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    Programmer-Journalist? Hacker-Journalist? Our Identity Crisis

    by Aron Pilhofer
    April 22, 2010

    Jacqui Maher is the most recent addition to my Interactive News team at the New York Times, and although she started almost six months ago, I have yet to get her business cards — an embarrassing fact she (rightly) points out at regular intervals. I’m not raising this to highlight my shortcomings as a manager, but rather as a plea for help.

    The biggest reason Jacqui doesn’t have business cards? I just can’t come up with a title that…fits.

    This is a problem of no small significance, because as the career paths of journalists and developers converge, the labels we use affect how we are seen by those around us. I experienced this first-hand a few years ago when I went from being a journalist who used data in his reporting to a computer-assisted reporting specialist.

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    As soon as the term “reporter” got qualified, I was no longer viewed the same way in the newsroom. At best, I was seen as a reporter with specialized skills. At worst, I was that nerd in the corner you’d call to help with a spreadsheet and maybe troubleshoot your email.

    Labels matter. And as this niche of journalism grows more mainstream, labels will matter that much more. So, who are we?

    We Are (Not Just) Engineers

    According to human resources, everyone on my team falls into one of several categories under the broad title of “software engineer.” I’ll admit, I kind of punted on this question for a while, and “engineer” is the title most of my folks have on their business cards. It’s certainly not inaccurate; it’s just not complete.

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    Engineer doesn’t in any way fit the position because we are, after all, as much editorial as we are technical. Plus, it’s just a bit too N.A.S.A. for my tastes.

    Then there’s the term that seems to be more and more in vogue — “programmer-journalist.” And while that definitely captures the dual nature of mission, it feels like a bit of a cop-out to me. Like we couldn’t find a good title, so we’ll just jam a couple half-baked ones together. It’s clunky to say, clunkier to write and it’s just a little too combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell, you know?

    What About Hacker-Journalist

    A slightly more casual Friday version is Brian Boyer’s “hacker-journalist,” which I don’t mind as much, even if it shares the same problem as above. Maybe it’s the term hacker, which I’ve always liked. Unfortunately, it’s a show stopper here since the term is perceived as a pejorative among those who don’t know better. Plus, there’s the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell thing again.

    At one point, I thought maybe we’d just go with “reporter” or “editor,” which is what we did on the Times’s computer-assisted reporting desk when I was there. But while that title would be newsroom chic, it has the opposite problem as “software engineer” in that it completely ignores the technical aspects of what we do.

    Finally there’s “news applications developer,” which is the title the team at the Chicago Tribune uses. It’s a mouthful, but not too bad. Of all the options I’ve considered, it’s probably the best at capturing what we actually do day-to-day. Still, I’m holding out hope that someone will think of something better.

    Suggestions welcome.

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    Tagged: chicago tribune compiter-assisted reporting hacker-journalist new york times programmer-journalist
    • I like to say that I’m a “video hacker” or “media hacker”…

      I once used the term “media engineer” and quickly got shot down by engineers who pointed out that I could not legally use the term until I filled out some paperwork after completing an accredited engineering degree.

      So I always use hacker these days ;)

    • You have to capitalize on the hollywood dual name methodology (Brangelina, TomKat, et al) to create sophisticated new terminology such as projo, hackjo, enginejo or repodev.

    • My title is News Technologist and the first joke I tell at conferences when I’m speaking about journalism and web development is “don’t worry, I don’t know what it means either.”

      I supposed “You tell me man, I just work here” is too long for a business card.

    • How about “Computational Journalist” It seems to encompass the right flavor of journalism informed by programming, and more generally, computing.

    • I’m keen on “hacker journalist” cuz of it’s similarity to “photojournalist”. That is, we’re practicing journalism, but with different tools than the written word.

      To avoid the “hackers are bad!” misunderstanding, when Scott Klein and I were discussing what I should call my new team at the Tribune, we settled on “News Applications” as the best team name, and the titles “News Applications Editor” and “News Applications Developer” followed nicely.

      But, yeah. It’s a bit long. :)

    • I’m pretty sure I need to NOT have “engineer” or “programmer” in my title. I can write code, kick a db, wrestle with HTML and CSS, make a web app that people (hopefully) like using. But “programmer” and “engineer” make it sound like I should be able to look back at something I wrote 6 months ago and not cringe.

      We have an “online developer” and an “online producer,” and then I have “editor” in my title … pretty boring stuff, but it’s intended to serve internal purposes. Helps people throughout the company identify how and where we fit in, so we figured straightforward was best.

    • Sisi Wei

      What about taking a step back? Information designer.

      We fall under the visual journalism category, so maybe we should shed attaching programmer/developer onto our titles, and just count it as one of our the many tools in our toolbox? Of course, this doesn’t disambiguate those who develop versus those who create static graphics, but we are doing the same thing, just on different mediums.

      Interactive information designer?

    • Ryan Mark

      News Applications Developer is a bit long, and I find myself shortening it to just “News Apps Developer.” I think Apple and Google are working hard on making that abbreviation commonplace.

