Journalism Inside®

I wonder whether we should be teaching journalists to embed themselves and their abilities into the world rather than always making the world come to them. Thinking out loud…

The other day, when Amazon peeved me by suddenly trying to sell me software — who has bought a box of software in years? — it occurred to me: After software left store shelves, demand for the programmers who make it has only grown. So why, as newspapers, magazines, and books leave shelves, is there not more demand for the journalists who make them?

Companies are clamoring to hire more programmers and investors are dying to back what they do. Everybody wants more code inside their endeavors. So imagine an economy in which companies and investors want journalism inside: “We need to get us some journalists!”

It’s not quite as insane as it sounds if we rethink what a journalist does. Journalists and programmers aren’t really so different. In the the research on innovation and news we commissioned at the Tow-Knight Center, Nick Diakopoulos notes their similarity: “One of journalism’s primary raisons d’être is in gathering, producing, and disseminating information and knowledge…. What is perhaps most interesting about these processes is that they can, in theory, all be executed either by people, or by computers.” Nick’s point is not that technology would replace journalists but instead that technology provides new opportunities for news.

Programmers and journalists create similar value — or they could. Each makes sense of information. Technology brings order to the flow of information; journalists ask the questions that aren’t answered in that flow. Each brings new abilities to people — functionality (in software terms) or empowerment (in journalistic terms). But programmers don’t produce products so much as they produce ability: your ability to get what you want. Shouldn’t journalism act like that? Shouldn’t we teach them to?

Imagine a perpendicular universe in which an organization or community says: “We need someone to help make sense of this information, who can add context to it or find and fill in missing pieces or present it in a way that will make sense to people — as a narrative or a visualization. We need to get us a journalist.”

It so happens that our entrepreneurial journalism students just had the treat of hearing from Shane Snow of the startup Contently. He is offering a service to companies — brands in particular — that are indeed asking the question above. Brands, haven’t you heard, are becoming media. Instead of placing their ads around others’ content, brands are putting content around their ads. Contently lets them search its 4,000 writers’ profiles and use its reputation system to find the right writer or community manager or video maker or infographic whiz. Contently also offers to manage these tasks.

Isn’t that just PR, working for a brand? No, Shane says, because Contently provides writers to make content an audience will value instead of a message a company wants to get out. Messaging is marketing. This is more analogous to the soap opera model — or the show Northern Exposure: P&G underwrote those shows so it would have a place to put its ads. Now more brands are doing that on the web. YouTube, too, is underwriting the creation of independent content — without owning it — just so more people will have more good stuff to watch there. Advertising still subsidizes content but the chicken and the egg are trading places.

But funny you should mention PR. Its role, too, changes. In What Would Google Do? I spoke with Rishad Tobaccowala, strategist for Publicis, and we thought of a reverse world in which public relations exists to represent the public to the company, not the other way around (a professionalization of Doc Searls’ Vendor Relationship Management). We now see companies looking for that skill. They call it community management but that’s a misnomer unless you mean it in Doc’s context: that the community manages the company (the company doesn’t manage the community).

As I wrote this, I got a lucky visit from Kevin Marks, now of Salesforce, ex of Apple, Google, and Technorati, who teaches me much about technology. He posed the programmer-v-journalist comparison another way, arguing that each models the world, one with algorithms, one with narrative (and each faces the problem of “imperfect mapping”). He called it the tension between the storyteller and the builder.

That’s a very telling contrast for journalism schools. Many of our students want to build things, which we encourage, but we constantly struggle with balancing technology and tools vs. journalism and its skills in the time we have to teach. There’s also a tension regarding what they build: journalists pride themselves on being storytellers but is that all they should build? They might build visualizations of data — which, yes tells a story, sans narrative — but shouldn’t they also build tools that enable the public to dig into its own information (see: Texas Tribune) and platforms that let them share their information?

These new opportunities have led some to believe we should turn out the mythical journalist-coder, the hacking hack who does it all. I am not so sure that unicorn lives in nature. Yes there are some; it’s possible they exist. But I don’t think that journalists must become coders to take advantage of new technologies. They need to know how to work with the coders, how to spec and modify and use these tools. They need to understand and exploit the opportunities.

They also need a different culture. Rather than seeing ourselves as the creators (and owners) of products (content), shouldn’t journalists — like coders — see themselves as the providers of services, as the builders of platforms, as the agents of empowerment for others? That’s how developers see themselves. They build things, yes, but no longer shrink-wrapped. They build tools people use; they add value to information they produce. Journalists, in addition, have seen themselves speaking for the little guy but as Kevin Marks put it to me, that role becomes subsumed by the network when the little guys can speak for themselves. Still, there’s value in using new tools to help them do that. Is that a new journalism or is that a new PR? Gulp! Depends on who gets there first.

