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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13 Comments

  1. Brad said

    I would argue that they aren’t programming at the Times. They are really web designers there. They do it amazingly. But that isn’t programming. I might re-frame the argument to 1) reflect the actual skill as defined by the technical discipline (e.g. web design or interactive design) and 2) put it in terms that Traditionals can understand.

    But yes.

  2. I think what the 2nd review is trying to say is that knowing coding etc does not in itself make a story. You still need to rely on old fashioned storytelling methods, but have an awareness and knowledge of the new form. While handy, I don’t think this necessarily needs to extend to full blown programming knowledge

  3. Obviously, I respectfully disagree with both the comments above. I consider what this group does to be programming, and I think they feel the same. OK, you might go as far as calling it development, but it isn’t what most would consider to be Web or interaction design. My paper discusses the technology that is mainly used, Ruby on Rails, a Web framework. Ruby is an object-oriented language and Rails provides the structure for the apps that are created. The team uses code to develop objects, methods and functions, as well as create the database hooks and any required database management. They are responsible for the functionality of these apps, and they work with graphic design and multimedia to create the front-end interfaces. I describe the collaborative nature of the departments in the paper, and I hope to gain better insight into these relationships on my next trip.

    And, regarding the 2nd comment, the point of the paper was not that knowing programming is storytelling. I was trying to describe this hybrid role of understanding how to tell a story with data, which requires programming. At no point did I discount “old fashioned storytelling methods.” The project sought to broader the concept of “story” and identify a new way in which stories can be told. I provide several examples in the paper that illustrate user interaction as storytelling…like a video game in many ways. If what they are doing at the NY Times (and in a few other places) is journalism – and I feel it is, then we need to be discussing and teaching these techniques in journalism programs.

    • You make good points. With respect to this:

      “If what they are doing at the NY Times (and in a few other places) is journalism – and I feel it is, then we need to be discussing and teaching these techniques in journalism programs.”

      I said something very similar in a recent commentary to a Global Voices presentation:

      “You don’t need to become a software programmer or to ever see the source code of the software you use if you want to be a reporter, a civic activist, or a controller of your government. If you do want to do these things in the best or at least more effective way, however, you need to seriously understand things like the real nature of file formats, computer protocols, the role of metadata or the basic features and limits of telecom networks. It’s much simpler than it seems, and it’s becoming more and more necessary. ”

      My whole comment is at http://stop.zona-m.net/active-citizens/global-voices-transparency-and-need-understand-technology. I am also interested to know what’s your experience about “journalists hoping that it doesn’t make any difference which digital technology you use, only WHAT you use it for”

      Regards,
      M. Fioretti

  4. […] at Texas State University in San Marcos teaching web design and multimedia journalism, has shared details of her paper ‘The Journalist as Programmer: A Case Study of The New York Times Interac… – her slideshow below, courtesy of slideshare, is well worth a look for anyone interested in […]

  5. […] that we, at least, found particularly compelling: Cindy Royal’s study of the New York Times’ vaunted […]

  6. […] not everyone is convinced of the necessity of the programming/journalism union. On her blog, Cindy Royal published an skeptic anonymous academic review to her paper. In part, it read, “The insight into the nation’s largest newspaper was great. […]

  7. […] the meantime, check out Royal’s slideshow from her presentation above, and her blog post on puzzling comments she received back on the paper from the Association for Education in […]

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  9. Anyone know how to create best iPhone or iPad Application with no programming skills?

  10. Not a big fan of Ruby on Rails. What does it really do? I don’t like design templates at all. Help!

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