Journalists and Technologists: An Uneasy Courtship

    by Rich Gordon
    February 25, 2008

    The first Computation + Journalism Symposium, held Friday and Saturday at Georgia Tech, is over. It’s been widely covered in the blogosphere — you’ll find some of the most thoughtful reflections here and here and here and here.

    As I said before the panel I moderated (on "Advances in Newsgathering"), the event was truly remarkable. More than 200 people — a mix of academics and professionals, editors and reporters, journalists and Web developers (including the two Knight Challenge journalist-programmer scholarship winners) — came together to talk about the ways technology is changing journalism and what journalism needs to do to adapt to those changes. How can this not be a good thing?


    Still, by the end of the first day, I was a bit frustrated. We’d heard journalists talk about their uses of technology, and we’d heard computer scientists talk about technologies relevant to journalism. But it was uncommon for anyone to try to connect the two. I was ready to mix it up, to argue, to move on to talking about new ideas and solutions to the problems journalists and media companies are facing. But we never seemed to get there.


    Upon reflection, I realized: This was like a first date. You know the feeling. You talk mostly about what you do. You ask a few questions. You’re very careful not to get spaghetti sauce on your tie. But you’re so careful about making a good impression that you don’t really delve very deep. You and the person across the table are ultra-polite, but you don’t really understand each other. If you like the other person, you’re hoping to keep the door open to a second date. If you don’t, you’re hoping to find a graceful way to avoid hurting your companion’s feelings.

    Many great relationships start with first dates like this. But the relationship can’t flourish until both parties let down their guard, figure out what they truly have in common, and speak honestly about their differences. In that spirit, here are some snapshots from the conference:

    Aaron Bobick, chair of the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, admitted, "We don’t really know very much about journalism at all." But he noted that in the digital age, a story "can be active, can put itself together, not necessarily a single crafted, static entity." He asked a provocative question: "What is the future of story, and how does that affect the future of journalism?"

    Krishna Barat, a computer scientist at Google who led the effort to create Google News, said Google’s mission — "to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful" — was at one time journalism’s mission. In his mind, the fact that Google News enables people to find multiple articles from different sources "makes the whole exercise of understanding news intellectual … Only good things can come from that." Barat sees Google News as benefiting news organizations by driving traffic to their sites — while many news organizations, instead, see Google as building a huge, competing business with the information their journalists were paid to gather. He said he appreciates the "angst" that media companies have about their diminishing business models, "but we want to be part of the solution."

    Michael Skoler, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Journalism at American Public Media, said technology can make journalism better. "Technology can create a new journalism that is a partnership with the public," he said. But to achieve that end, he said, there will need to be a true partnership between journalists and technology professionals.

    Anton Kast, lead scientist at Digg.com, said his site, which ranks news based on submissions and voting by its users, "in many ways is the opposite of journalism — it’s the Wild West." He praised journalism as a "real profession," quoting Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann’s definition of reporting as "the tradition by which a member of a distinct occupational category gets to cross the usual bounds of geography and class, to go where important things are happening, to ask powerful people blunt and impertinent questions, and to report back, reliably and in plain language, to a general audience."

    Shawn McIntosh, director of culture and change at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, talked about the difficulties involved in organizing a newsroom to serve two very different audiences — on the Web and in print. A newspaper is often driven by the demands of its manufacturing process — delivering more packages every day in Atlanta than UPS, she said. Illustrating the challenges of cultural change, she noted, "Pressmen are not used to mixing it up in the hallways with search engine optimization experts."

    Mitch Gelman, senior vice president at CNN.com and a former newspaper reporter and editor, recalled how dependent newspapers are on their delivery systems — and how, in unionized companies, the Teamsters union often controlled the paper’s fate. He thought moving to the Web would make publishing and distribution easier — "but then I met the developers."

    John Stasko, director of the Information Interfaces Research Group at Georgia Tech, described the academic discipline of "sensemaking," which has been a focus of computer science research. He quoted an academic definition: "a motivated,
    continuous effort to understand connections
    (which can be among people, places, and
    events) in order to anticipate their trajectories
    and act effectively." I found this to be strikingly similar to a definition of top-quality journalism. Stasko and fellow panelist Jeff Heer of the University of California-Berkeley showed examples of visualizations that could help people — including journalists — understand the meaning of data.

    I concluded that journalists and technology professionals do have two things in common. First, the best people in both fields really do want to change the world and make it a better place. Second, both believe that people want and deserve access to the best possible information.

    But there also is a substantial gap between journalism and computer science. Too many journalists don’t respect technology development as a creative activity — they think developers should just build stuff they want. Too many technologists don’t respect journalism as an intellectual activity — they think journalists just pump out content for their algorithms to process. Too many journalists really don’t like technology change; they blame it for hurting media businesses, threatening their livelihoods and diminishing the quality of news available in local communities. Too many technologists think it’s not their job to worry about the negative impact of technology innovation on media companies and journalism — and when they do think about the consequences, think only about information at the national and global level (which is broader, deeper and more accessible than ever) and not at the local level (where online news ventures rarely do the kind of original reporting that newspapers do).

    On the last day of the conference, a few of us (including Barat, Skoler, Gary Kebbel of the Knight Foundation, Irfan Essa of Georgia Tech and Wally Dean of the Committee of Concerned Journalists) huddled over lunch to talk about possible next steps.  Broadly speaking, there seemed to be great interest in building on the momentum of this event.  If this is a courtship, I’m looking forward to the second date.

    Tagged: academics computation + journalism digg google news journalism programming

    4 responses to “Journalists and Technologists: An Uneasy Courtship”

    1. I have to say, for as all-over-the-place as the conference was, it was one of the best I’ve ever been to — simply because the *content* was so interesting, and so new.

      I’m a bit tired of conferences as conversations — or, worse, therapy sessions. Rather, I like the idea of conference simply as a grand circus of ideas: When you go to a conference, you should learn a huge amount of new stuff in a very short amount of time. You should leave with your head overflowing — maybe even a bit confused, disoriented.

      One of my favorite presentations in Atlanta was Mark Hansen’s, on sensorbase.org, because a) I’d never heard of it before, and b) I didn’t immediately see how it connected back to daily journalism. It left me with a question — “what could we use this for?” — and I think that’s what a good conference should do, over and over.

    2. Will Riley says:

      It’s unfortunate that citizen journlism is on a date with corporate journalism, as if they would or should get intimately involved. Rather than a date, where one is courting the other, they should probably go to court to settle their differences.

      I wrote an introductory analysis of how Skoler frame citizen journalism and Kast frames democratic design.

      Check it out:


    3. very interesting stuff and good thoughts from Rich. (disclosure: rich and his wife are both former bosses of mine during the florida phase of our lives)

      i read through the list of panelists and one job title was missing: reporter. lots of directors and vice presidents. no reporters. this week is the national computer-assisted reporting conference in houston
      where lots of industry-leading reporters will be speaking about how they use computation for gathering and analyzing information for great stories, reporters like Jennifer LaFleur, Tom Torok, Sarah Cohen, Ted Mellnik, Matt Waite — and many, many more. i think including people of this caliber in the discussion would be a great benefit. don’t assume that because they work for the dreaded MSM that they are inherently old school. they spend most of their time trying to break through the old barriers, so they speak from experience.

    4. Great stuff! This is exactly the conversation that needs to happen.

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