Tech vs. journalism: the necessary mental shift

Greg Barber, director digital of news projects at The Washington Post
Dan Gillmor, teacher at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Jacqui Maher, interactive journalist, BBC News Labs
Raju Narisetti, senior VP at News Corp
Chair of the panel: Vivian Schiller, executive committee chair at Vocativ

A debate is popping up regularly around how newsrooms and news organizations at large should rethink how journalists and developers talk to and work  with each other. A panel titled “Tech vs. journalism: who’s in control?” took place on 16 April at the International Journalism Festival, where speakers explored good strategies for making journalists and developers work better together so that their readers’ online experience can significantly improve.

“At the Post, we used to think about technology as a support to stories, now it’s something in its own right,” said Greg Barber, director of digital news projects at The Washington Post. “We don’t necessarily have to sacrifice journalism to focus on technology. We give equal priority to both.”

The speakers agreed that one way to make teams of journalists and developers work better together is by having them focus on the story, and what kind of experience they want their users to have online.

Jacqui Maher, interactive journalist at the BBC News Labs, said her work focuses on how they can offer “the best storytelling”. What they prioritize depends on what project they’re trying to achieve.

She said that bulding an interactive project would be mostly about surveying the tools that are already available out there, decide if they had to develop their own tool at the BBC or not, and make sure they could publish the project across all platforms: online, mobile, social, etc.

“Sometimes you just have to learn about how to integrate something that already exists” onto your website instead of creating something new, she said.

The panel discussed the fact that news organizations don’t have the same structure as technology-centric start-ups. They therefore need to make intelligent decisions about what they focus their efforts on.

Raju Narisetti, senior VP at News Corp, said that for a news organization to build its own CMS doesn’t make sense when so many tools are available, with updates included in the services. Greg Barber had just explained that the Washington Post was building its own content management system and is looking at making it available to other news organizations.

“There’s a significant confusion around how people consume journalism,” Raju Narisetti said. “There’s a lot of CEOs who like to propagate the idea that building their own CMS will solve that problem. It helps having deep pockets, but I’m very sure this will not solve journalism challenges. Our core competency isn’t technology,” he said, adding that he worried about resources not being well invested in news organizations.

The multiplication of platforms through which the news are published, shared and discussed is also of concern, according to Dan Gillmor, teacher at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Gillmor said he worries that the Internet, which is at its core a promise of decentralization of power, is increasingly getting recentralized in the hands of governments through surveillance programs, and corporations.

“We are complicit”, he said, because we have chosen convenience instead of liberty. Gillmor added that he also worried about the increasing power of  social media platforms that are taking over from traditional news organizations.

Raju Narisetti said he agreed that news organizations need to play a role in protecting the data they acquire from the users that visit their websites.
He said that more than proposing unique content as a competitive advantage, news organizations should think about what kind of experience they offer to their readers.

“All good experiences are at the intersect of journalism and technology,” he said.

Vivian Schiller, executive committee chair at Vocativ and who was chairing the panel, said that “there is a flowering of creativity when developers are involved in a story from the get go”. But cultural challenges remain, with legacy journalists being uncomfortable with having to depend on coders to publish their story.

“It’s through communication that you can get around those challenges,” Jacqui Maher said. “I’ve had the most success when I was involved early on and was able to prototype, just to show and demonstrate what’s possible.”

Greg Barber added that the Post’s graphics team is the best set of storytellers they have.

“They think about how they can immerse readers in a story. It’s that kind of accessible reporting that drives the story home. When things like this happen, it helps break down the barrier between developers and traditional journalists,” he said.

Dan Gillmor added that journalists should discover the possibilities a technology like Javascript can offer, so that their discussions with developers will be much more efficient.

Raju Narisetti said that what he thinks can work to make people work better together in newrooms is to give credit when credit’s due, especially now that developers are really helping bring the story forward; give developers clear titles that help readers understand the role they played in making the stories come to life; not wait too long before teaming up with developers in a project; and finally, focus on the experience the readers should have.

“This replaces the conversation that is usually ‘my words versus your software'”, he said.

Vivian Schiller closed the debate by saying that being able to consider yourself as part of the journalistic effort is a mental shift, and it can lead to a tremendous acceleration in the newsroom.

Delphine Reuter