Working with Journalists: What’s in It for Geeks?

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, and there are some comments over there. I’m reposting this here because, frankly, this site poses fewer hurdles to commenters, and I’d like to get some diverse discussion happening.

Earlier this week I wrote about the internal and external obstacles journalism schools face when trying to achieve collaboration with other academic departments (such as computer science). That spurred a pretty interesting discussion in the comments.

This discussion got me thinking: Right now, it’s becoming obvious to many journalists that our field sorely needs lots of top-notch, creative technologists. Developers for whom software is a medium, and an art form. Developers with a deep passion for information, credibility, fairness, usefulness, and free speech.

However, my impression is that, so far, it’s not nearly so obvious to most “geeks” (and I use that term with the utmost affection and respect, as do many geeks themselves) how they might benefit from collaborating with journalists, j-schools, and news organizations.

So if journalists need geeks, but right now they don’t need (or even necessarily want) us as much, the question becomes: What’s in this for the geeks? Why might they want to work with us? Where’s their incentive?…

There is a bright spot of opportunity: Many hardcore geeks (especially those who create free software, where the mantra is “free as in speech, not free as in beer“) share core goals with journalists — especially regarding public service and free speech. That’s a solid launching point.

One of the people whose views on bridging the journo/geek culture gap I respect most is my Tidbits colleague Rich Gordon, from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. He runs a pioneering program that offers scholarships to Medill’s graduate journalism program to people with education and/or expertise in computer programming. (This effort is funded by a Knight News Challenge grant — and they’re seeking a followup grant.)

In his comment to my earlier post on J-schools, Gordon wrote, in part:

“Journalism and computer science partnerships will work only if the two academic departments see these collaborations as equally valuable. In my experience, there are cultural and communication gaps that need to be closed.”

And in this MediaLab post, Gordon elaborated:

“Journalists and technology professionals do have two things in common. First, the best people in both fields really do want to change the world and make it a better place. Second, both believe that people want and deserve access to the best possible information. But there also is a substantial gap between journalism and computer science.

“Too many journalists don’t respect technology development as a creative activity — they think developers should just build stuff they want. Too many technologists don’t respect journalism as an intellectual activity — they think journalists just pump out content for their algorithms to process.

“Too many journalists really don’t like technology change; they blame it for hurting media businesses, threatening their livelihoods and diminishing the quality of news available in local communities. Too many technologists think it’s not their job to worry about the negative impact of technology innovation on media companies and journalism — and when they do think about the consequences, think only about information at the national and global level (which is broader, deeper and more accessible than ever) and not at the local level (where online news ventures rarely do the kind of original reporting that newspapers do).”

…I think that pretty much nails the key mindset differences that define this culture gap. But there’s also the organizational angle. I was discussing this recently with Brian Boyer (a programmer currently in Gordon’s graduate journalism program, and part of Medill’s Crunchberry Project team). He observed that generally news organizations don’t see themselves as tech companies. Yet, he said, geeks “want to work at a place where tech is at the core of the ideas. News orgs need to realize that they’re tech organizations now — they live and die by the Web.”

Given that context, I ask again: What’s in this for the geeks? How can we foster more mutual understanding and respect? What compelling reasons can journalists offer that honor geek values, culture, and goals? How can journalists demonstrate that we can and will respect talented, passionate geeks as full partners (or even potential leaders) in collaborative efforts — not pigeonhole them as IT lackeys?

I’m asking journalists to start from this point: “Journalism: So what?” I’m also asking geeks to speak up about how they view journalists: our efforts, our culture, our goals, and what might make us more appealing as collaborators.

Any ideas? Please comment below.

2 thoughts on Working with Journalists: What’s in It for Geeks?

  1. Several of our web designers and developers (including myself) are active in the local NetSquared community in Houston. There are many non-profit organizations out there who struggle with some very simple technology issues (like setting up a blog or using social networking). This comes as second nature to many tech geeks out there and presents an easy opportunity to help the community.

    This same feeling of “fighting the good fight” is carried over to newspapers quite naturally.

    Helping a few people at a NetSquared meeting is fun. But building a web application that helps a few million people find jobs, sell their car or find affordable housing is even more fun.

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