19 min

Newspapers hiring programmers

(My March 2007 ToledoTalk.com post)

Some excerpts from a March 7, 2007 story titled Web Focus Leads Newspapers to Hire Programmers for Editorial Staff.

Whenever journalist-programmer extraordinaire Adrian Holovaty speaks at a conference, newspaper executives approach him to ask, “Where can we find another person like you?” Unfortunately, not a lot of people combine journalism with computer programming to create mash-ups like Holovaty’s seminal side project, ChicagoCrime.org, which feeds the city’s crime blotter into a searchable online database and onto Google Maps.

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.

The big hurdles are pay differential and the culture clash between computer science and journalism. Most programmers — even at the entry level — get paid more than most seasoned journalists. And most editors and journalists have no experience working closely with computer programmers on editorial work. Conversely, programmers aren’t knocking down the doors of newspapers for development jobs, when they can get stock options and more in Silicon Valley-type startup settings.

So if newspapers have to reach out to computer programmers who don’t have journalism in their blood, how will they convince them to take a news programmer position? Ritchey himself had a very interesting answer to that question: “At The News Tribune, I am the programmer. If I were working at a company that hires dozens of programmers, I would be just a programmer. I enjoy the extra responsibility of being the planner, the developer, and the tester.”

Holovaty, who now works for washingtonpost.com out of its Chicago office, believes that many newspapers already have talented programmers — they’re just trapped in IT jobs or doing grunt tech support work.

At the News-Tribune, they decided to combine web and print operations, though Ritchey told me he doesn’t think journalists should have to learn how to do computer programming. Instead, he feels they should just learn more about the software they already use.

“I think reporters would benefit from learning to use all of the features of software they already have,” he said. “Being able to create Microsoft Excel formulas to track information or Perl scripts to format text from the news wire or learning HTML to add photos or hyperlinks, for example, would be good for reporters to learn depending on what they’re doing on the job. I guess from a layman view you could call that programming.”

Will the Tacoma and Greensboro examples motivate other newsrooms to hire programmers? Holovaty isn’t holding his breath, and says he’s heard much more talk than action on the subject. He believes the tipping point will come when Google and Yahoo move into local markets, or other local sites start using mash-ups that garner web traffic.

A commenter to the above article said

Money, meh, it's not all about money.

I can make 90K as a Unix system administrator.

I can make 80K as a PHP or Perl programmer.

If the local rag said they wanted me to help them revolutionize their web site, I would do it for 55K. Because I would go in knowing that I was going to have a much more interesting job and that I was going to make a difference.

In the last few decades, people have talked a lot about hiring liberal arts majors for positions in business, because the business benefits from their broad background. Time to start talking about hiring technical people into typically non-technical environments. Some of us are generalists who could bring a lot to your tables!

Another commenter said

An interesting discussion; I see the direction going more towards small teams of "citizen journalists" teaming up with small teams of "citizen programmers" working with a lot of "deferral of gratification." Not that big media hiring programmers is a bad idea it simply won't help their business model much.

Isn't this all in a state still considered innovative? And doesn't innovation start small, test itself out, fly under the radar, gets things right until it's ready to emerge fully-fledged with a lot at stake in its successful implementation?

WaPo job opening

Holovaty has posted a WaPo job opening on his blog:

Work with me at washingtonpost.com

Attention, Web developers! We're hiring somebody to work with me at washingtonpost.com.

We're looking for somebody who is really good at making dynamic Web applications, on deadline. You're a great candidate if:

  • You have significant experience building database-driven Web sites.
  • You pick up new technologies very quickly, enjoy learning new things and enjoy opportunities to apply your new knowledge.
  • You're great at cleaning digital information -- parsing data feeds, screen scraping, etc.
  • You enjoy automating things to save people time.
  • You have experience using Django. Ruby on Rails experience is fine, too, if you're willing to unlearn all that black magic. ;-)
  • You have a solid understanding of relational databases and experience with open-source databases, particularly PostgreSQL. (MySQL experience is fine, too.)
  • You are experienced using (X)HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Ajax...yadda yadda yadda.

