The unicorns of the newsroom

On the first day of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia a panel discussion was held on the gap between traditional reporting and coding. The International guest speakers from world’s leading media described the notion of the ‘unicorn’, a rare magical create that lives in the newsroom on the intersection between text and code.

Jacqui Maher, interactive journalist at the BBC News Lab, started the discussion by telling about her journey of becoming a ‘unicorn’ in the newsroom. She first came into contact with an interactive form of journalism at the New York Times. while working on a project dedicated to finding missing people in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

Her former boss, Aron Pilhofer, now working as an executive editor of digital The Guardian, explained how the use of data has changed over the last decade now calling data journalism “a new form of journalism in its own right”. Aron Pilhofer continued by giving several examples of past and present projects such as the “Immigrants in their own words (100 stories)” website (see:  where the subject itself is given a voice: “The stories are created entirely by readers, and only edited and selected by the Guardian staff.”

Another example of a good way to not only use text but also graphics is the The Guardian poll projection (see: created for the UK 2015 General Election. The graphs  give the  context to the polls through showing the zero.sum game between the parties.

The Wall Street Journal’s John Crowley continued the conversation by emphasizing the importance of the gamification of news reporting visible in the BBC|s recent ‘Syrian Journey’ project, which invited the readers to experience a journey of a refugee from the Middle East. The digital editor refered Janet Jones by saying that we are in the middle of a transformation from news being read to news being played. “People’s consuming habits are changing in front of our eyes,” John Crowley says.  With this he refers to the new process of combing two ‘languages’, coding and journalism, into one.

John Crowley believes that journalism students are not taught enough coding and data journalism since they don’t fit into the traditional newsroom model.

A good example of coding is the Libor Spiders web network (see: where readers get engaged by dragging the different nodes of the graph across the screen.

John Crowley ends the discussion by emphasizing the importance of journalists using ‘unicorns’ as an extension of their work, even when they don’t have any knowledge of coding. Aron Pilhofer adds: “ There are now more free tools available than ever before: opensource code and Meetup groups.” With this the job market for the ‘unicorns’ is big. “We’re going to need all the people available for the positions,” Pilhofer concludes.

Daria Sukharchuk and Anneloes Viskil