (Er, now having said that, Philly-area journalists looking for a generalist techie, get in touch via the above link)

    • Interesting post. I have dual degrees in journalism and computer science, had strong internship experience during college, and chose — unhappily — to leave journalism to pay the bills.

      This was some time ago and the world now is a different place… but, as you note, not that different. I’m waiting for the right moment for the mainstream media to fully recognize the value of all those like me with provable skills in both domains.

      I don’t think the media are there yet. So I wait. Blogging has finally matured and reached the critical mass such that journalists can no longer ignore the phenomenon. It’s not just about online diaries and “OMG I SAW JESSICA SIMPSON TODAY IM SO THRILLED” — there’s real citizen journalism being done out there.

      But with the Internet being so decentralized, by design, it’s nearly impossible to sift the OMGs from the citizen journos. This is the role that Big Media can play. Will they get on board in time?

    • At Georgia Tech I am involved in an educational effort to address this very issue. We’re not a journalism school teaching journalism students about technology and programming, but we’re coming at it from the other angle: teaching computational media students (who can program) about the elements of journalism. We can this area “computational journalism” and are exploring the use of technology in journalism not only in terms of how programming can improve online journalism, but how computation and algorithms can enhance information quality, help contextualize, make sense of, aggregate, and otherwise gather news information.

      Anyone interested should check out the course we’re teaching this Spring: Course Site Link

    • JD

      Why not have editorial folks work in the technology groups? Outside of the media biz, the people who create content and designs work alongside technologists in product development groups, that are headed by a unified product manager. Technologists are great at the process required to bring things to market — editorial folks can get the daily paper out, but building software has considerable more moving parts (a story not working and an application not working are entirely different concepts). Also, there are software development best practices (call them “hygiene”) that will go by the wayside when technologists are managed by editorial folks. Then you’ll end up with a mish-mash-up — this is fine for some lone ranger site but no major website could function and scale with that type of chaos. Incidentally, I’m a media CTO who’s responsible for a major website, but also spent the first five years of my career as a general assignment and beat reporter for a handful of newspapers.

    • Garbanzo

      Also, echoing above comments, it’s FAR easier to teach someone journalism than to do the reverse. While “good” journalism (whatever that means) is on par with “good” technology in terms of difficulty, the simple fact is that average journalism is far easier to master than average technology. I also chuckle when I hear editorial types pontificate about news business, and scratch my head as to why you rarely see a senior news executive come into a newsroom directly from a non-editorial post. There are no strict educational requirements, no certifying exams to pass, and no national stands boards to regulate the industry. Why it should be so closed to outsiders (including technologists) seems to be blatently protectionist to me.

    • ADT

      “If the local rag said they wanted me to help them revolutionize their web site, I would do it for 55K”

      I feel as though even that is a pretty high price for editorial staff at most print pubs. If not, who takes over the duties of the replaced edit staff member, do they fall additionally on the shoulders of the programmer?

      I think this article illustrates the very disconnect they’re criticizing in the publishing world—misunderstanding the nuances of incorporating web technologies into a floundering print industry. The problem for most pubs is that they’re unwilling or unable to put up the money it takes to hire experts (it would likely take the salaries of 1½–2 editorial staff members to pay anything appealing enough to a programmer), and they don’t know an expert when they see one.

      In magazine publishing especially, production is the lowest-paid field, whereas management positions and ad sales are the most lucrative. This top-heavy corporate model doesn’t work when you’re asking your production staff to be highly skilled and highly educated programming professionals, on top of being journalists.

      I think outsourcing and consulting will be the only viable web models for most publications, rather than hiring full-timers, until there is a major reorientation (and reallocation) toward web publishing in the news/print industry from the top down.

    • An interesting discussion; I see the direction going more towards small teams of “citizen journalists” teaming up with small teams of “citizen programmers” working with a lot of “deferral of gratification.” Not that big media hiring programmers is a bad idea it simply won’t help their business model much.

      Isn’t this all in a state still considered innovative? And doesn’t innovation start small, test itself out, fly under the radar, gets things right until it’s ready to emerge fully-fledged with a lot at stake in its successful implementation?

    • Jennifer

      I was a journalism major and comp sci minor in college. And now I’m an online content editor who can use her programming skills to both create and direct projects in the newsroom.

      But my first job after college was as a computer programmer — no newspaper was interested. And when I made the switch back to papers after 2 years I had to take a 50 percent cut in pay. Fifty percent! and it took me 4 years and 3 jobs to get back to what I made as a programmer.

      Granted, my job is much more fulfilling, but I understand why programmers don’t get into newspapers and why newspapers can’t find good programmers.

      Programmers don’t always fit the mold of the newsroom, but they are just as creative — in their own right. And they know they can 1) make more money, 2) find jobs that allow them more freedom in scheduling and 3) get more “perks” at non-paper jobs.

      Newspapers are getting better. At FresnoBee.com (where I work currently) we have a part-time programmer on our content team (who will hopefully go full-time after graduation). And we’re piling work on him (and me). But people in the newsroom are getting the message: programming is just another way of getting information to our readers.

      And that’s what it’s all about: giving the readers info and letting them share their thoughts (and photos and audio and video and …) with others online.