You get bonus points if:

  • You've contributed to open-source projects.
  • You've launched a side project (or two) on the Web.
  • You have a weblog.
  • You have journalism experience.
  • You are passionate about improving the world through information.

In no particular order, here are some examples of the types of sites you'll be building:

It's a mix of short-deadline projects, long-term projects and general site improvements. There's enough variety to keep it interesting. In most cases, you'll be expected to build a site in a matter of hours or days, not weeks or months. It's an exciting, fast-paced environment.

Why should you take this job?

  • Fun and freedom -- Building Web apps with Django is fun, and you'll have significant say in what your apps should do and how they should work. You won't be a cog in the wheel; in many cases, the development team will be you, or you and I. No requirements documents, if I can help it.
  • Visibility -- Your work will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people -- maybe more -- around the world.
  • Cool tools -- You get to use open-source technologies such as Python, Django and PostgreSQL, and get paid for it.
  • Great people -- Since Day One, I've been continually impressed with the talent and dedication of Washington Post employees. This is the cream of the crop.
  • Great company -- C'mon, it's the Washington Post, one of the most highly reputable news organizations in the world. The Post is, hands down, the most innovative large newspaper company around. You won't find our killer combination -- dedication to quality journalism and willingness to innovate -- at any other company of our size in this industry.

Journalism experience is not required. A formal computer-science background is not required. I'm much more interested in seeing your work than reading bullets on a résumé.

Also, you don't necessarily have to be a designer. Our design team makes things look good.

The job is located in the Washington, D.C., area -- technically, Arlington, Virginia. The washingtonpost.com office is near the Court House Metro stop on the Orange Line.

Journalists should innovate

March 9, 2007 Public Journalism Network story titled Journalists of the World Unite--and start innovating now.

7. Demand that 20 percent of your time be devoted to developing innovative ideas and products. Here is what Google tells prospective engineers :
  • We work in small teams, which we believe promotes spontaneity, creativity and speed.
  • Any Googler might have our next great idea, so we make sure every idea is heard.
  • Because great ideas need resources to grow into reality, at Google you'll always get the resources you need to make your dreams a reality.
  • Google engineers all have "20 percent time" in which they're free to pursue projects they're passionate about.

This freedom has already produced Google News, Google Suggest, AdSense for Content, and Orkut -- products which might otherwise have taken an entire start-up to launch.

9. The total cost for a newsroom for a newspaper with 100,000 circulation is about $10 million annually. With a little thought, it might be possible to create an excellent journalism enterprise outside of the monopolistic enterprises now in place. Remember you will be aggressive and innovative, which means you have the power collectively to develop your own forms of disruptive innovations which will destroy the sustained models that in the past have made you second class citizens and reduced the quality of news.

10. Those still left in the Guild should demand that it become an incubator of disruptive technologies that will advance great journalism and destroy models based solely on profit motives. As journalists you have a higher calling, an obligation to the general society. Don't let anyone take that away, better yet find a way of owning what you do so it can't be taken away.

11. You need the help of the general public and specific audiences to make change possible. Be community connectors and define your own communities. Use the old rule of thumb of one full-time newsroom employee per 1,000 circulation or determine a more exact figure. Then figure how to join that community and be a part of it by providing high quality insightful news, information and new knowledge production. Do the math. One thousand loyal community members each paying just $2 a week for what you produce is $2,000 a week or $100,000 a year. Your community might be moms, basketball fans, political junkies, educators, hunters, government employees, healthcare providers, news junkies or environmentalists, the list is long and combinations infinite. One hundred community connectors each bringing in 1,000 of their own self-defined community members, equals a circulation of 100,000 with a purely paid circulation of $10,000,000. There might even be ad revenue on top of that, but your interest is providing news, information and knowledge production that has value for your geographical communities or communities of interest who will pay for what you produce. Worried about possible conflicts of interest and other issues? Good, figure out how to avoid them.

