One of the explanations for the emergence of the programmer/journalist is the move of news organizations from print (or radio or TV) to the web. While some newspapers have gone online-only, and many are still trying to move to a “web-first” mindset, there are still newsrooms that view the web as a secondary medium.

I remember when every step forward at my college paper, the Independent Florida Alligator, was a hair-pulling, tooth-and-nail fight. It wasn’t that the other editors didn’t think the website was important. The problem was one of culture. I had been web-minded from the beginning of my journalism education, while most students remained entrenched in the print structure.

So how do you merge the culture of the programming environment with the culture of the newsroom?

Merging Two Cultures

Rich Gordon

The premise of the Knight Foundation journalism scholarship for programmers is that “there’s no reason why a programmer can’t do journalism,” said Rich Gordon, director of digital innovation at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. “They just need an understanding of the mission and culture of journalism and journalists.”

Gordon thinks that many of the perceived differences between a journalist and a programmer are false.

“Journalists and programmers are more alike than unlike,” Gordon said. “I think that people who wind up in programming are closer to introverted than extroverted, but this is true of many journos as well. Both groups, when hanging out with other people with whom they share interests, will lapse into jargon. It’s worth pointing out that I’ve known some amazing journos who could bury their head in a major investigative project and do incredible research and reporting and be perceived as anti-social.”

Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive newsroom technologies at the New York Times, has assembled a team of mostly programmers to do journalism. He says the challenge is to bring programmers into the newsroom environment.

Aron Pilhofer

“It’s not a normal corporate-y type of environment,” Pilhofer said. “It’s very loosey-goosey, collaborative, hectic, disorganized. It takes time to get used to that environment, and not everyone is comfortable in that environment. Being comfortable working in a more agile, flexible environment is a matter of personality.”

The newsroom lacks the structured corporate environment most programmers experience. There is no defined workflow, no requirements documents, and priorities can shift at a moment’s notice.

But, Pilhofer said, “It’s been a rollicking success on our end. It’s less of an issue than I thought it’d be. In two years, I have not run out of people who would fit into the environment.”

[Editor’s Note: Pilhofer and Gordon both have received Knight News Challenge grants, and blog on MediaShift sister site, Idea Lab. MediaShift also received a grant from the Knight Foundation.]

Need For Improved Communication

Matthew Waite, news technologist at the St. Petersburg Times, weighed in on how programmers and journalists communicate, and how that communication can be improved. He said ill-will between journalists and programmers arises from miscommunication.

“I’ve seen a lot of cases where some piece of code did exactly what the requirements document specified, but it didn’t do what anyone wanted,” Waite said.

This problem comes from a common feature of project development in the programming culture — the requirements document. This tells the programmer exactly what is needed. A programmer without media experience will do just what they’ve been trained to do — build a project to meet these specifications.

Matt Waite

However, the programmer/journalist often knows the difference between what is needed and what’s in the requirements document. Waite used his high school sports application, Home Team, as an example of how programmers can understand what a journalist wants.

“You need to go do what you’re being asked to build,” he said. “Spend a night on the sports copy desk taking high school football scores and you’ll get an idea of what a football score taking app should do, no matter what the editor is telling you.”

Similarly, journalists would do well to sit with a programmer and watch their ideas get turned into an app.

“The journalist/programmer has the advantage of having this cross-domain specific knowledge already,” Waite said. “They’ve written the murder story before so they have a much better idea of what a murder database app should do.”

Megan Taylor is a web journalist whose work focuses on combining traditional and computer-assisted information-gathering with multimedia production to create news packages online. Megan tells stories in English, HTML/CSS/, ActionScript, PHP, photos, video and audio, and blogs at her personal site.