      But just having the developer in the title draws the ‘so your just a programmer’ response.

      I like ‘engineer’ better because its more appropriate, but also makes me think of trains or Motorola.

      How about ‘coder’ in some capacity? It’s kinda like hacker, but less ‘lets break into NORAD’. Although it’s still kinda limiting. We don’t just write code.

      I think I’ll vote for ‘technologist’. It’s more mysterious.

    • I’m rather against “programmer” or “developer” because of the problem of the man-month. Programmers and developers are faceless “resources” which can be “committed” in hourly chunks to a project.

      I’d like a title with some subjectivity, which is why I like the “hacker” mantle. I think we enlightened need to reclaim the hacker title and use it to describe our approach.

      The only other term I find interesting is “maker.” There’s so much pretentiousness and ethereal non-doing in titles like “technologist” (side note: I am a News Technologist at the St. Petersburg Times. But I don’t have business cards, either.) The distinction between us and the others is our credo of “do not say” or “demo don’t memo.”

      We are obligated to title ourselves with verbs. So, “hacker” is fine. So is “maker” or “Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds.”

      But let’s ditch the nouns. Then, we can stop the naming game and get back to what makes us good: The doing.

    • Anonymous

      How about just “journalist”.

    • James Wilkerson

      I’ve been in the “data editor” bin for a while, but it doesn’t really describe what I do at all. But, as Aron points out, nothing really does.
      Frankly, though, I just don’t think it matters. Titles tell very little about what a job actually is so much of the time, anyway.

    • I like coder/journalist and wired journalist myself, although for jobs that veer more towards the technical side of the spectrum, “information designer” and “news application developer” are excellent choices as well. I’d refrain from too much philosophical theorizing as to why one title fits better than another, in the end we all just unconsciously pick whatever sounds best anyway :-)

    • “Information designer” isn’t bad. It has that “I’m not sure what that means, but it must mean something I don’t understand” quality to it that appeals to me. To the bad, it doesn’t suggest anything about news or technology per se. It’s closer to a title I would expect to find in a web design shop or something like that. Good suggestion though.

      Fallback option: “You tell me man, I just work here”

    • Scott Klein

      “News Technologist” sounds a little too much like IT. “Hacker” is a bit overloaded.

      What I like about News Applications is that it’s generally accurate, it’s got the word “news” in it, so everybody knows we’re part of the newsroom not “the website,” and it’s anodyne enough that every Deputy Managing Editor in the country can look at it and understand why they need a few in their newsrooms pronto.

      I agree that “Developer” can feel a bit reductive but that will disappear over time.

      There is a cost to delay: What should motivate us all is that soon enough, we’ll get stuck with something like “Computer Assisted Reporter.”

    • James Wilkerson

      Anything is better than a decade ago, when the title was “That one guy over there in the corner doing shit nobody else understands.”
      Now, it’s “Those guys over there in the corner doing shit MOST of us don’t understand.”

    • Christopher Krug

      In his autobiography “City Room,” Arthur Gelb chronicles how New York Times reporters’ responsibilities (and skill set) changed over time. To put it bluntly, she had to start writing her stories, not just phone in a report to the rewrite desk. Despite this innovation/evolution, the”reporter” title stuck. Folks now understand that a reporter reports and writes her stories.

      Having said that, I like “editor.” Your team members’ responsibilities (and skill set) warrants that term. They structure information so it can be queried in a way to find meaning. And they do this on all their varied responsibilities, e.g., database modeling, query writing, navigation, presentation, etc. We could add a platform identifier, i.e., web/mobile, but the mobile developments appear to be blurring the distinctions.

    • Paige West

      At msnbc.com, we were interactive producers (IP for short) for a long time because we produced “interactives”. Producer is nice because it implies some creative contribution to a project. Problem is, nobody can define what an interactive is.

      We’ve since become the Interactive Studio (IPs merged with the Design team) and now call the code wielding members of the team “Studio Developers” – albeit, equally as obtuse. The IP label has been hard to undo, however, and maybe it’s not so bad. What do you all think?

    • Hey Paige: I meant to actually mention producer, which is a term we considered as well and discarded for largely the same reason. It describes such a broad range of skills as to be almost meaningless, which makes Interactive Producer something like 2X as bad for exactly the reasons you cite. Studio Developers isn’t bad, but is obtuse as you say and feels a little design to me more than code. But it’s not bad.

    • As Paige points out, we had the same problem in multimedia. I think I had six different titles along the way and never really liked any of them I like the term producer for those inside broadcast-related newsrooms — it has some nice shades of meaning there. I’m not sure those subtleties translate inside a print-related newsroom.

      I’ve been sitting here toying with developing producer or development producer, but they just sound odd. I give up.

    • Someone up there said “media hacker.” I like that, even though there’s the “hackers are bad” issue, it’s shorter than some other options. It’s also what Dave Winer calls himself. :)

    • I used to be a Circuit Rider, and as proud as I am of the circuit riding movement, not even our own wikipedia entry made the title any easier to explain. If I ever got back all the time I spent explaining my title I would have enough for a truly lovely vacation somewhere.