12. The open source lessons of software development like Linux and Mozilla Firefox is that collective intelligence is a powerful force; use your collective intelligence to build new and better forms of journalism. Share your knowledge, ideas and plans. Plant dozens, no hundreds, maybe thousands of start up idea seeds and then nurture those that start to succeed, learn from the failures.

Journo via programming

March 13, 2007 O'Reilly Radar blog posting titled 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.

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.

Changing newspaper sites

September 6, 2006 Adrian Holovaty blog posting titled A fundamental way newspaper sites need to change.

If you take some time to examine what sort of information newspaper journalists collect, the amount of structure will jump at you. If I may take the liberty of giving examples from Web sites I've worked for:
  • An obituary is about a person, involves dates and funeral homes.
  • A wedding announcement is about a couple, with a wedding date, engagement date, bride hometown, groom hometown and various other happy, flowery pieces of information.
  • A birth has parents, a child (or children) and a date.
  • A college graduate has a home state, a home town, a degree, a major and graduation year.
  • An Onion-style "On the Street" feature has respondents, answers and a publication date.
  • A drink special has a day of the week and is offered at a bar.
  • The schedule of the U.S. Congress has a day and multiple agenda items.
  • A political advertisement has a candidate, a state, a political party, multiple issues, characters, cues, music and more.
  • Every Senate, House and Governor race in the U.S. has location, analysis, demographic information, previous election results, campaign-finance information and more.
  • Every known detainee at Guantanamo Bay has an approximate age, birthplace, formal charges and more.

See the theme here? A lot of the information that newspaper organizations collect is relentlessly structured. It just takes somebody to realize the structure (the easy part), and it just takes somebody to start storing it in a structured format (the hard part).

9 ways

9 Ways for Newspapers to Improve Their Websites

  1. Start Using Tags
  2. Provide Full Text RSS Feeds
  3. Work with External “Social” Websites
  4. Link to Relevant Blog Entries
  5. Get Rid of All Registration
  6. Partner with Local Bloggers
  7. Offer Alternative Views of Your Content
  8. Modernize Your Site’s Graphic Design
  9. Learn from Craigslist
  10. update: 1 more Make your content work on cell phones and PDAs.

An additional posting based upon user comments to the above list.

11. Allow Readers to Comment on Every Story
12. Improve Search Features
13. Use Better HTML
14. Focus on Local and Regional News
15. Open Up Your Archives
16. Provide Multilingual Versions
17. Offer Supplemental Content
18. Open Up the Letter to the Editor Process

Number 17 in detail :

Reporters do loads of research when writing stories. Why note post some of the extra stuff on your website? Bruce writes that it “would both make the web site more valuable and improve the credibility of newspapers. It’s really insane to just reprint the same material that is in the print edition.”

Bingo.

The articles in the print edition are limited by inches of space or word count. But those limitations don't exist on the Web. Post on the Web site the exact same article that appeared in the print newspaper, sure. But include the "reporter's notebook" section too at the end of the Web article.

List every detail collected by the reporter, regardless of how mundane the factoid is. Let the readers be the editors. The readers can decide which facts are important and which ones are useless. List them bullet-point style. Sentence fragments are fine. The writer does not need to spend a ton of extra time on this part.

And do something similar with photos. Make available on the Web all or nearly all the photos taken by the paper's photographers.

