Archive for May, 2010

The Journalist as Programmer

When you’re an academic, you are expected to publish. The phrase most associated is “publish or perish” which basically means, get something in as many publications as possible, and you can keep your job. The first step to publication is often presentation at national or international conferences, one of the most important being the Association for Education in  Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

This year, I submitted my paper “The Journalist as Programmer: A Case Study of The New York Times Interactive News Technology Department” to AEJMC. As always, the division to which I submitted it (Communication Technology) was highly competitive. I was not completely caught off guard when I received a rejection, it wasn’t the first time. And, my method, a case study of an individual news organization, was not like the standard survey or content analyses that seem to be a slam dunk at these events. But, when I looked at the reviews, I was surprised to see that I had gotten fairly decent ratings and one substantial comment, the reason for which I am writing this post.

First, the paper. Here’s the abstract:

Modern news organizations are using a variety of technologies to assist in telling stories in ways that increasingly combine media, data and user engagement. The New York Times is one of the most progressive of these organizations in developing online, data-driven interactive news presentations. An in-depth case study of the practices of the New York Times Interactive News Technology department provides insight into the future of Web journalism and suggests some guidelines for other organizations in developing this competency.

See below for link to full paper.

The paper dealt with a visit I made to NYC to learn more about a group of people being described as programmer/journalists. I find their work in data-driven interactives to be inspiring, indicating a new trend in journalism, storytelling with data that relies on user engagement. I wanted to understand the people and the processes of the department, so I could report on it and bring some of these techniques into the classroom. I was quite pleased to have the opportunity to meet with such a smart and talented group of people.

Now, for the reviews, to which I received two. These are blind, peer-reviewed submissions, which means you don’t know who is doing them (and I should add that the reviewers do not know whose paper they are reviewing – although it would not be difficult, with a simple Google search, to find out that I had been focusing on this topic), but it is most likely another academic. I received an average of 3 out of 5 on 10 dimensions for one reviewer (an average showing, but these things vary widely by reviewer).  This reviewer had one comment: “Has successfully addressed the great challenges ahead in journalism of the research topic.”

OK, not so bad. What about the 2nd reviewer? This person averaged 3.3 in the ratings, so even a little stronger. But the comments were much more detailed.

My issues: “Journalists, as we traditionally define them, run the risk of becoming irrelevant without an updated understanding of modern story-creation and delivery methods.” To respond, I’m a prof of multimedia/new media journalism so I don’t assume I”m the older “traditional” journalist, but programmers are not automatically journalists and journalism is not just “modern story-creation” (whatever that is). The author misses the point that content management systems and data-dependent graphics and interfaces do not make every story. As I read this, the lead story is “Senate Republicans block debate on Wall Street reform bill.” I don’t need an AJAX programmer to provide the needed facts in this story, so let’s not overstate the need for programmers of Django, Subversion, Flash, Postgres, AJAX and Javascript to replace every good reporter who spends more time gathering facts than sitting at a desk and compiling code. As a former exec. of a software development company, it’s cool that the NYT has a team of self-taught programmers. I agree that it takes passion, and data-driven mashups are awesome. But there are many more examples of professionally-trained programmers who could also do equal if not better assemblies of data and graphics. The insight into the nation’s largest newspaper was great. but “modern story-creation” IS assembling text with multiple media (especially video) in a coherent way to tell one story. I have yet to meet any programmer who knows how to do that…and most journalists are just learning it. In short, the manuscript was interesting and the case study on one newsroom was well done. It is, however, just that. One newsroom.

This reviewer seems to have a real problem with just the concept of programmer/journalist. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think the story on “Senate Republicans block debate on Wall Street reform bill” could be illustrated in a number of ways with data, perhaps identifying lobby interests of Senators that would be relevant to this issue. Regardless, I never implied that every story would be data-driven, but I do think with some creative thinking, many more stories could have an interactive aspect. I would love feedback on whether or not  you think the comments above are a reasonable critique. I hope to gain a broader audience for this topic and seek more advice on the direction of this research.

I was happy to present the paper at the International Symposium in Online Journalism in April to which I have received a warm reception. This is a much smaller, more focused conference, and I have often used it to try out and get feedback on a paper before AEJMC. But officially, you are not supposed to submit something to AEJMC that has already been presented at another conference. I took that to mean conferences of similar scope, because it seems that starting with a smaller conference, getting feedback and adjusting for a larger conference is a smart strategy. So, perhaps this is really why the paper was rejected. Regardless, I am intrigued by comments that completely dismiss an important trend without providing critique of the research itself.

The paper is published on the symposium website, and I would appreciate any feedback on it that can give me a more enlightened view of how we can better understand the role of programming and data in journalism. Plus, you can review the presentation I gave at UT below.

I uploaded another version of the paper (with improved formatting from the one originally on the ISOJ site).

I have plans to visit the NY Times again this summer to continue my research in this area, and to broaden it to other publications before I submit it to a journal. My hope is to shed some light on the academic review process and seek more constructive and helpful criticism. Thanks for listening.

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