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    Can Programmers, Journalists Get Along in One Newsroom?

    by Megan Taylor
    October 19, 2009
    How do you merge the culture of the programming environment with the culture of the newsroom?

    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?

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    Merging Two Cultures

    i-c8a5c371bcee05f9b429eb0e32014278-RichGordon-thumb-200x297-1182-thumb-175x259-1186.jpg
    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.

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    “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.

    i-3e684ed46ea057482349dc1659c3bb16-AronPilhofer-thumb-225x159-1183.jpg
    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.

    i-342181dd650f173faeab2b56cac904c8-MattWaite-thumb-200x289-1184-thumb-175x252-1189.jpg
    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.

    Tagged: new york times newsroom newsroom culture programmer-journalist programming
    • Is it just me or does this approach make very little sense? I think I missed the explanation of what the programmer journalists are doing. What are programmers and journalists doing together? Where I come from programmers build tools that other professions use. You don’t actually have to be a member of the profession to build the tools.

      Do programmers and doctors need to work together side by side so that an MRI machine works? If programmers are still involved in the equation after the tool is delivered beyond normal maintenance and upgrades, then we missed something somewhere.

      If this really is a viable model, why don’t other professions need it? In today’s highly computerized airline cockpits is a programmer part of the flight crew?

      While programmers will build the tools and distribution channels of the future, it is journalists who will write the news. To me this is more sad, watering down of the journalism profession which leads to the continuing decline in quality of our news.

    • Joseph Datko

      Building a well-designed tool, I propose, is a process that requires a knowledge of how the tool will be used to perform a function. Not ‘knowledge that a tool will be used to perform a given function’ or ‘knowledge of how a tool is intended to be used to perform a given function’. Knowing how is bench knowledge, so the most effective programming will be done by someone who has time at the bench in whatever field is being served. At least that’s the line of reasoning I extract. Added to this is of course the inability to fully predict how a tool will be used when deployed, since it is being integrated into a pre-existing and flexible system of tools and users. If anything, other professions should have a critical eye on matters like this. This criticism draws too stark a distinction between “tools and distribution channels” and the people connected to them on one hand and the content being manipulated and distributed on the other.

    • @Mark Lasssoff Have you read my other pieces on programmer/journalists? The first one, How Computer-Assisted Reporters Evolved into Programmer/Journalists, will help put this in context.
      Would love to dicuss this further with you, anytime!

    • This is an interesting move, but it’d be good to see programmes aimed at changing the mindset and skillset of existing journalists as well. Any news in the pipeline about programming scholarships for journalists? I’d sign up for that in seconds.

    • I spent 30 years in newspapers as a reporter and editor, much of it covering technology, as well as doing computer-assisted reporting. It doesn’t hurt for journalists and programmers to have skills that cross over, enabling each group to understand what the other does.

      But the truly important piece is corporate culture. Journalists, by training and by nature, are skeptics. Technologists, by experience and by nature, are optimists. They spend their days building, to paraphrase “Alice in Wonderland,” six impossible things before breakfast.

      It is vital for newspapers, I believe, to import the programmers’ attitude, as well as their technology. See my complete blog post, “What newspapers must learn from technology companies.”

      Steve Woodward
      CEO, Nozzl Media Inc.

    • Kira

      @ Mark Lassoff: It’s misguided to draw such fine lines between journalism and programming. Just as art directors and editors have worked together for decades on producing newspapers, so should programmers and journalists be communicating with regularity on each other’s wants and needs, what works and what doesn’t. A big part of this is mutual respect – for what each person with their specific expertise is bringing to the table. Without programmers, the vast majority of even the most successful publications would have become irrelevant as print lost popularity. The Times is a great example; they’ve not only put their content online but found interesting and innovative ways of displaying it — things that could only be the product of journalist/programmer collaboration.

      In a nutshell, programmers and doctors don’t need to work side by side to develop an MRI machine, but I would venture that a far better MRI machine would be invented by a programmer who was familiar with a doctor’s process. Further, a doctor would benefit from constant advances in technology by continuing to communicate that process to a programmer.

      What dilutes journalism is the refusal on the part of many journalists to acknowledge that changes to the way news is delivered are both unavoidable and beneficial.

    • Britt Thorson

      Hi Megan,

      Thank you for your insightful and timely post about what’s going on in the new newsrooms of our media. While many people seem to be focusing on online media and journalism as a separate entity from newspapers, many forget that newspapers are in fact trying to integrate programmers into their news teams, in an attempt to keep up with the times, and keep their papers alive.

