Some of the latest chatter on various blogs and boards is about Caspio, which bills itself as an easy way to get your database output to the 'Net. (OK, that's simplistic, but it'll do for now.)
That's touched off a wider round of posts dealing with database journalism and how it's lagging in the eyes of its beholders and (sometimes not so subtle subtext) how news organizations are too cheap to hire the journalist/programmers needed to make it work.
Adrian Holovaty, of course, juiced this discussion way back in 2006 when he proposed that all newsrooms needed to stop thinking of story as a river of text and start thinking of it as creating and intertwining databases of the information they gathered (more on that from an interview he did with Online Journalism Review).
Lately, Derek Wills of the Washington Post has taken a couple of swipes at Caspio. And as you can see from the comments in that first post, the system has lots of defenders (I noted particularly Peter Zicari's comment. I know Peter, who works for the Plain Dealer, from the American Copy Editors Society and put a fair amount of trust in what he says).
Jacob Kaplan-Moss fleshes out the debate a little more with his recent post.
Looking at this with a programming background that goes back to Fortran 4 and my days in astrophysics (don't ask) ... but whose skills have rusted with lack of use (rough translation: I understand the lingo, know the questions and issues, and couldn't write current code if my life depended on it) ... and who knows the journalism end of it, some thoughts:
- Yep, Derek & Co. are right. We should be training database journalist programmers
- We should have development tools that enable those DJPs to do natively what can be done as quickly as with Caspio
- Ain't gonna happen soon
Now, to the two other parts of the debate: 1) We need more programmer/journalists and 2) we need easier tools.
As to 1: With due respect to Matt Waite, Adrian, Derek, Jacob and dozens of others I deeply respect, it isn't likely to happen soon. In many cases (and let me stress, not all) the university system isn't really equipped to handle this. First, it requires cross-department and, perhaps, cross-school cooperation. That's a mouthful alone if you know anything about the way most schools operate. And then it can take from one to three years to get a course approved (one does not just create courses in most schools; there are curriculum committees and university committees and other departments that must weigh in).
(For now, let's not get off on a debate about whether higher ed is set up to deal with the new world order -- let's just stipulate.)
There are other structural challenges, too. Our school, for instance, has a "visual communications" track as well as the traditional "journalism," broadcast, ad and PR tracks. Right now, viscom would seem the natural place to put something like this, but it pretty much ends with Dreamweaver. Viscom is annoyed at broadcast because broadcast's curriculum is so tight that it doesn't have spaces for viscom students who want those skills (so if it's this difficult within a department ... and we're not the first. Go research Kansas, for instance, or BYU). We've been struggling with how to fit this all in (if you want to see the report and a pretty good compilation of resources and links, go to our wiki).
Second, accreditation standards add to the complexity. Accredited journalism programs are under some fairly tight strictures as to how many hours can be taken in the major -- to put something new in, something generally has to be bumped out at the same time we're also getting complaints that students don't get enough writing and reporting (again, stipulated). And, sure, you can say ditch the accreditation. Certainly some large and well-known programs don't have it. But that again ignores reality in most schools whose faculty depend on faculty from other "accredited" departments to grant promotion and tenure (disclosure: I am a lowly untenured instructor, so I get to watch the fun and games from the cheap seats).
Third, university finances and financial systems pose challenges. Pump "value centered management" into Google and start reading. (Or you can get a broad range of perspectives here.) Now, certainly not every campus is using VCM, but there plenty of variations of it floating around and the bottom line is, in general, that they discourage cross-department "sharing" of students unless the revenue you lose is offset by the revenue you project to gain by bringing in students from outside your department. As anyone who's ever done financial projections for business knows, that can be dicey.
Fourth, there's the idea that many state schools, with declining state support, are focusing their efforts on areas that can get federal grants (because those grants pay substantial overhead) or major private foundation mney. So far, Knight has provided some juice in this area, but let me suggest that even at its level of total funding, the response from most of those in the physical sciences would be "that's nice; I think we have that over here in loose change." Is the industry willing to step up and fund this kind of research? (Hey, I love rhetorical questions.)
The second part of the challenge -- developing tools that allow journalists to do this well, and on their own servers -- may be the more achievable. And I would urge those who have the skills to consider it. But when was the last time you saw this industry cooperate on any kind of software (or much else, for that matter)? (That could take awhile, so let's move on.) I've been urging press associations recently to take up the challenge using the cooperative model. Much as they have formed advertising cooperatives, I think it's time they considered IT cooperatives to share the cost of such development, especially for smaller papers.
It's clear from the exchanges over Caspio that the old vein of journalistic independence (why would you want to put your data on their servers) remains strong, even in the digital age. But then again, isn't that the same mentality that said you had to own your printing press, which is how, in my opinion, lots of news organizations got into trouble to start with?
If nothing else, once you strip the tech talk away, all the words written about Caspio once again highlight the deep and difficult issues this industry (and the schools that feed it) faces.