Monday, September 20, 2010

How Journalism Needs to Change

[Note: The following post is a reaction to some articles I read for a class I'm taking sponsored by Hacks/Hackers, Mozilla, the Medill School of Journalism, The Media Consortium called Open Journalism & the Open Web. All course materials are online.]

Though I read all of the pieces, I'll write my reaction on two of them, Adrian Holovaty's "A fundamental way newspaper sites need to change" and Cindy Royal's "The Journalist as Programmer" [PDF]. There are three main themes I saw emerge from these two pieces: 1) the breakdown of traditional "walls" in newsrooms coupled with increased collaboration, 2) a need for more diversity in approaches, and 3) the expansion of skills required. (Apologies in advance for making my 100-300 word reaction into a 1,000+ word analysis).

Breakdown of traditional "walls" in newsrooms and increased collaboration across departments

Royal addressed this best when she wrote that the objective of the New York Times' interactive department was to collaborate across all departments and elevate the role of the programmer. Newspapers -- and journalism more generally -- had become predicated on the theme of competition. Newspapers and magazines compete with one another to write the definitive story on a given topic, collect Pulitzer prizes, and be "first" to report something. In some ways, the modern Internet era has amplified some aspects of this idea of competition. The difference of posting a story ten minutes earlier can be all the difference in attracting traffic to one's site.

Still, as the New York Times found, the principles of Open Web -- particularly transparency and increased collaboration -- could be more beneficial to journalism than competition has been. Furthermore, as Holovaty pointed out in his essay, he quickly realized that inter-department collaboration could be hugely beneficial when little league information was coupled with weather forecasts. The result was a small but extremely beneficial cross-collaboration for that can fundamentally change the user experience for the better.

Fundamentally, the biggest change required on the part of journalists here is to change the way they think about their jobs. Royal's message seems to be that instead of competing with one another, the user most benefits from collaboration instead of the deeply integrated attitude of competition. Secondly, As Holovaty points out, journalists need to stop thinking of themselves at producers of "big blob of text" but rather to break down what they do into pieces of information that can be re-purposed and re-integrated into other kinds of media in other ways.

Perhaps one of the most shocking findings of Royal's (which I can attest with my own experience in journalism school) was that "only about half of journalism programs were teaching spreadsheet and database skills."

A need for more diversity in approaches

One of the key themes in both of these pieces is that journalism has gotten itself into an attitude that is narrow. What is needed from both programmers and journalists is to think about what they're doing in new ways, and media today demands a constant revision of standards. The pace of the changes in user experiences is quicker than ever -- and neither journalists nor programmers can continue thinking about media in old ways. This is the "blob of text" error that Holovaty found was so limiting.

Furthermore, that likely means that journalism and programming must both face an old nemesis: Working to be more inclusive to people who have not traditionally been included in either journalism or programming. Royal -- the only female author in our assigned readings -- was the only one to point out that programming has a severe lack of women. The NYT's interactive department, when she began her study, found that "the entire team, including it's leader, were male." Royal made no note of racial, ethnic, religious, political, or sexual orientation diversity among the staff, but it's been pretty widely realized that "nerd culture" (the kind that many programmers might identify with) is overwhelmingly white and male.

One of the problems might be in the path many have taken into programming. Royal herself points out that "Most described their skill acquisition as 'self-taught.'" While this may seem a wide-open path for women and people of color to enter the field (I have often heard the same argument made of the political blogosphere, that it is fundamentally a "meritocracy," with little to no barrier to entry), there are certainly invisible barriers to women particularly entering such a programming area.

As I've written before, women are less and less likely to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, and the number only diminishes with age. There seem to be two areas of dropoff: First at the entry point, when women are first considering what types of careers they might pursue, then once they have families and realize the increased demand in time required for such fields isn't compatible with their expected time devoted to family responsibilities. Fundamentally, the "self-taught" notion requires a great deal of free time (i.e. working at learning something without pay), which is often not an easily accessible commodity for some.

Fundamentally, as journalists and programmers consider diversifying skills and critically examining the roles of journalists and programmers, I hope they consider some of the more fundamental questions of diversity.

The expansion of skills required

Finally, as was discussed in our lecture on Friday, the types of skills required of both journalists and programmers is expanding. Even if a journalist doesn't know XHTML or javascript, for example, he or she must understand what these technologies can do so he or she can think about the user experience in a holistic way. That is, even if a journalist cannot build the story in a completely interactive way, he or she must consider the ways that story can be interactive. Holovaty's breakdown of stories that consist of pieces of information was useful in illustrating this principle. Furthermore, as Royal noted, "While RoR skills specifically were not required of new hires, most had worked in an environment where they were introduced to object oriented programming concepts." Specific skills can be taught on the job, but it is the concepts behind them that make the difference.

It is for this reason that I am most excited to be in this class. I came from a journalism school that taught me journalism in a good but rather antiquated way. The disdain for blogs and web more generally was palpable among many of my instructors. It's clear that many of them, pushed out of the journalism field in various ways, viewed the web as a threat rather than as an incredibly transformative tool that can make the user experience richer. I look forward to helping to break out of that mentality.

1 comment:

Brian said...

I hesitate to say "great post" because that is such a favorite of spammers, but great post. I would add just one little tidbit regarding "xhtml", and a very very pleasant example of exactly the kind of reading you might do if you want to understand web technology, with or without mastering the syntax of various languages and APIs. Namely: Mark Pilgrim's description of the history of (x)html leading up to the current and next html version. It shows the very human and contingent way these technologies get developed and adopted -- it is hard to summarize but one takeaway, for example that confused the hell out of me until I read it, is that it is no longer necessary to fuss about the "x" in xhtml; it was a noble but mostly unsuccessful experiment. It would be a great essay question for a high-level web programming class: "What doctype should we be using and why?"

Also regarding the lack of diversity in tech: another way of looking at it is that many men across the range of technical talent are insecure creeps; their ability to do certain things regarded as hard is a little crutch they use to feel superior -- the put downs, the dismissive voice when doubts they only recently cleared up are raised -- these are real, and apply unfortunately to grad student instructors, professors, professionals alike. It doesn't affect us white dudes quite as much because we don't assume they know what they are talking about -- nobody else should either. Just take on a few programming challenges if you want to learn to program. I was a couple years out of college before I was able to get past the feeling of incompetence that the "weed-out" classes and the programming culture instilled and really try to write programs I wanted to use. (Another source of insecurity is this constant droning on the part of techies to the effect of "anything you might want to use has already been written by someone much better than you" -- this is also bullshit.) You can do fun and interesting stuff the first week, try Python or Ruby and a database like MySQL or SQLite and you are off and running.

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