      I myself am a student of journalism at USC, and find it extremely interesting that while I’ve been here, the core class schedule has morphed to include “Intro to Online Journalism.” Times are definitely changing in the world of media, and being a student during this time is both exciting and nerve-wracking. The latter because I’m not sure the field I’m going into has successfully merged with its online, and necessary counterparts. I’m wondering if the tension in the newsroom between programmers and journalists might simply stem from pride, and defensiveness. The programmers are coming in to what was previously the journalist’s domain, and though they are all working on the same team, I’m sure its hard not to segregate and feel threatened by the newcomers. It would be different if each had their own separate areas of expertise, but as Aron Pilhofer says in your post, programmers are being taught how to become journalists as well. This must terrify the newspaper writers who see not only their fellow newspapers shutting down across the country, but tech-savvy, and probably younger, being brought in to eventually take their jobs.

      One thing I didn’t completely understand was Rich Gordon’s claim that programmers and journalists are alike because of their introversion. In my short experience, I’ve found that journalists have to be aggressive and extroverted if they want to get the information and stories they need. While a programmer’s job is mainly between him/her and the computer, a journalist needs to be able to successfully interact with people to get the job done. What are your thoughts on the issue? Do you agree with Gordon?

      Again, thank you so much for your post. Its not often I come across insightful and unbiased posts about the move to online journalism, interspersed with comments from experts in the field.

      Sincerely, Britt T.

    • Collaboration is what is missing. And it is not just journalist and programmers. It is also marketing and operations.

      I don’t know how we got into this “post We” era, but the only work environments I’ve been proud to be part of were about how “We” will solve a problem.

      For more on the importance of a “We” Era Renaissance to address the media economic crisis see this two part postabout the recent Columbia Journalism Report on Restructuring Journalism: http://bit.ly/4rLVMN (part I) and http://bit.ly/5JftZ (part II).

      Katherine Warman Kern
      @comradity

    • In my own experience as a grad student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU, working alongside developers is a liberating experience.

      These aren’t the nerds in the corner. When you bring people with the skills necessary to actually realize concepts into the conversation from the beginning, the entire process of digital media creation is streamlined. Granted, this does take a certain level of commitment to communication on both sides. But learning to speak each other’s language can be incredibly valuable.

      The Carnegie/Knight funded http://www.news21.com project – which I was a part of at ASU this summer – shows what implementing this philosophy has the potential to unleash new and creative styles of online story telling. But this was only ten weeks. Imagine if newsrooms structured in a similar fashion existed indefinatly?

      I disagree with the notion these distinct types of people should be merged into a hybrid profession for two reasons.

      First: Practically speaking, the day only has so many hours. The amount of energy and resources journos commit to projects is incredible. The same goes with programmers and developers. At some point, you will encounter diminishing returns on both products – technology and story. You can’t be coding while conducting an interview at the same time – at least not at the same level of quality – can you? The different knowledge bases required here seem extreme.

      Second: But these roles are more than just different knowledge bases, they are opposing paradigms. The Cronkite School’s resident web developer – Caige Nichols – espouses the theory that these people THINK in fundamentally differing ways. Coders, he says, are bounded by the limits of their understanding of what’s feasible. It is their job to think like a machine and thus most products built by software engineers don’t make much sense for normal humans. Conversely, content people think with their imagination and aren’t under the same constraints when visualizing end user experiences. But, he continues, they lack the skill set needed to realize their vision. In the end, do we want a bunch of journogrammers thinking like cyborgs? Keeping these different modes of thought distinct, but parallel certainly has advantages.

      There are scare enough superstars who can switch gears so easily to replace the entire network of the media today. The important idea to pursue, in my humble opinion, is the intersection of these archetypes into a workable environment. This has the potential to help journalism do more than tell stories. We should quit crying about the state of the industry and pointing fingers at the likes of google, twitter, and youtube. Don’t just tell stories, build platforms and tools to help yourself and others tell share more.

      Feel free to @tehpennycook on twitter for more convo.

    • @Mary Hamilton Me too! I’ve been bugging people, but need someone to put up the money.

      @Britt Thorson Re: introversion: I’m defining, and Gordon probably is too, introversion by the Myers-Briggs definition. Doesn’t mean you can’t be social and aggressive about stories.

      @Katherine Warman A good topic for another post. For the record, all the people I quoted in this story are part of teams. In interviews, I asked for individual perspectives.

      @Jeremy Pennycook I vehemently disagree with this idea “It is their job to think like a machine and thus most products built by software engineers don’t make much sense for normal humans.” As a programmer, a journalist, and one who knows many in both positions, I think creative thinking is one of the many ways programmers and journalists are, as Gordon said, more alike than unlike. I would love to discuss this further with you.

    • @Kira– The difference is that art directors and editors both produce content. Programmers produce the distribution medium. Yes, programmers have to understand the job and needs of the journalist, just like programmers working on banking software have to understand the needs and processes of a bank, However, we don’t see loan officers, tellers and programmers sitting behind the desk at a bank….