So where do journalists fit in in the world? And what do we teach them?

Well, we still start by teaching what my dean calls the eternal verities: accuracy, fairness, completeness. Implicit in that is a sense of service and given the rise of the network we need to consider what our fundamental service is.

We teach them to gather, make sense of, present, and most importantly supplement information through reporting — but there are now so many new ways to do that, so now we don’t just teach reporting but also data skills.

We teach them to build — yes, stories, but now in more forms, and also more than stories: tools and platforms.

We also teach them to build businesses. We teach them sustainability.

We teach them to go out into their communities, but now I say we need to make them see that they are a part of and not separate from those communities, no longer envisioning ourselves at the center, gathering everyone’s attention, but instead at the edge, serving their needs, providing communities elegant organization. This is a difficult skill to teach. Since starting what we call interactive journalism (not “new media”) at CUNY, I’ve struggled with finding ways for the students to have a public with whom to interact. One way we’ve done it is The Local with The New York Times, but we need more ways.

If we consider the programmer worldview, then we need to teach journalists how to fit in to the world differently, to spread their skills and value (and values) out into other enterprises, institutions, and communities rather than making the world come to us for journalism: Need some reporting, some editing, some sense-making, some empowerment, some organization, some storytelling, some media making…? “We need to get us some journalism!”

Now, of course, the journalists will worry that when working in the employ of others, they lose the independence that their journalistic institutions afforded them (so long as those companies were rich monopolies). That is well worth the worry. But again, consider the programmer who brings her skills to an enterprise but still must decide whether the enterprise is worthy of them. Consider, too, how programmers work in open-source to spread their value — and grow it — among anyone who sees fit to use it. They don’t own coding the way we thought we owned the news. They spread it.

Shouldn’t we spread journalism out beyond our walls as not only a skill set but also a worldview, getting more people to see and create a demand for the value of accurate and reliable information (“trust is the new black,” says Craig Newmark), organized information, context, and so on? Shouldn’t we want to embed journalism the way programmers embed code? Then we wouldn’t just teach journalists to go to work for news organizations — or, for that matter, start them — but also to organize news everywhere? Whether and how to do that, I’m just beginning to wonder….


  • I think some of what you are getting at already exists in the IT space. Most any coder can write a report from data, but it’s the people who can look at data and see a way to create business intelligence from the underlying noise that are a real value. People who can take oodles and oodles of data and create visualizations that present it in a conciese way.

    Quite often when I’m working on reports (I work in University IT) my boss and I try to understand ‘What is the story we’re trying to tell with this data?’ Sound familiar?

    I see journalists (good ones) as people who can do this was less concrete data sources. People who can look at the content being generated from the ‘Stream’ (increasingly from the Internet) see the patterns, and present a concise story to their reader, should that reader be the public, or a corporation they’re working for.

    There are a lot of people who can code. There are a lot of people who can write. It is the people who can see patterns that others miss and present those patterns in a form that is accessible to others are where the value is, be it on IT or Journalism.

  • Jeff – thought provoking post – beyond a doubt journalists need to find ways to get their journalism out beyond their walls, in every sense of that metaphor.
    But it occurs to me that your hope that people/communities/institutions etc will recognize the value of a journalist’s skills and cry “we need to get us some journalists in here” is something that is routine already – any mainstream media outlet of any size gets numerous calls/requests for the community to ‘tell my story’ every hour and every day. How is what you’re suggesting truly different?
    And, importantly, producing journalism, doing journalism, is only one part of what people seek us out for – most, the vast majority, of our (journalists’) contacts with the community are about consumption, not production: tell me a story, not tell my story.
    The community gives us that task and enormous advantage – a broad audience. It is not enough to be able to do good journalism, to provide accuracy, fairness, completeness, a large part of the value we bring is that we bring along that massive, broad audience.
    Nobody says “We need some journalism here” without also meaning “we need your audience.”

    • Bill,
      As to the first, the difference is that when they ask that, they’re asking for your media, your audience, not really your skill; they want the attention you can bring. That will, of course, continue. I’m talking about an entity needing to, say, organize its information internally or directly with its own market.
      As to the second, also, that will continue … but people tell their own stories now much more, eh?

  • As a former journalist, marketer and one who has worked in data visualization for the past few years, I have seen the skill set and demands of journalists change over a very short period of time both out of interest, as well as necessity. Less than three years ago, I had a hard time explaining in layman’s terms what data visualization/big data was, while today nearly everyone understands out of the gate what these terms mean and what impacts of them are for their business.

    Journalists are smart, curious, capable and extremely adaptable — and perhaps simply need to stop to reflect for a moment to figure out how best to capitalize on this movement. (They are so hard-driving, deadline oriented and giving of their talents (for relatively little compensation, I might add), they likely haven’t much considered how they can personally benefit from this new data-centric world. )

    Great article, Jeff.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Journalists are smart, curious, capable and extremely adaptable

      Trying to portray ones’ group in a good light is understandable, but let’s look at the work product.

