The hacker journalist: in whom programming and prose intersect

In an essay at MediaShift Idea Lab, I’ve tried to enumerate the job roles of a programmer-journalist.  It was a helpful exercise.  I’ve got no idea what I’m going to do six months from now, but a couple of the following are appealing…

  • CMS developer
  • CMS implementor
  • CMS user (Web producer)
  • Applications developer
  • Hunter, gatherer and data-miner
  • Visualizations developer
  • New media translator
  • and my favorite, the hacker journalist:

‘Hacker’ is a compliment in my world. If you’re a hacker, you’re an especially good programmer. So, what are you if you’re a hacker journalist? Think about what photojournalists do — they tell stories with a camera.

A hacker journalist tells stories with code.

The roles will overlap in the real world, and I’m probably missing one or two.  What other hats could a hacker wear at a news organization?

12 thoughts on “The hacker journalist: in whom programming and prose intersect

  1. This is a good conversation. But here’s a follow up question: As a practical matter, could one “programmer journalist” perform all these roles in a newsroom? Or are the skill sets so distinct, that you’d to hire a different person for each job?

  2. This is a good conversation. But here’s a follow up question: As a practical matter, could one “programmer journalist” perform all these roles in a newsroom? Or are the skill sets so distinct, that you’d to hire a different person for each job?

  3. At an organization large enough, I these roles might be filled by different people, but most have skill sets that overlap.

    A CMS developer and an applications developer would have very similar talents. Ditto for a new media translator/hacker journalist.

    The exceptions would be with the jobs that appeal to opposing interests.

    For instance, someone who loves data visualization might also be into data mining. But it wouldn’t surprise me if that person had no interest in posting stories to a CMS.

  4. Thanks for the shout-out, Brian. Much obliged for the PBS.org referrals!🙂

    I think your breakdown is wonderful. Definitely not something I’ve seen done before in the conversation.

    Chris, anything is possible, but what established media company with money to spare would look for generalists? When you hire someone, you’ve got a problem to solve. I general solution isn’t often the best answer to a specific problem.

  5. Hey, Brad! It’s funny – from the reactions I’ve gotten,it seems that people never really thought about the problem in this way before.

    If I’d have known that, I probably would have thought harder about the names of the roles. 🙂

    As for the value of generalists… I wouldn’t hate on them too much — in my last gig, I was the head architect and director of marketing.

    In a small organization, folks who can wear a lot of hats are extremely valuable. The trick is finding an optimal hat distribution.

    So, we’ve gotta define the job roles, in order to build an organization without missing skills.

    We must not allow a… data-miner gap!

  6. Where I work (large multidisciplinary engineering), we have all sorts of internal wikis, blogs, knowledge centers and other knowledge management tools. At the end of the day, all these things exist to help the staff/general population coax out their ideas and experiences for all to share. The successful tools are the ones that draw participation – the ones that people really want to identify with because they are useful/interesting/even exciting!

    Enter the programmer journalists… the people that make this happen with zero or minimal effort for the users. I see this person as a catalyst – accelerating adoption and participation within an organization or population. Maybe it’s also part publicity, training, user experience etc… or new tools! Imagine that I’m writing 10 emails about widget A – and then bam, my agent pulls the info together and whips up a draft to go out on the local wiki for me to review/post. This is just one example that quickly comes to mind…

    I know there are privacy concerns, but I think there is a lot of area left to play with the question “how can we make participation more automatic by the regular things we each do?” Maybe not so good for a big population, but important to smaller groups who each have a specific goal or need.

    I’m not very familiar with how media or newsrooms work (or don’t work), but certainly they want more participation?!?! A HJ can certainly tell some stories with code… but code that helps everyone tell stories ‘with their eyes closed’ could be the next step?

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  8. Hey Brian,

    Good post. I don’t think your roles are mutually exclusive, but they do fall into two kind of broad categories — jobs for tool users, and jobs for tool builders. There are plenty of openings all over the news business for people who excel at using the tools provided to them. Fewer for those who want to build, but our numbers are growing.

    But my focus (and the focus of my team) is on the latter — experimenting with the medium itself, building entirely new ways to convey news and information, and engage with readers. Whatever you call it (hacker journalist is as good a title as any), it seems to me this is where you want to be aiming.

    (And as an aside, your value in the job market as a serious programmer with journalism experience will be a lot higher than you might think — I speak from personal experience, having hired a team of six, soon to be seven, developer/journalists.)

    There aren’t many of us doing this kind of work now, but our numbers are growing. They have to, because newsrooms need to break away from the traditional one-way distribution model that works so well in print and on air, but significantly less well online.

    In order for that to happen, we need more people who can, as you put it, tell stories with code. So, keep on plugging away. Six months from now, you may be surprised how many opportunities there are out there for you.

  9. For a small org, definitely into generalists with a specialty. Use the resources at hand, including staff: If there’s a video hotshot on staff, don’t make them learn Python, and vice versa.

  10. Dan:

    “Code that helps everyone tell stories ‘with their eyes closed’” is a bad-ass thought.

    It makes me wonder if there is a mechanism by which citizen journalists could collaborate without the restrictions of the narrative form.

    What sort of catalyst/agent could be built to collect the rumblings (twitterings?) of a group of inboxes and present the zeitgeist? Neat!

    Aron:

    Thanks for the kind words – I’m a big admirer of the work your team is creating!

    It seems like the new media focus in journalism school (at least at the one I’m attending) is on using the tools, which makes sense from the perspective of both the students who think of themselves as writers and the teachers who are still getting used to the new medium.

    What will happen when the news gets its own Amazon.com – that is, when someone totally changes the game by taking full advantage of technology?

    That’s what’s got me geeked for this gig. It’s time for journalism to stop sticking its toe in the water and just dive in – or else walk the plank.

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