Journalism Through Computer Programming

As I’ve noted previously, Adrian Holovaty, the creator of Django and the mashup, gives a great talk entitled Journalism Through Computer Programming. I refer to it often in my own talks on the future of publishing.

Adrian’s point is that the various jobs of journalism — gathering news, exercising editorial judgment, and presenting the story — can all be augmented by programming. In the new world of network-enabled information gathering and dissemination, programming is as critical a skill as writing and photography.

I love this meme and have been doing my best to promulgate it. So I was excited to see that in the mediashift blog at that other news organizations are catching on:

“Holovaty has repeatedly called on newspaper editors to hire programmers, and many of them are finally heeding his advice and considering ways of getting computer programmers onto their news staff and out of the trenches of tech support or doing work on web classifieds. Inspired by Holovaty’s comments at a convention, Dave Zeeck, executive editor for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, hired Aaron Ritchey as a “news programmer” who has helped streamline the work for reporters and page designers while also creating online databases and map mash-ups for readers….

Zeeck says that he initially heard some negative feedback from reporters who didn’t like the idea of a programmer filling a reporter’s job.

“I’ve had some resistance from reporters who say, ‘We had this reporting opening and instead of hiring a reporter, we’re wasting it on a computer programmer,'” Zeeck told me. “But people who work with him start going, ‘Ooo, I like this. This is helping me do my job. I don’t have to do that scut-work I used to do.'”

Many online publishers want to clone what Adrian has built, either at or the Washington Post, but he advises that that misses the point. In a recent email exchange with someone whose request I’d forwarded to Adrian, he wrote:

I’d be happy to talk about my work at the Post, but I don’t think my work
would be adaptable for your needs. The content-management systems that I make
are very much content-specific, which is sort of the point.

For example, the “Faces of the Fallen” app I put together has a CMS that’s oriented toward U.S. military casualties. It wouldn’t make much sense to adapt that to any other type of information.

I use Django for all of this stuff, and the great thing about it is that it comes with an automatic admin interface — a “meta” CMS, if you will. You give it your database schema, and it creates a CMS tailored to your data. So I’d recommend checking out Django for that reason; again, my individual Post projects probably wouldn’t help you.

People are looking for cookie-cutter solutions, but Adrian’s point is a good one. Programming itself is becoming an important skill for publishers and authors, as it allows a new kind of storytelling, a new kind of integration of automated data into the services that publishers provide. In addition, as I wrote in my last post about Adrian (linked above), “it provides the context in which other people can share.”

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