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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

The programmer majored in English: A fascinating study of the NYT’s Interactive News unit

At the University of Texas’s International Symposium on Online Journalism conference last month, a series of academics presented papers on the future of news. There’s great stuff, including (Lab contributor) Seth Lewis‘s analysis of the professional and participatory logic of the Knight News Challenge and (Lab contributor) C.W. Anderson‘s argument for a more holistic approach to academic analysis of news structures.

One that we, at least, found particularly compelling: Cindy Royal‘s study of the New York Times’ vaunted Interactive Newsroom Technologies unit. (Think of it as the academic, ethnographic version of “The Renegades at the New York Times,” last year’s New York magazine profile of the team.)

Royal, a Texas State University assistant professor who focuses on digital media and culture, spent a week with the team in an effort to “gain a systematic understanding of the role of technology in the ever-changing newsroom, driven by the opportunities and challenges introduced by the Internet.” The resulting paper examined the group of eleven guys (they’ve since added one gal) widely recognized to be the vanguard of the hacker-journalist movement — and put fascinating anecdotal data behind team leader Aron Pilhofer‘s insistence that the group’s mandate is editorial as much as technological.

Though the full paper (PDF) is well worth a read, here’s the slide deck:

One of Royal’s more intriguing findings: Many members of the team don’t have traditional education in programming. “Undergraduate degrees were varied in Art & Design, Anthropology, English, History, Urban Planning, Rhetoric and of course, Journalism. Only two had done extensive educational preparation in a computer-oriented field, and another two had received technical-oriented minors in support of liberal arts degrees.” And their hacking skills? Largely self-taught. “Most had either taken up computing on their own at a very young age or had gravitated toward it due to necessity for a specific job.”

The core unifying quality Royal found among the staff wasn’t a specific programming skill or even a set of those skills. It was passion. Curiosity. Enjoyment of the work and openness to new processes and approaches. “More than half our team members didn’t know Ruby on Rails [one of the Times' core web framework technologies] before they started here,” one member notes. (Team member commentary throughout Royal’s paper is anonymous.) “It’s really more about the concepts inherent in the language,” says another.

However: The editorial part — “getting” the journalism — is also key. (“When I was hired, they definitely cared about how much I was interested in journalism and what my ideas were for projects.”) As is the collaboration part — the institutional realization of the open-source-centric approach the team takes toward its work. The department, Royal notes, “was founded to reduce bureaucracy and introduce flexibility in the process of creating each project, so the group could react more like a reporting team than a support organization.” That’s a goal that the Times is still actively pursuing — most recently, of course, with its decision to move Jill Abramson from her managing editor post to allow her to focus intensively, if temporarily, on digital operations. Abramson will likely be spending at least some of that time in the same way Royal did: studying and learning from the paper’s Interactive News unit.

“The culture of technology is different than that of journalism,” Royal notes. “They each carry different ideas about objectivity, transparency, sharing of information and performance. By merging these cultures, what emerges in terms of a hybrid dynamic? How do the actors, their backgrounds and training, their processes and the organizational structure affect the products they deliver?”

“The Journalist as Programmer” builds on the work of academics like Michael Schudson and Dan Berkowitz, taking an ethnographic (and, more broadly, sociological) approach to news systems — under the logic, as Royal writes, that “news products and ultimate change are not the result of one force or set of forces, but a complete system that encompasses the organization, individual actors and the culture that surrounds them.”

As she explained it to me: “I just wanted to learn about the processes, and who these people were. I knew that they had to be a unique department with unique skills and backgrounds. Because the average programmer really doesn’t have much interest in traditional journalism or storytelling. And the average journalist doesn’t know a lot about programming. So who are these hybrid people — and where did they come from, and how did they learn this stuff?”

After all, “programming and data is journalism,” Royal says. “And it can be practiced in such a way that it can create interaction, user engagement, and more information in terms of seeking the truth. Especially when you talk about Freedom of Information access to government data — if the public can have access to that in a way that makes sense to them, or in a way that’s easy for them to use, then that’s just really powerful.”

                                   
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