      In my little database of DocumentCloud contacts I’ve got a good number of people with some variation on either “newsroom innovation” or “news applications” in their titles. I am not altogether sure what I think of either, but lean towards the latter.

      Putting “innovation” in a title somehow suggests that everyone else is just plodding along, blinders up, which I hope is at least not the goal, even where it is the case.

    • Jamie

      “Editorial Developer” is something I heard somewhere and kind of liked. It’s a bit shorter than News Applications Developer, but I’m still holding out for something better.

    • the word you are looking for is contentonist

    • Since the emphasis is on reportage (vs. information) and probably some understanding of the role of technology, I’d suggest the following:

      (1) for the overall concept, use applied journalism (much as the terminological distinction between applied and pure mathematics) — the “applied” moniker is just technical enough to fly well for those-who-know yet only two syllables long and generic or open enough in usage to allow for increased functionality/responsibility as the positions and roles grow, while “journalism” preserves intact the heritage of the social/cultural function of news organizations, so one would not get pigeonholed as the “IT guy” and still keep creds with non-technology-enabled journalists on the beat … positions in this area could run as “reporter, applied journalism” and “editor, applied journalism” and in conversation, “I’m a Times reporter in applied journalism, covering the blank-blank beat”

      (2) use a portmanteau, technojournalist, technology-enabled or -aware, along the lines of photojournalist, who reports via images … this coinage is a little too cyborg for my tastes though

      (3) another portmanteau: infonaut, to key up the concepts of information and navigation (the organized application of information to chart the news frontier), punning on the exploratory resonance with “astronaut” and the navigation meme of the Web/Internet (think, Netscape Navigator) and indicating the changing nature of news and information in the multimedia digital age, a kind of frontier where the reporter examines, explores, records, and transmits … also would open up to the area as “infonautics,” the meta of information-gathering, evaluation, and dissemination in the Internet of today and whatever it becomes in the next decade; this term has a better marketing edge, too, and is distinctive enough to separate this type of journalism from “reporter” or “editor” — it’s a brave, new world; why not “think different[ly]”?

    • Since the emphasis is on reportage (vs. information) and probably some understanding of the role of technology, I’d suggest the following:

      (1) for the overall concept, use applied journalism (much as the terminological distinction between applied and pure mathematics) — the “applied” moniker is just technical enough to fly well for those-who-know yet only two syllables long and generic or open enough in usage to allow for increased functionality/responsibility as the positions and roles grow, while “journalism” preserves intact the heritage of the social/cultural function of news organizations, so one would not get pigeonholed as the “IT guy” and still keep creds with non-technology-enabled journalists on the beat … positions in this area could run as “reporter, applied journalism” and “editor, applied journalism” and in conversation, “I’m a Times reporter in applied journalism, covering the blank-blank beat”

      (2) use a portmanteau, technojournalist, technology-enabled or -aware, along the lines of photojournalist, who reports via images … this coinage is a little too cyborg for my tastes though

      (3) another portmanteau: infonaut, to key up the concepts of information and navigation (the organized application of information to chart the news frontier), punning on the exploratory resonance with “astronaut” and the navigation meme of the Web/Internet (think, Netscape Navigator) and indicating the changing nature of news and information in the multimedia digital age, a kind of frontier where the reporter examines, explores, records, and transmits … also would open up to the area as “infonautics,” the meta of information-gathering, evaluation, and dissemination in the Internet of today and whatever it becomes in the next decade; this term has a better marketing edge, too, and is distinctive enough to separate this type of journalism from “reporter” or “editor” — it’s a brave, new world; why not “think different[ly]”?

    • Recent news from Columbia Journalism, which seems to demonstrate the relevance of the discussion here: http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2010/04/09/j-school-seas-offer-dual-degree-digital-media-focus

    • Drew

      Seems to me that you are too concerned with titles. In the end your experiences matter not how you categize yourself. How about you focus on solving a real problem?

    • cynthia

      It’s kind of hard to determine when you haven’t described your job functions. Could you list them?

    • Phil Kuz

      How about Technology Editor? I think that incorporates not only knowledge about tech topics, but that you incorporate/use technology as part of your job. Sometimes that might mean writing an application, some fancy HTML, or querying a db directly to get some unique slice of information.

      I’ve always like the word Technologist as well, but Technologist Journalist is a mouthful.

      I disagree with the earlier comment that the of “programmer” or “developer” equates to a faceless clone. Perhaps it’s because I’m one myself, though my latest titles have been “Technical Architect” or “Solutions Architect” which doesn’t clearly identify me a code junkie to anyone not in the geek circles. I usually end up just telling people at parties that I’m a programmer, which often surprises people since I’m gregarious and wasn’t sitting in the corner alone with a pocket protector in my shirt pocket.

    • Olivia

      I agree with just “journalist.” Aren’t we all expected to be technicians on some level these days? It’s a given.

    • Julius Hill

      How about Com-Porter?

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