      @Megan: No I haven’t. I just discovered this blog and will attempt to read more to get a better context…

    • Ahhhhhhh yes… finally something constructive to write about that has my true dilema and yet solution all wrapped into this endless debate about what came first the chicken or the egg. What most are missing however is the link into a much needed evolution into a field that should not be undertaken by some feable yet humble distractions of characterization of trying to define a single job function based on it’s adverse role in the field in which it is dependant upon. Of course it is always great to see an athelete be able to be a star player even if it is for only one sport… I however grew up a huge fan of “Bo Jackson.” Despite much critisism due to his attitude as portrayed by the media and their love to exploit ones bad attidudes due to the way they were raised in life. He was my all time favorite as a child collecting cards and being an avid lover and player in several sports instead of only being devoted to a single field of play. I was heartbroken by how easily and quickly his cards and overall value of stock rapidly declined and was overlooked by one play in which he overexerted himself by his devotion and inability to just go down. He was critisized and lost alot of value due to others view that he might or would not have destroyed his career as a Pro athelete if he would have stayed just playing football. To tell you the truth I still have everything I had of his that lost value just as quickly as the housing market dropped off the scene. Yet I treasure and will still collect if I can all his stuff because to me I really do not care what his net worth is in the stock market. I will not betray or dishonor what he was able to accomplish better than any other athelete ever to play the game. I even still have his book, “Bo Knows Bo” tucked into storage as a reminder of the kind of dedication that can be achieved despite how problematic ones home life experiences could have been.

      This whole real world life experience for me and my dreams has had to evolve and change just as some car and green eco friendly people have been able to finaly except the fact that we are on the verge of being able to love the sheer power and sport of the good ol’ ss sport value in racing and not have to kill or hate upon those mid evil ways of power and speed having to be associated with the gas guzzling destruction of destroying this garbaged filled earth that has become one giant rat race of waste in order to be successful or profitable member of society. So I have with held from them alot of things that I do not have time to finish even where I am going with something before I get bombarded by either one side or the other trying to recruit me to either the national league or the american league. My “Purple Conspiracy,” has finaly started to transform its way out of the cacoon that it has been. Starting into the Evolution and flight process of a butterfly. I find it quaintly amusing however that sometimes the thing that sometimes transends and magesticly spurts a much larger than expected creature from such a slow slugish creature. Is sometimes due to nothing that could be evaluated and defined in the experiment as a direct root to because they are sprouted upon things that were not even construed into the equation to be evaluated upon. Like an Ultra Violet light. Or a conspiracy word that will forever be deemed as having no positive outlook upon those ears that hear that one word will sometimes cut a person off from going any further thinking it must be a derogatory line of thinking or leading of an cross~threaded code that is going to manipulate ones perspective in a ill intended demeanor maliciously with intent to throw one from what is really going on. Best example given, the movie “Swordfish!” Nuff said. So I may or may not come back seeing how my programmer trainers are trying to crush my ability to not give up my passions so that I might be fully driven into their one fielded mentality of having only one way to keep a perspective of things like my Special Projects School Manager father. Then my other benefactors of the fine arts like my ballet and invisionary and beautifully blessed mother and step daddy of other historical values will not help me with any better tools to embrace my artistic side… They all want me to choose a specific field. For me that is like choosing between my mother and father, hence the reason why I was kicked back and forth between the two as a child. I will go my own way and those that decide to evolve with me will make some good not for individual profit yet still be very wealthy not just with money but with the peace and knowledge that how it was made helped benifit others and not just oneself… That cost… PRICELESS!

      smi.ink@live.com
      facebook/JDWilcox
      blah blah blah
      P.S. no spell check on this stupid browser so sue me and call me a numb butt… please keep the mockery jokes fresh… one liners only go so far!

    • Ahhhhhhh yes… finally something constructive to write about that has my true dilema and yet solution all wrapped into this endless debate about what came first the chicken or the egg. What most are missing however is the link into a much needed evolution into a field that should not be undertaken by some feable yet humble distractions of characterization of trying to define a single job function based on it’s adverse role in the field in which it is dependant upon. Of course it is always great to see an athelete be able to be a star player even if it is for only one sport… I however grew up a huge fan of “Bo Jackson.” Despite much critisism due to his attitude as portrayed by the media and their love to exploit ones bad attidudes due to the way they were raised in life. He was my all time favorite as a child collecting cards and being an avid lover and player in several sports instead of only being devoted to a single field of play. I was heartbroken by how easily and quickly his cards and overall value of stock rapidly declined and was overlooked by one play in which he overexerted himself by his devotion and inability to just go down. He was critisized and lost alot of value due to others view that he might or would not have destroyed his career as a Pro athelete if he would have stayed just playing football. To tell you the truth I still have everything I had of his that lost value just as quickly as the housing market dropped off the scene. Yet I treasure and will still collect if I can all his stuff because to me I really do not care what his net worth is in the stock market. I will not betray or dishonor what he was able to accomplish better than any other athelete ever to play the game. I even still have his book, “Bo Knows Bo” tucked into storage as a reminder of the kind of dedication that can be achieved despite how problematic ones home life experiences could have been.

