How do we justify news hacking when there is so little news to hack?
[This weekend I began reading The Death and Life of American Journalism by McChesney and Nichols and it has made me think about the costs associated with "hacking news." In the spirit of intellectual challenge and self-examination I propose the following question.]
Some of us who have registered for Hacks/Hackers are developers and contribute to journalism primarily by adding value to other’s reporting. We create visualizations, interactive maps, or explorable databases that help to tell our reporter’s stories better using the medium of the internet. We are, in general, not wearing down shoe-leather, interrogating officials, or sitting in court rooms–things which we can all agree are in frighteningly short supply. In a time when the core assets of journalism are rapidly diminishing, how do we justify the work that we do? Is there a canonical answer, or are we just building better anvils?
Just to insulate myself a bit: of course, I think there is a justification. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think there was. The point of the question is to have a canonical reference to point to when others ask the question.
[Also, since this question is somewhat incendiary, I'm community wiki'ing it so there is no rep associated with it.]
I prefer to think more holistically about the challenges and opportunities.
Across the full range of activities associated with journalism ...
- reporting (monitoring what's going on, gathering information, developing story ideas)
- analysis (making sense out of facts and finding patterns)
- storytelling and presentation
- engaging users/audiences
- packaging multiple stories into a "product" (Web site, iPad app, etc.)
- finding business models to support all of the above
there is an opportunity to apply technology to solving problems and creating possibilities.
A premise of Hacks & Hackers is that neither journalists nor technologists can find the optimal applications of technology by themselves -- that the greatest innovations will come out of collaborations between the two.
Perhaps I'm not exactly answering Chris's question, which comes (as he admits) from the perspective of someone who "add(s) value to someone else's reporting." We need hackers who can do that, but that's not the only area of journalism, broadly defined, where we need to inject hacker skills and mindsets. And I'm also pretty convinced that technologists working in the areas I've listed above (which would, for instance, include those working at Google) might build better products that address people's news/journalism-related needs if they knew more about what journalists do.
I would respectfully challenge the underlying assumptions of the question:
"How do we justify news hacking when there is so little news to hack?"
Instead, I would ask:
"What are the best roles for journalists (and the still-too-scarce coder-journalists) in a world where there is so much news (and information) to hack?"
What we're aiming for is a title every newsroom hears and thinks "we need some of those."
At ProPublica, we use News Applications Editor (me); Deputy Editor, News Applications; and News Application Developers.
Brian Boyer and I dreamt up "News Applications" because it sounds generally accurate, and it's not overly airy or faddish (or, God forbid, just wrong, like Computer Assisted Reporter).
I think the answer (at least the one I've been using) starts from thinking about visualizations and interactive maps and databases as more than dazzle sprinkled on top of serious reporting. Drawing a line between the work that burns shoe leather and the work that burns CPU cycles just doesn't tell the story.
Information may have inherent value, but context and clarity are the multipliers.
Hacking news adds context. It makes a mountain of data navigable. It lets people find the stories that matter to them within a larger narrative. It introduces history to reveal what might have seemed a one-off story as part of a larger trend.
While the number of news gatherers is in decline, there is no volume of news produced that can substitute for stories that are interesting, engrossing, and easy to understand.
This is an issue that I've also wrestled with in thinking about what this very group is all about.
Do we look at technologies that remix and display reporting in different ways, or can we use technology to fundamentally reshape how stories are told? I'd like to think the latter is where there are not just holes to be filled but major opportunities to change the way journalism works.
We have a long way to go to a future where the reflex in covering a "story" isn't just to assign a reporter to write X words and photographer to take X photos, with an interactive element as an add-on.
I think the members of this group are leading the charge to change that, and will be the people who design immersive, social news experiences that will also create new business models. That will lead to more news, and ensure journalism's key role in democratic society survives.
There is loads of news to hack, it is the in the data. The amounts of data being published is growing exponentially. Where once a journalist's job was to expose or uncover the data, now we are awash with data and the job becomes a case of finding the pieces which are relevant in a vast collection.
A simple script or knowledge of a database can reduce a task which would have taken days to milliseconds. A good percentage of the hacking I do is orientating towards discovering a story and has nothing to do with presenting it to the end reader.
I started as a reporter, and only came to programming after a couple years at newspapers, so that colors my answer here a bit, but also informs it:
The main reason I learned Python is to use it as a reporting tool. Much of what we can do, especially with new sources of primary source data and documents opening up, makes deeper and more complete news gathering possible, but new tools are needed to get there.
We need databases to organize the flood of information coming into and washing through our newsrooms. We need easy ways to visualize data so reporters can find meaning quickly and ask better questions. We need applications that organize information and make it available, accessible and meaningful for our audiences, so they can answer their own questions and find weak spots in our reporting.
This is a different task than re-purposing finished stories, or finding new ways to tell them. This is about finding and telling different (and hopefully better) stories.
btw, internally: "Hack shacker."
Not to give a non-answer, but I think a lot of the really interesting hacking going on around here is about making reporting a little bit easier (witness the discussion of how to get budget data into a spreadsheet) rather than the simple remixing of finished reporting.
The way I'd characterize the "justification" is simply that a good developer can help a good journalist do more with less (or in the case of a crossover journalist/programmer, help him/herself to do more with less.
Let's say a journalist spends three days putting together a feature piece on health code violations in local restaurants. It goes up, does well the first day, but then its traffic drops precipitously - it's fish and chip paper by tomorrow.
Now, in contrast, imagine that the journalist made sure to collect data while reporting. With the help of a developer, that data can now be turned into a database-backed project, maybe with a corresponding visualization and a map component. Readers may be able to submit their own data to the piece. Other journalists on the team can expand on it by visiting other neighborhoods and gathering similar data. Maybe the local health inspector has a publicly available data feed that can be tied in.
Now the piece is "evergreen" and has legs for months or years (rather than days). The piece becomes a perpetual traffic driver. And because the data can be sliced and displayed so many different ways, reader engagement with it might represent 10 or 15 page views rather than 1.
There's no question in my mind that it's hugely revenue- and engagement-positive to hack on the news.
I always liked "News Hacker," but it is a little cutesy and prone to confusion with a bad Angelina Jolie-Johnny Lee Miller movie.
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