Hacks-Hackers London: Coder-journalists or hybrid teams?

Finally, after months of being busy and missing Hacks/Hackers, I was thrilled to make it to last Wednesday’s instalment, which focused on Big Data in Financial Journalism. Congratulations to Jo Geary of The Guardian for organising another great event and Marianne Bouchart of Bloomberg for being such a great host. 

Emily Cadman, the head of interactive at the Financial Times, had a great presentation, along with her colleague and my friend, Martin Stabe. Emily also had one of the best provocations of the evening. She challenged the idea that journalists should become coders. Instead of journalists learning how to code, she suggested that news organisations should build hybrid teams of crack coders and journalists and editors who can work with and speak to coders. That being said, she said that if you do find a coder who values journalism and can think editorially, then do everything you can to hold onto them. For organisations the size of the Financial Times or even for small and medium-size papers part of a larger group, I couldn’t agree more.

It reminds me of my early days in digital journalism, back in the mid-90s. I was working at a regional news website on special projects. I spent about an hour editing an image. One of my graphic design colleagues said that while she appreciated my initiative that what took me an hour would have taken her minutes. I still have picked up a range of skills, but I have tried to focus on things where I can really add value and not areas where a specialist like a designer or a developer has spent as much time building their expertise in their work as I have in journalism. 

Cadman said that it took time and effort, and I’m sure a fair bit of astute application of political capital, to build her team. These types of hybrid teams don’t get created overnight. I am not familiar with the history of the team at the FT, but I know that Aron Pilhofer at the New York Times has spent years building up his team and figuring how the best composition and organisational positioning of his team. 

Data and visual journalism on a shoestring budget

The FT, the New York Times and the BBC have all developed hybrid teams like this, and I’m sure that for a lot of smaller news organisations having the resources for such a team seems simply unattainable especially for regional publishers in the UK or metro publishers in the US reeling under economic pressures. However, I would say two things, there is a lot that can be done at a group level, creating projects that can easily be replicated across markets and use local data. Good designers can create projects that can easily reflect the style of individual local sites. 

There is another way to develop great interactive data projects and that is to rely on the myriad of web services that exist. At journalism.co.uk’s last news:rewired conference Paul Rowland, deputy head of online content at Media Wales, had a great presentation on how Wales Online does data-driven visual journalism facing the same challenges that almost all regional publisher does in the UK. He outlined the challenges as:

• limited resources.
• a lack of cash.
• no dedicated developers.
• a hefty newspaper legacy.

He gave a rundown of his favourite services that should be in every digital editor’s toolkit no matter how small your organisation. As I always say when I work with news organisations and MDLF’s clients, interactive journalism is a lot like the iPhone. If there is a story-telling technique that you want to try, there’s a web app for that. 

I am more technical than most journalists but I’ve never learned how to code. Instead, I’ve always referred to myself as a “cut-and-paste” coder. I have always tried to keep on top of the kind of services that Rowland highlighted, and cutting-and-pasting an embed code from a third-party service is something that almost anyone who has embedded a YouTube video can do. 

Last Wednesday was really inspiring, and I think that Cadman showed that we’re not just breaking new ground in terms of using data in journalism, but we’re finally starting to get a handle on the best ways to organise the new news room that doesn’t look to everyone to be a jack-of-all trades but realises the role of specialisation and editors who have the digital and traditional experience to work with these kinds of digital teams.