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.



Hacking the news, part I

11:06 pm by Heather Billings. Filed under: API,Hacking the News

“Why just read the news when you can hack it?”

With arguably one of the best R&D labs in newspapers, the New York Times released its own APIs last year, publicly recognizing that mashups are the way of the future.

No longer the Old Grey Lady, the New York Times and its snazzy Times Developer Network is enough to make a journogeek drool. It’s all there: The beta logo that looks pulled straight from Google Labs, a development console and the gallery of shiny new apps (made with the APIs) hot off the keyboard. I plan to do another installment in which I blog about using the APIs myself, but for now, here are some of the cool things other people have done with it:

  • Here’s a straightforward, relatively simple (emphasis on “relatively”) creation by Taylor Barstow: The NYT Explorer. The New York Times’ itself doesn’t have the greatest search, so Mr. Barstow decided to create his own search using their Article API.
  • There’s no doubt the media has become more self-aware in the last decade. The Sunlight Foundation created this visualization of how many times the word “transparency” appeared in the New York Times between 1990 and 2009. Even correcting for stories about extraordinarily clear windows, a trend is obvious.
  • MovieAB compares New York Times’ movie critics’ reviews with Netflix. MovieAB is a mashup at its best, in my book. People want the information on the go, people will actually read what a newspaper has to say on this topic, and people feel strongly about movies. In addition, it’s comparing one of the oldest forms of media around with a business that is a child of the digital age.
  • Politicians are wordy. How wordy? Check out Congress Speaks to find out just how much a given member of the 110th Congress spoke. You can even pit one representative against another to see who’s really got the gift of gab.