      Take “curious”. How many of journalists were “curious” enough to wonder what Trayvon Martin looked the night he died? (The “layers of fact checking” missed that “white hispanic” George Zimmerman is actually a black hispanic raised in a multi-racial household….) How many journalists were “curious” and “smart” to figure out what was likely to happen after “Arab spring”?

      How are we measuring “smart”? I ask because journalists spout logical fallacies such as “both sides are mad at me so I must be doing something right” as if they’re wisdom. Since they appear to actually believe such things ….

      What journalists do is try to change the world via stories. They make a living from the Gell-Mann amnesia effect.

      > They are so hard-driving, deadline oriented and giving of their talents

      You do know that “my biggest fault is that I work too hard” is a bad resume cliche, right?

  • Ed

    Great article and something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

    I’ve been a journalist for 25 years and earlier this year filed my last piece of traditional journalism instead to focus on my digital consultancy and I’ve been rationlising what I do. It started three years ago after the GFC hit and newspapers and magazines shrunk and a local mineral water company emailed asking for help with PR because nobody would write about him.

    What I did was to talk to him and write his story for him to tell and suggest social media and told him to start doing some very simple things to tell his story; that he started a business with $5,000 on his credit card; the story about artesian water; and to tell his current story with pictures (posting pics of cafes and restaurants where he was stocked).

    What I have realised is that I’m now doing the same same but different (as they say in Asia). Instead of getting writers to write news in brief I get writers to start conversations on Twitter. I get restaurants to stream pics on Instagram. We commission blog posts that we know drive traffic and build links (recipes in the restaurant world).

    And we write headlines that are hopefully compelling but also work for SEO.

    We work out ways to make businesses that aren’t very interesting to be interesting and then build a community around that idea.

    Instead of dealing with InDesign and prepress we are working with online tools and programmers.

    I think the problem is that media companies are really in the business of distribution of a physical product nowadays more than investing in the highest quality of journalism much like Coca Cola is in the business of owning refrigerators in outlets and stocking them.

    Online media companies have been pushing a lower quality product designed for the mass market rather than segmenting into niches.

    And in the same manner than my mineral water client is now successful and innovating (kegs instead of bottles and quality flavoured syrups (think hedgerow varieties) he’s in a different business to Coca Cola and niche magazine publishers are thriving by producing a quality targeted product.

    I suspect print journalism isn’t dead just different, more targeted and better.

    The world has changed and journalists have to adapt to new opportunities, some of them which will be different.

  • Skip Malette

    These may popular culture TV episode roles but they do present a picture of those who pull stuff out of the flow. Team them with the writer(journalist) and watch what happens.

    From NCIS, Abby Sciuto – Forensic Specialist
    From “Criminal Minds”, Penelope Garcia – Technical Analyst

    I suspect they might become better writers and the writers would become better technically. It’s only natural.

  • Skip Malette

    Here’s a live example of failure to do exactlly what you describe: (Washington Post)
    by way of: PRIVACY Forum mailing list [[email protected]]

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  • Leidiene

    Olá Jeff,

    Estou lendo o seu livro “O que a Google faria” e por isso estou aqui visitando seu blog. Queria aproveitar a oportunidade e te dá uma sugestão. Você que sabe tanto do Google poderia ver a possibilidade de ter o Google Tradutor no seu blog para que pessoas do mundo inteiro possam te acompanhar na sua língua de origem. Posso até tá falando besteira mas entendo pouco de Inglês e isso dificulta o acompanhamento do seu blog.
    Ah! Estou adorando seu livro. Estou lendo para fazer uma resenha crítica a pedido do meu professor do mestrado.

    Espero poder ajudá-lo com essa sugestão.


    Leidiene Queiroz
    Feira de Santana
    Bahia – Brasil

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  • Hi Jeff,
    I’m currently reading WWGD and loving it. I’m actually listening to the audio book version. I’ve recommended it to several friends already. I’m wondering if you’d care to share thoughts on CISPA or any of the new legislative attempts to limit / curtail the internet?

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  • Companies don’t want to make decisions based on stories that journalists tell them. They want to make decisions based on stories that RESEARCHERS tell them – specifically market researchers. They’re like the journalists of business, and their business is growing faster than nearly anyone realizes.

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  • Jon B

    I have a fundamental issues with companies using contently as a blog content solution. It’s not sincere and it doesn’t build relationships. I do not have a relationship with Miller because they sponsored the game. I have a relationship with my team and the players in the game. It brands or marketers want to get into the relationship space, they need to show up to the party, not just sponsor the booze.