16 ways to use blogs

March 15, 2007 article titled 16 Ways The News Media Can Use Blogs. Read article for details. The list :

  1. Solicit ideas for coverage
  2. Request feedback on how to shape an editorial product
  3. Host public blogs
  4. Provide ongoing coverage
  5. Foster interaction between journalists and citizens
  6. Cheaply report news about niche interests - People are interested in fishing, knitting, and wine.
  7. Request help from the public on covering a story
  8. Get experts to interact
  9. Get non-journalists to report on their areas of expertise
  10. Provide sneak peaks of upcoming stories
  11. Allow journos to share their interests and passions
  12. Share internal memos and briefings with the public
  13. Defend editorial decisions
  14. Provide case studies for issues of public interest
  15. Share what you're reading
  16. Publish content that didn't make it on air or in print

Medill program

May 23, 2005 CyberJournalist.net posting titled Medill program aims to create more 'Adrian Holovatys'

As part of the Knight News Challenge, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University was given more than $600,000 to create an academic program blending computer science and journalism, designed to fill a staffing void at many digital news sites.

"We are offering full scholarships to Medill's master's program in journalism ... to people with computer programming skills," says associate professor Rich Gordon. "The goal is, in essence, to try to create more Adrian Holovatys."

"We want students who already have tech skills to come to Medill, learn the culture,
craft and mindset of journalists, and figure out interesting ways of connecting technology and journalism. As you know, there are many ways the industry and the academy have tried to teach tech skills to journalists -- the proposition here is that it would be interesting to see what happens if we teach journalism to tech types."

At Chicagocrime.org, people can investigate for themselves what kinds of crimes are most common in their neighborhoods. On the Web site for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, people can look up property assessments, campaign contributions and government workers who are “double-dipping” by holding down more than one taxpayer-financed job. At Digg.com, users help each other find relevant news by selecting and voting for the articles they find most interesting. At WashingtonPost.com, visitors can search through databases of congressional votes, campaign contributions and Bill Clinton’s speaking fees.

Each of these examples is a significant technological achievement. Each also represents a marriage of journalism and technology – database development, application programming, interface design and search algorithms applied toward the goal of a better informed society. In the digital age, journalism is more than just reporting and storytelling. And technology is more than just business systems or inventory management or e-commerce. For people to discover and act upon the information they need to be citizens in a democratic society, journalism and technology must increasingly intersect.

“The skills and insights that technology developers have are increasingly important to the analysis, delivery and accessibility of information needed in a democracy,” said Rich Gordon, who directs Medill’s program in new media journalism. “At the same time, the journalistic skills learned at a place like Medill can yield important ideas for applying technology in ways citizens will find relevant and engaging.”

Adrian Holovaty, editor of editorial innovations at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, is a living example of what someone with both journalism and programming skills can accomplish. A journalism graduate of the University of Missouri who taught himself to program, Holovaty helped develop the technology behind the innovative Web sites of the Lawrence Journal-World (Lawrence.com, ljworld.com and kusports.com) and later went on to create Chicagocrime.org as a personal project. He also is part of the team that developed the open-source Django framework, which allows Web developers to build database-driven sites quickly and efficiently. At Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, he is responsible for a variety of database-driven applications, including congressional votes, campaign contributions and Bill Clinton’s speechmaking.

“I'm excited about this new scholarship program at Medill,” Holovaty said. “Programming is becoming a bona fide sub-discipline of journalism, at the same level as photography, infographics and writing, and this Knight grant helps legitimize that. It will also have the tangible benefit of producing skilled journalism technologists, people sorely needed by news Web sites. The graduates of this program are going to be in high demand.”

Holovaty's grant

May 23, 2007 Holovaty blog posting titled Knight Foundation grant

I'm thrilled to announce some huge news: I've been awarded a grant by the Knight Foundation, as part of the Knight News Challenge program.

I'll be founding a Web startup, EveryBlock, that focuses on making local news and information useful. I've been feeling the entrepreneurial itch for a while and can't wait to start hacking on this with a crack team of Web developers. Expect to hear much more about this from me, including job ads.

The sad part of all this is that I'm leaving my job at washingtonpost.com. I've had a fantastic time there and recommend it wholeheartedly as a place to work.

Mapping info

#media - #technology - #programming - #blog_jr

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