Journalist-programmers absent from top stories

Valleywag recently revisited Adrian Holovaty’s call for more “technical people” in newsrooms, citing examples of “how programming can grow naturally out of writing.” That same week, Editorchat devoted a session to discussing the question “Do editors need writers who are also software developers?

I agree that some journalists could benefit from picking up coding skills, but I’m not sure that the journalist-programmer path is one that most journalists should pursue.

Most reporters and editors publish content on sites that rely on traffic for revenue. Yes, we need to diversify our cash sources, but I’ll leave those arguments for other blogs, sites and panels. For now traffic equals income, so journalists need to generate page views simply to keep news organizations in business.

Let’s see if programming skills contributed to the most popular New York Times stories last year.

It looks like readers of The Gray Lady were more interested in interesting stories than flashy software. The same is true when you examine the most-viewed posts from the Times’ City Room blog or Bits blog.

Maybe journalists are more interested in pieces storytelling technology than “regular” readers. A quick look at Poynter’s top media stories of the decade blows that theory out of the water.

Well, surely fans of tech-centric sites were interested in programming-driven stories. Not so much on Engadget, Macworld or the ultra-niche Lifestream blog.

Even a look at Techipedia’s best internet marketing posts and Time’s list of 25 best blogs don’t point to content that relies on anything more than basic HTML skills.

Of course, web traffic is only a small part of the big picture, and the sources listed in this post are a very small sample of the many stories that people read, but I have to wonder how critical are programming skills for most daily journalists?

More importantly, what skills should journalists focus on?

Your thoughts?

12 thoughts on “Journalist-programmers absent from top stories

  1. Surely the point of the programmer-journalist is not to be able to write 'stories about programming', but to be able to use technology tools to uncover new stories and new story-telling possibilities? That could be being able to manipulate data in a spreadsheet, or use some great shortcuts or browser add-ons to automate dull manual sifting, or understand what can be embedded on a website. I think you are confusing production processes with popular output. Stories that feature uncovered female breasts get lots of page views – does that mean an essential skill for a digital journalist is unhooking bras?

    • Martin, you're absolutely right about the the use of shortcuts, browser add-ons and the like to automate processes and "uncover new stories and new story-telling possibilities." Maybe what we need are more "journalist-superusers," people who understand the many new tools available to help get reporting done.

      The point I failed to make really was that the most popular articles do not appear to be ones that would require any particular knowledge of software development: algorithms, programming languages, server technologies, etc.

      Thanks for stopping by, and keep up the great work at

      • That's true. I keep coming back to the idea that if you could get some interested developers to just follow a journalist around for a week watching everything they did in the production of news, they'd come up with some brilliant tools. Software developers are notoriously lazy – in a good way. They'll automate any process they can!

  2. Using a historical or current contextual analysis to justify whether something new – like a journalist-programmer – is relevant makes little sense. IBM hired consultants to see whether there was a future in Xerox patents for the photocopier. The data came back that said even if IBM captured the entire market for carbon paper etc it would not justify the investment. Xerox then carved out a multi billion dollar market. This example comes from Scott Anthony's recent book The Silver Lining. "…most techniques don't provide sufficient insight, particularly for innovations designed to create completely new markets". New forms of journalism using coding skillsets certainly fits this concept. Measuring current newspaper efforts is a poor guide to the value of programmer journalists of the future.

    • From the original post: "the most popular articles do not appear to be ones that would require any particular knowledge of software development"

      I would agree with you Peter. I think that premise of this statement itself is a problem. Popular *articles* is already pigeonholing ourselves into the traditional media mindset. Articles need not be the atomic unit of the new news model.

      Kevin, I know the point you intended to make. I also know that you understand and have written extensively about topic pages and new forms of journalism that don't revolve around the article. To really embrace and take advantage of these new opportunities, some degree of technical skills will certainly help. Programmer-journalists may be able to come up with really innovative ways to produce or present the news.

      • Yes Shafqat, I'm sure some programmer-journalists will create some great new ways to present news. I only wonder if most non-programming journalists should spend much time trying to pick up programming skills, or if their time would be better spent focusing on other things. Thoughts?

  3. Peter, thank you for the important reminder that we need to move forward and try new things in order to innovate. I really should have been more clear in the post that I agree with your point that looking at (even recently) historical data will not show us how to do new and different things. I'm confident that a small handful of journalists will lead the way in those efforts, I am only afraid that many skilled journalists might abandon simply good storytelling in the pursuit of journo-programming gold. The art of good reporting and writing still seems to be a valued commodity based on the stories that I linked to in the post.

  4. I think we are having difficulty seeing outside the frame of our existing experience of journalism here. Programmer-journalists will not only "create some great new ways to present news." Programmers paired with journalists in the OpenGov and Open Data world have the potential to redefine what news is. For instance, shining a data spotlight on the actual spending, taxing and allocation behaviors of government and the ways that these activities influence government workers and in turn services to the public has the potential to profoundly change the actual operations of government. Could it be that news in the future will not be about the insurmountable problems of government bit instead about the promise to fix it?

    • Sally, I agree that partnerships between programmers and journalists will lead to more fruitful journalism that can move things forward instead of pointing out the current problems with government. I bet that using a collaborative approach, some journalists will discover their inner programmers and vice-versa. Thank you for stopping by and adding to the conversation.

  5. Yes, not every journalist wil be a journalist-programmer. Yes, most of top stories will not be written by a journalist-programmer. But his/her skills will help other journalists to better tell a story, and to republish it over and over.

    But! Sally! Is! Right! I do believe that the freeing of public data will forge a new level of information blocks, formely known as "news", that will be published on newspaper websites by journalists that know how to code the application. They must know what is a data series, where is it, how it must be pulled and treated.

    Don't look at the future "journalist-programmer" merely as the guy that can fix the printer, knows a bit of PHP (or Python, or Perl, or…) and can SEO his own news.

    • Yes, journalist-programmers will help others to tell better stories and Sally is absolutely right. This string of comments keeps reminding me of how the Guardian created an app to let readers pour through and help analyze voluminous expense records of the Members of Parliament. That example showed how news professionals (programmers, journalists or hybrids) could harness the power of software to improve not only their storytelling, but also their reporting … all while "engaging" their audience and creating a more comprehensive package of content.

      In hindsight, the data sets I grabbed for this post might not be the best measures for the popularity of software-driven content. Some of the Times' most impressive "interactive" work is made in Flash, a platform in which many clicks are frequently counted as one page view. I also referred to Engadget, MacWorld and the Lifestream blog. Even though those sites cover more "techie" topics, I don't recall seeing many programming-driven pieces on those sites, which lessens the chance for journalist-programmers to top those lists of popular posts.

  6. Skills that need to be focused on are first of all the basics. Without knowing the basics you're not going to be able to write well. Second of all, skills needed to survive in the journalism world today. Such as, how to use technology to be a journalist. I found this website on the future of journalism and thought it was helpful.
    But most importantly, I think hands on experience is one the things that journalists need to have.

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