Code monkeys won't save news, journalists will

3:10 am by Heather Billings. Filed under: Hacking the News,Programming

As journalists, we pride ourselves on asking the right questions.

Why, then, does the New York Times come excruciatingly close to nailing the key to journalism’s future, yet still ask the wrong question?

A recent Times Magazine article talked about how a Nick Bilton, former hacker-journalist at the Times, is teaching his students the importance of thinking like programmers.

“[R]eporters need to know how to manipulate computers in order to tell the stories that matter most to their audiences,” the article paraphrased Bilton.


The author of the article, Nicholas Carlson, goes on to talk about the cutting-edgeness ofColumbia University’s new programming and journalism master’s.

Right on.

And then we have the question posed to us: “But what’s in it for the engineers, who might have more lucrative things to do than save journalism?”

Cue the ripping out of hair.

Programmer-journalists are not computer engineers.

Computer engineers are not the key to journalism’s survival.

Read that again. Ad nauseum, if necessary.

Sure, the l33t (hacker-speak for “elite”) ones may be. I know of a couple who started out as engineers and turned into journalists. But for the most part, it works the other way around. Most programmer-journalists are journalists who see the advantage in knowing how to bend a computer to their wills because they know they can get better stories or better audience connection that way. They’re already invested in saving journalism, because journalism is what they love.

That’s the difference between an engineer and a programmer-journalist. And its importance cannot be overrated.

And yes, the industry needs its hardcore hackers and its sysadmins to stay afloat. I’m not suggesting love for journalism is a must for all techie jobs in the journalism sphere. But it’s essential for anyone with programming skill who’s going to try to “save journalism.” (As an aside, I think it’s newspapers that need saving, not journalism. Journalism’s doing just fine, thank you very much.)

Need more proof? Read through this revealing and fascinating blog post written by Paul Biggar, one of Newstilt’s co-founders, about why he and his partner decided to shut down the startup. One theme you’ll find is that they weren’t all that excited about journalism in the first place:

“We weren’t intrinsically motivated by news and journalism… Our desire to keep pushing the “mission” was extremely low… We didn’t really care about journalism, and weren’t even avid news readers… This compounded when we didn’t really know anything about the industry, or what readers wanted.”

I’m not trying to knock the idea or Biggar. I think it was a great idea that flopped for a variety of reasons, and Biggar himself is taking a critical look at why. The first in a list of his personal lessons learned is, “Deeply care about what you’re working on.”

And what’s he doing now that his startup has folded? Working for Mozilla, on Firefox’s Javascript engine. Code is his passion: “I’m loving working on compilers again.”

Sound like the future of news to you? Apparently it does to the New York Times. That frightens me a lot.



Columbia's new program validates pro-jos

3:56 pm by Heather Billings. Filed under: Hacking the News,Programming

There’s been buzz in the techie journalism community about the new master’s program that Columbia University unveiled yesterday. In five semesters, students will be able to graduate with a dual master’s in journalism (two semesters) and computer science (three semesters).

The program is touted as the first of its kind. Northwestern has had a programmer-journalist program (which includes sweet tuition waivers), but it seeks to attract programmers who want to learn about journalism instead of the other way around. As someone with a disproportionate number of nerdy friends, I can say that journalism isn’t exactly the first career field that springs to mind when computer geeks hit the job market.

I will say that I’m jealous of the 15 journalism students who are going to get three solid semesters of computer science. But a year and a half really doesn’t seem like enough time to go from n00b to code monkey. And two semesters of journalism training hardly seems enough for someone with no journalism background, especially for the kind of journalist that does the sort of in-depth research so often accompanied by programming skills.

Michelle Minkoff, a recent Northwestern grad, notes on her blog that she was able to learn programming and computer skills at Medill by being willing to pursue it herself. I agree with her when she says that self-reliance is completely necessary in a field where everything’s changing. (The HTML I learned as an undergrad was outdated when I learned it. I’d be screwed if I never educated myself about the XML, for instance, and I’m starting to learn HTML5 now.) Programs that don’t stress an attitude of continuing self-education are going to produce lazy coders. Lazy coders aren’t going to worry about best practices or keep up to date with new developments.

But the impact of Columbia’s decision goes beyond merely providing a smoother path for students. The really big deal here is that one of the most respected journalism schools in the nation has just laid its blessing upon pro-jos.

It’s more than education reform. It’s validation. This move signals that coders might finally be moving from the dark recesses of the newsroom into the respectable light of day. News organizations might finally start realizing that coder-journalists aren’t mutant freaks: They’re the future.

Everyone who’s for the future, join me in urging other journalism schools to forge relationships with their universities’ computer science departments. While the education is what you’re willing to make it, having administrators who understand the importance of such partnerships is priceless.