Mar 13

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Journalism Through Computer Programming

As I've noted previously, Adrian Holovaty, the creator of Django and the Chicagocrime.org 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 pbs.org 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 LJWorld.com 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."

Previous  |  Next

0 TrackBacks

TrackBack URL for this entry: http://blogs.oreilly.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-t.cgi/5338

Comments: 4

  tsal [03.13.07 01:12 PM]

Adrian's been making some really great strides in addition to his Journalism Through Computer Programming article. The Django book is well under way and Django itself is getting better every day. Pretty soon, I think it will reach critical mass, and start pulling more folks like me - Pythonistas who use Rails as it is (was?) more feature-complete.

Do you guys plan on publishing books relating to Django in the future? :)

  DMatland [03.14.07 01:17 PM]

"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."

Yes, but Adrian's more fundamental and most important insight is that current professional journalism is logically unstructured (sloppy and inefficient).

The use of computer-programming merely imposes some type of logical discipline on journalism, because computer programmers MUST carefully analyze and detail "journalism" objectives, processes, and data -- to write productive computer code.

Any logical system imposed on professional journalism would be a significant improvement.

Dramatic process improvements in the current collection & use of journalistic data are readily available ... even with no computers at all. A few minutes with a pencil on the back of an envelope is quite adequate technology for solving the initial problems of today's journalism systems.

Professional journalism is still largely a loose, highly subjective, personal, seat-of the-pants information system. This mindset/attitude of 'professional journalists' must change first.

But that mindset will not change -- it will rather soon be replaced by a new productive generation of logic-based/computer-augmented journalists.

  Andy Angelos [03.14.07 03:33 PM]

Also use Adrian's work as an example when discussing the future of publishing under the mantra: Adaptation over Extinction. Rathering than labelling the computer as a virtual outsourced employee, using automated content generators/aggregators as a method for insightfully covering the most relevant news.

~ Andy Angelos

  Tim O'Reilly [03.14.07 05:28 PM]

Good point, Dmatland, but I'm not sure that programmers are as logical as you argue. Yes, you have to think through the logic of a program, but I always remember the great usenet sig quote: "If carpenters built buidings the way programmers write programs, a single woodpecker could come along and destroy all of civilization."

There's an awful lot of bad programming, just like there's an awful lot of bad journalism.

I see other important points in Adrian's work, including the idea that you can integrate automatically generated data with editorial processes, and that you can programmatically create editorial contexts in which user contributions are already given structure, simply by how they are solicited.

I think we all agree that Adrian is a brilliant thinker on the future of publishing.

Post A Comment:

 (please be patient, comments may take awhile to post)

Type the characters you see in the picture above.