In January 2011, Nieman Journalism Lab’s Justin Ellis coined the phrase, “journo-programmer.” A journo-programmer can either be a journalist who has mastered the tools of a developer, or a developer who builds apps or tools to solve problems of a journalistic nature. Some examples of “computational journalism” at its best include ProPublica’s “Free the Files” application, which sorts and annotates the tidal wave of political TV ad filings in swing states, and the New York Times’ wildly ambitious map visualizing demographic data for every block in the United States.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about this emergent profession. How do you teach a journalist to be a developer? In turn, how do you teach a developer to be a journalist and to know what questions to ask, albeit with data instead of a pen and tape recorder? Is it the job of journalism schools to teach its students the basics of programming right alongside the inverted pyramid and AP Style? And how can newsrooms adapt so journalists and developers can work together more efficiently?
Dan Sinker started Source, part of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Project, to help address some of these questions. Launched last week, Source is a community website and code repository for journo-programmers. Each week, its editor Erin Kissane collects the best examples of computational journalism from places like the Guardian, the LA Times, and WNYC. Source also features Q&As with the women and men behind the code, walkthroughs so visitors can attempt to build the apps themselves, and a growing index of open source code.
“Where Source got its start was that there was actually a lot of really interesting stuff happening in journalism, but there was no real central place to collect it all,” says Sinker, an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College in Chicago who heads up the OpenNews Project. One of the biggest hindrances to the field of journalism code, Sinker says, is that while journalists have finally begun to see the value of developers in the newsroom, many developers haven’t come around, assuming that all the cutting edge work is happening in the technology sector. Sinker hopes to convince them otherwise.
“I’ve been working with the OpenNews Project for a year, and the problem we’re trying to articulate here is, ‘We need to get journalists to think about making things of the Web instead of just on the Web.’ But to some degrees, it’s solved. The bigger problem is, there are far more places for developers to plug into journalism then there are developers who want to work in journalism.”
Even when journalists and programmers are both willing to work with one another, there’s still the question of where this training should take place. Earlier this week, I visited with a class of first-semester journalism Master’s students in Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 digital journalism program at NYU (I earned my degree on this same track). Many students felt pressured to become expert coders in their time there, perhaps a tall order considering the ever-expanding list of skills, from social media to video production, expected from journalists today.
Studio 20 is one of the few programs that really addresses this concern, offering weekend coding sessions for its students. Journalism professor Robert Hernandez of USC has also taken a novel approach to coding education with his “Learn Code For Journalism With Me” project, bringing together small groups of students and professional journalists in Google+ hangouts to complete Codecademy’s free Code Year courses in teams. But can or should we expect every journalist to know how to build a web app from scratch?
Sinker says no, and that’s okay. “What I tend to tell students and active journalists is, ‘Really, what you want to be able to do is understand the way the Web works, and understand how to be conversant in what’s possible, so you can talk to developers.’” In other words, journalists should know what can and can’t be done on the Web, and how to communicate their ideas in terms developers are comfortable with.
The other remaining barriers are less technological and more bureaucratic. In some newsrooms, developers and journalists work alongside each other on the same team. In others, the developers aren’t even on the same floor. (Sinker tells me a horror story of a development team that wasn’t even in the same city as the newsroom.) But again, this is where Source can help, emphasizing that great work can be produced when the walls between developers and journalists are taken down. Sinker hopes more and more publishers will catch on “as you begin to see more sophisticated reporting coming out that’s only possible with developers in the newsroom.”
As the idea of the journo-programmer has evolved, it’s become apparent that the goal shouldn’t be to churn out an army of Walter Cronkites with GitHub accounts. Instead, it’s important to arm journalists with enough basic knowledge to work with developers, to show developers that working in a newsroom creates value for their entire field, and to convince newsrooms to put developers on the same teams as journalists, instead of relegating them to the basement IT Department.
Source is helping with the second two goals. And as for educating journalists? J-schools and employers can help, but Sinker says it’s ultimately up to each individual to take that first step.
“We live with an incredible wealth of resources, things that allow you to take the first step to learn how to start making on the Web. You’ve gotta make that leap, because right now it’s not a thing that anyone else is going to bring to you, and you’ve got to go out and get it. I think the hardest thing is making that leap.”