A “Programmer-Journalist” Contemplates Careers

    by Rich Gordon
    July 1, 2008


    Halfway through his Medill graduate journalism education, programmer Brian Boyer reflects on the paths that might lie ahead:

    When I first spoke to Rich Gordon about becoming a “programmer-journalist,” the meaning of the term was unclear. Not being the sort to be concerned by ambiguity, I dove into journalism school with no plans for what might come after.

    Six months into my re-education, I still don’t know what to do with myself, but the potential jobs for which a programmer-journalist would be well suited are becoming clear. I will try and enumerate them here.


    Also, I will try and avoid the important and fascinating fields of design, usability, accessibility, and information architecture. Like many coders, I consider them hobbies, but they’re aspects of user science, not programming, and I feel theyrequire less clarification here. (I also think you could make a very good case for why they should get journalism scholarships too, but that’s another essay entirely.)

    Many of the roles I’m thinking of will overlap, depending on the gig and the person, and I’m certain that I’ve missed a few, but here goes…

    CMS developer

    The platforms on which the news is published online need to be built. Without content management systems (CMS) like Ellington and WordPress, each bit of HTML would have to be hand-crafted — a useful skill on a journalist’s tool belt, but not what most reporters want to do with their time. Someone needs to build these tools, and who better than a programmer who has studied the mindset of writers, editors and readers?


    CMS implementor

    Once the platforms are built, they almost always must be rejiggered into a shape that fits the needs of the organization. My buddy Brad Flora is not a programmer, but he made the Drupal CMS do his bidding with self-taught programming skills and sheer force of will when creating The Windy Citizen.

    CMS user (Web producer)

    After the implementors have done their job, and it’s time to jam some news into the newspaper-shaped CMS, someone needs to use the system to publish the news. Job descriptions I found after a quick search online reveal this is be a varied job, requiring news judgment, writing skills, and web programming abilities.

    Among other duties, they update the homepages, turn print content into web content and publish user-generated content.

    Applications developer

    Journalism has taken on new forms in recent years. Once high tech, specialized CMSs like blogs and wikis are now overshadowed by news applications like EveryBlock and PolitiFact.

    These applications are not just used to read written articles, they give the reader a way to interact with data. A journalism background would ideally give a programmer better ideas when creating these applications.

    Hunter, gatherer and data-miner

    Wrangling data is hard. It’s buried in paper documents, messy spreadsheets, and if you’re very lucky, published in a barely-readable format on well-intentioned but terribly-implemented municipal websites.

    Knowledge of old-school techniques like OCR, and new-school ones like web scraping would be very helpful in a newsroom. And the task of pumping a mess of data into a database and mining it for the good stuff is, I imagine, beyond the skills of all but the most industrious (and tech-savvy) reporters.

    Visualizations developer

    There are a lot of programmers out there that have drunk the Tufte kool-aid (There’s no bullet list like Stalin’s bullet list!) and are into making data more interesting. The New York Times has been doing an exceptional job harnessing this talent. Their <A
    href=”http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/flash/politics/20080603_MARGINS_GRAPHIC/margins.swf”>Clinton/Obama support visualizer and box office receipts graphic are two fine examples.

    New media translator

    Programmers at the New York Times are also creating killer visualizations of less-data-y, more-newsy information. Interactive components built in Flash or HTML can tell aspects of a written story not suited to plain text. A programmer-journalist is obviously well-suited to this task.

    Hacker journalist

    First, I should probably clarify, <A
    href=”http://www.paulgraham.com/gba.html”>“hacker” is a compliment in my world. If you’re a hacker, you’re an especially good programmer. So, what are you if you’re a hacker journalist? Think about what photojournalists do — they tell stories with a camera.

    A hacker journalist would do original reporting, and use a combination of the above techniques to tell the story. Or maybe <A
    href=”http://www.paulgraham.com/hp.html”>painting is a better analogy: they are both creative processes, requiring a finely honed set of technical skills, as well as inspiration and storytelling abilities.

    (Props for the name of this role go to Neal Stephenson, author of the inspirational article Mother Earth, Mother Board.

    What am I going to do with my life?

    I’m most drawn to the applications developer and hacker journalist roles — probably because the former is most similar to my previous life as a software developer, and the latter because it sounds cool as hell.

    Other programmer-journalists would have different feelings about their ideal job. Database junkies, visualization geeks and HTML hackers all have a place in this profession.

    Lucky for journalism, and contrary to their public image, programmers are usually a opinionated, passionate bunch. Great hackers “care more about what they do there than how much they get paid for it”. (If there’s only one link in this essay that you visit, it should be this one.)

    Fellow programmers, join us on our mission! Help inform the people so that they may better self govern. Help people solve their own problems. Code the future of democracy.

    It’s one hell of an interesting problem to hack.

    Read more from Brian at his blog, "Who What When Where Why Web," www.sixthw.com.

    • nadja

      Great article! I study journalism and programming, i am so excited!

    • Raphael

      I would like to know how I subscribe in this course? I’m from Brazil. I’m very interested!

      Raphael Duprat

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