      This whole real world life experience for me and my dreams has had to evolve and change just as some car and green eco friendly people have been able to finaly except the fact that we are on the verge of being able to love the sheer power and sport of the good ol’ ss sport value in racing and not have to kill or hate upon those mid evil ways of power and speed having to be associated with the gas guzzling destruction of destroying this garbaged filled earth that has become one giant rat race of waste in order to be successful or profitable member of society. So I have with held from them alot of things that I do not have time to finish even where I am going with something before I get bombarded by either one side or the other trying to recruit me to either the national league or the american league. My “Purple Conspiracy,” has finaly started to transform its way out of the cacoon that it has been. Starting into the Evolution and flight process of a butterfly. I find it quaintly amusing however that sometimes the thing that sometimes transends and magesticly spurts a much larger than expected creature from such a slow slugish creature. Is sometimes due to nothing that could be evaluated and defined in the experiment as a direct root to because they are sprouted upon things that were not even construed into the equation to be evaluated upon. Like an Ultra Violet light. Or a conspiracy word that will forever be deemed as having no positive outlook upon those ears that hear that one word will sometimes cut a person off from going any further thinking it must be a derogatory line of thinking or leading of an cross~threaded code that is going to manipulate ones perspective in a ill intended demeanor maliciously with intent to throw one from what is really going on. Best example given, the movie “Swordfish!” Nuff said. So I may or may not come back seeing how my programmer trainers are trying to crush my ability to not give up my passions so that I might be fully driven into their one fielded mentality of having only one way to keep a perspective of things like my Special Projects School Manager father. Then my other benefactors of the fine arts like my ballet and invisionary and beautifully blessed mother and step daddy of other historical values will not help me with any better tools to embrace my artistic side… They all want me to choose a specific field. For me that is like choosing between my mother and father, hence the reason why I was kicked back and forth between the two as a child. I will go my own way and those that decide to evolve with me will make some good not for individual profit yet still be very wealthy not just with money but with the peace and knowledge that how it was made helped benifit others and not just oneself… That cost… PRICELESS!

      smi.ink@live.com
      facebook/JDWilcox
      blah blah blah
      P.S. no spell check on this stupid browser so sue me and call me a numb butt… please keep the mockery jokes fresh… one liners only go so far! Don’t fail me now…

    • Great piece on how to get the multimedia world and journalistic world working better together.
      Being a graphics guy, my favorite part of this package was the Venn
      Diagram. Fun!

    • @Mark, let me know if the background reading clarifies things for you. Glad to talk more, either way!

      @David I’m not a graphics person, but for this series I like using funny, slightly geeky graphics. (like the Batman toolbelt for “In Search of the Perfect Skillset for a Programmer/Journalist”)

    • There are quite a few “programmer-journalists” out there now doing interesting work.

      A few links:
      * Matt Waite (http://www.mattwaite.com/) developed Politifact.com, which won a Pulitzer Prize
      * Aron Pilhofer and this team at the NY Times do great work combining programming and journalism: http://nymag.com/news/features/all-new/53344/
      * Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark are at the Chicago Tribune, leading their “news applications team”: http://apps.chicagotribune.com/

      If you’re a software developer interested in applying your skills to journalism, here are some resources:
      * Brian Boyer’s call to action: http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/05/hackers-wanted-journalism-need.html
      * Brian’s list of jobs for people with these two skillsets: http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2008/07/a-programmer-journalist-contemplates-careers005.html
      * The scholarship program that led Brian to study journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University: http://www.medill.northwestern.edu/admissions/page.aspx?id=58645

    • tom krynski

      There have always been technical changes that revolutionized our society. Remember film? When videotape and ENG was introduced, tv news had to make changes. Live shots, satellites,etc. In radio, same thing from reel to reel tape, cassettes, now digital recorders, lap tops to feed stories. It’s not should we embrace the technology or the changes? It’s finding a way to utilize these changes, to deliver news. I am a dinosaur, but i know that without changing, well, you know!

    • I think teaching journalists to become programmers is the better approach. Trying to encourage programmers to be journalists is likely hard work because they’ve already chosen their profession. With so many great development tools today, it is easier than ever to create applications. And to create what I call “media engineers” rather than software engineers. Please see: http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/mt/archives/2009/07/post_8.php

    • Maria Tirmizi

      In terms of reporters and programmers increasing collaboration, whose opinion should hold more weight in terms of how best to portray a news item?

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