Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Journalist-programmer conundrum

Rich Gordon posts a bit of a plaintive message on the Knight Ridder Idea Lab blog -- help us find programmers who want our year-long scholarships to learn about journalism so that they can bring their considerable talents to helping to develop new ideas that might help journalism not just survive but thrive. (OK, their pitch is a bit longer, but you get the idea.)

What got me to thinking, however, was one of the comments, by Joe Zekas, that followed:

Many good coders, in my experience, are profoundly anti-social people, although pleasant enough to be with. Going out and talking to strangers is something they religiously avoid.

The fundamental problem is that anyone who's any good at coding would be taking a year out of his / her life to earn, upon graduation, one-third to one-half of their previous salary with no realistic possibility of ever catching up to where they would have been in the coding world.

I suspect that studying journalism would also subject them to ridicule by their peers and friends, many of whom believe that the subect matter of jouranlism can be digested over a long weekend.

The Knight-funded program at Medill is a noble idea. With the paucity of journalists seemingly willing to learn higher-level coding, the thought was to see if it was possible to get some computer people interested in journalism.

What we may be learning -- and potentially as valuable -- is that the two cultures simply do not mix. It's the fear of big-J journalism that we have heard from people in connection with Hartsville Today and that others have heard as well. In short, "journalism" scares a lot of people, about as much as public speaking.

What has to happen to make this work is a delicate alchemy of personalities and skills. At heart, journalists and programmers are at opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Journalists tend to be outgoing, yet extremely cautious (try getting a new idea in a newsroom or even among a drinking circle of journalists), relying whenever possible on "old-fashioned, common wisdom -- whatever that i. They also tend to be peripatetic.

Programmers are more willing to take chances. They tend to be much more focused, shutting out the outside world until they get the dang thing to work. (My background gives me a bit of a foot in both camps -- I'm a focused peripatetic, which means I'm intensely antisocial for five minutes at a time. {grin})

The two generally don't mix. And Zekas is right that many people think journalism is something you can learn overnight when the reality is that it is as difficult to do well as any craft/profession, including programming (just ask programmers how much garbage vs. elegant code is out there; sort of the same ratio, I think, as journalism).

I see in Gordon's post and Zekas' response the personality of -- a copy editor. No, really. I have more than a few students terrified about going out and dealing with people who might not want to talk with them. Yet they still have the journalism mindset (including that sense of social justice). They also tend to have that more focused personality and in general a better grasp of math. Most want to be copy editors (it's a separate issue whether that's a good thing without some reporting experience, but let's let that go for now ...

Just wondering how we might encourage those among them for whom this might work. Many of our students, for instance, already take two basic comp sci courses. But they are so basic, and they never really hook back into the j-school curriculum. We can, and probably should , work on that. But for schools that have a foreign language requirement, how many offer computer language as an option? Showing a fluency in PHP, for instance, is every bit as tough as French, German, Russian or Spanish.

The second part of that equation is developing journalism courses where they can truly apply and use that knowledge. In most cases we are not asking them to develop the deep tools of programming, but to work with markup and scripting languages. That's a different animal from your average major college computer engineering department, where the focus often is on clean and better algorithms.

Certainly, don't stop trying to entice coders to come into the journalism fold -- we need all the help we can get. But maybe there are ways to address this within current the curriculum, too.

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At 5/29/08, 12:48 AM, Anonymous Joe Zekas said...


I've been a long-time reader here.

Having employed many journalists and quite a few programmers over the years I think it's nearly impossible to find good coders who will becoe journalists.

Assuming that they could be found, another set of issues would arise: the culture of newspapers and newspaper Web / IT shops, and the resources available in those shops. The talented coder / journalists would, in all likelihood, come to view those shops as a place where good ideas go to die or languish beyond their relevance.

We're evolving toward a programmable Web whose power can be harnessed to useful journalistic purposes by people who have no programming skills. Journalists can be trained to do very useful things on the Web. But, and it's a huge but, they need the IT / Web departments at the newspapers to enable them to do that within the newspaper platforms. Yet another rats' nest of issues arises in that regard.

At 5/29/08, 12:49 AM, Anonymous Joe Zekas said...

I seem to have a typo problem late at night!

At 5/29/08, 2:37 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


One thing I keep trying to get editors and publishers to realize is that their digital side needs even more attention than does the press room. The Web not only is their new printing press, but it's one that requires a lot more flexibility.

But the digital mentality too often parallels that of "big iron" -- there's some ongoing basic maintenance to be done, but once that sucker's bolted to the floor, it's pretty much a turnkey thing. (While, as we know, the Web is a living thing that might well require an overhaul every few hours during a crisis, for instance.)

So staffing remains touchy.

I see need for three types:
1) The classic IT folks who keep the servers running, the network tuned up, the software up to date, etc.
2) The database experts who help other reporters manipulate data but who also might know some PHP or work with Caspio to do online interactives.
2) Those I like to call "translators," not really coders. They understand the language of journalism and can translate it to digital. They have a command of Web apps and may simply recommend embedding one; they might delve into an API. They certainly should know enough javascript/XML/DHTML/PHP to create interactive pages, databases or objects.

(Obviously, as newsrooms get smaller, those overlap. But I don't think the "IT" people can be called on to try to support the hourly needs of a newsroom.)

This is not the type of programming that I remember those I hung around with many years ago were into. They wanted to get their teeth into algorithms and creating whole new apps and delving (shudder) into machine language.

So how do we develop those "translators"? It sounds as though our best bet is trying to get some of those with the j-bug to also see that this is journalism in the new media age.

Gordon & Co. made the Knight proposal partly because of the difficulty getting j-students interested.

So assuming we pay a decent wage (stop laughing) and provide solid challenges, where do we get such souls?


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