    • The news tribune is doing great things with their content. If only they could embrace the creative commons license for their content so people could read it without having to shell out the big bucks.

    • I picked up a link to your “Web Focus Leads Newspapers to Hire Programmers for Editorial Staff”, from Techmeme this morning. Seems as though I may have also found the reason behind the shabby treatment that I have been receiving from media people.

      You see, I am a Windows programmer that has developed some software that might be helpful to those same media people. I say “shabby treatment” because I never get a chance to explain my ideas as they all seem to close the door when becoming aware of my programming status. You might call it a case of pre-judgment.

      And, in a way, I must confess that I understand — we, in the programming community have kind of stuck it to the media people — you might call it “Revenge of the nerds”.

      However, there is a way out — if you can accept my definition of a “programmers code” — “Do no harm”. In other words, it is the job of a computer programmer to write the software that makes the computer perform according to the needs of specific users — we should be furnishing the media people the necessary software to help them prepare and distribute the news, without unreasonable need for “foreign” talent in their organizations. The Internet/Web is a generalized computer-to-computer communication system. The Media has specific needs that require additional programming from the software industry. In other words, rather than hire high priced programmers to work with the existing system, put the screws to the software industry to design the necessary system.

      The process is very, very simple — you separate the data from the form. Present web sites do this in a small way, except they transmit instructions for building the form with every page. The form can be “compiled”, thus reducing transmittal time as well as display time. The form would be saved on user machine (with user permission, of course) thus reducing Internet overhead. The web page would contain pure data, further reducing Internet overhead.

      A portion of the data record would be a header — a standardized collection of bytes used to identify and categorize the data for computer processing. The header record could be a separate data record, if desired.

      You can see a sample of this approach at http://nationalcomputerassociation.com where you will also find a link to my download site.

      So, the question remains — how do I get you and/or any other media individuals to begin a discussion when they keep slamming the door in my face??

      Doug Skoglund

    • “An interesting discussion; I see the direction going more towards small teams of “citizen journalists” teaming up with small teams of “citizen programmers” working with a lot of “deferral of gratification.” Not that big media hiring programmers is a bad idea it simply won’t help their business model much.”

      Yes, I would go along with that one, now I have to find them or thye will find me, hopefully !

      http://BrianClarkeNUJ.Blogspot.com/

    • 55k? Try 30k.

      Finding programmers, even cheap programmers, is easy because the work newsrooms need is easy. Newsrooms don’t need a large-scale CMS system to tie between billing, overseas shipping and GPS tracking. At least, not every day.

      Newsrooms need someone who can query an existing database and pull the results into a template. Bam. Easy.

      However, a newsroom needs more than a programmer.

      A news programmer should have decent news judgment, the know how of FOIs, an entrepreneurial attitude, writing and copy editing skills, the ability to work on deadline, and, please, God, please, design sense. This isn’t alien-invasion-type impossible. Just. Extremely. Hard to find.

      But, even harder to find is newsrooms who utilize these people well.

      Many newsrooms find these people, as there are many of us sitting in newsrooms across the country, and they stick the people into methodical jobs. A lot of these people are splitting their time between programming and updating Web stories, patrolling message boards, monitoring blog comments, inputing data into calendars and rewriting headlines for Web.

      That’s silly. But, true.

    • sean

      Don’t worry… Newspapers are history anyway, don’t you read the paper?

    • I’m pleased to say that the Knight News Challenge has awarded my school — the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University — money to award scholarships to computer programmers and Web developers who would like to earn a master’s degree in journalism.

      The goal is to create more Adrian Holovatys. We’re accepting applications for admission for September 2007 immediately. (The application deadline for entry in September 2007 or January 2008 is July 1, 2007.
      The application deadline for entry in June or September 2008 is January 15, 2008.)

      Here’s more information, including details on how to apply.

      I’ve blogged about the program, and this overall topic, on the blog for Northwestern’s Readership Institute.

    • I consider myself a gonzo programmer.

      The idea of applying programming to journalism is an exciting idea to me; one that appears intellectual and socially rewarding… but it’s also something that might be fraught with more difficult dilemmas than just salary.

      One thing that annoys me in my field is when “outsiders” from some other discipline start calling themselves web developers. They just read a couple books, buy a copy of photoshop and dreamweaver, and download or copy-and-paste some PHP code and suddenly adopt a title that took me years of study and experience to achieve?

      Call me crazy, but I don’t see journalists getting all rosy when some nut-job programmer comes along and starts taking up room in their profession. They put years into honing their craft and spend thousands on an education.

      The other thing that would worry me as a programmer is the challenge. A large portion of web development work is pretty brain-dead work for a seasoned programmer. Will the exhilaration of creating these neat little mashups eventually wear off? More importantly, will the organization I work for value my work and give me the leeway to forge into new territory or will I end up just taking orders from some technophobe?

      Personally, I’m a person that doesn’t really listen to rules and conventions. I think that if programmer-journalists (or whatever we’ll end up calling them) will survive, it will probably be their own independent endeavor. The large organizations are married to hierarchy whereas innovation is tied more to chaotic, organic growth. It could work if a large organization was willing to accept a more radical element; but it would be a hard relationship to sell to the curmudgeons already entrenched within its walls.

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    • Nice info blog. Thanks for sharing.

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