I’m trying to catch up on reaction to this weekend’s Online News Association convention and have come across a couple of interesting posts so far, including this one from Rick Burnes at Mash.a.list, a relatively new blog exploring the space where technology and journalism come together. Today, he wrote:
Part of the problem is that while technical skills are becoming a critical part of quality reporting, the online news community has not developed its own technical voice and confidence.
Newspaper web sites are run by reporters and sales people, not engineers. They’re people who get technology and believe in it – but not people who can sit down in an afternoon and build a script to scrape content into an RSS feed.
Papers need to build their technical competency. They should hire developers and put them in the newsroom.
Get ‘em while their still innocent, want to save the world, and don’t know about the money to be made out West. Have them hacking together Google maps, building databases, experimenting with new ways of displaying content.
That’s only part of the solution, and a small part of it to my mind. A bigger obstacle, even with many of the online publication I regularly visit, is training journalists to see the possibilities for new technologies and to recognize how they can be used. Journalists are still hugely siloed — print, broadcast, online — and there’s little cross-training or even cross-understanding of how other media work.
Many of the technical skills (the engineering) can be easily learned, particularly as special-purpose software gets easier and easier to use and cheaper and cheaper to buy. More difficult is teaching print-oriented people, which make up the largest pool of reporters, how to use audio and video effectively, how each of the blocks you can use to build story brings with it different demands and possibilities.
The technicians can create new ways to display content, but they need the journalistic drive, the storytelling imperative, too. Adrian Holovaty saw the potential for using Google maps from two points of view: as someone who understands the possibilities of the technology, but also a trained journalist, who saw a new way of telling the story about crime in Chicago.
Part of the answer lies in journalism schools where, if we don’t teach the technology, we should at least be teaching understanding of the possibilities, and a willingness to explore and push past boundaries. Part of the answer lies in removing any walls that exist in the online newsroom between the reporters and the engineers, teaming them in the way we’ve always teamed reporters and photographers and, more recently, reporters and graphic artists, not just for specific story coverage, but to explore the possibilities.
Ideally, we would have a world of backpack journalists, armed with all the technology, a deep understanding of how the bits and pieces can go together, and the ability to use it all to commit journalism. Those who can do that now, according to another post that flowed from the ONA, are in heavy demand. Jemima Kiss writes:
Looking for work? The New York Times’ ‘backpack journalist’ Naka Nathaniel told the conference there is a huge demand for multi-skilled reporters to work on location.
Mr Nathaniel is the only ‘backpack journalist’ at the New York Times. He has been creating multimedia reports while travelling with columnist Nick Kristof – including reporting from every country in the so-called ‘axis of evil’.
“We can’t hire enough people right now. The people we need to do these jobs are just not there,” he told the conference.
“It’s a huge problem for journalism.”
It seems to be the two posts quoted above are connected by more than just the conference. Both speak to the same thing: building newsrooms that have the ability to deliver information effectively, using the available technology, some times in new and striking ways. Embedding techies in the newsroom is one part of it. More backpack journalists is another. But before either will work, we need to find ways to give journalists and the engineers a better and deeper understanding of the possibilities for storytelling.
UPDATE: Another take on online news, this from the indispensable Susan Mernit:
Maybe it’s because I work with people in the industry, but I think most of the smarter people in online news grasp the sea changes going on–my sense is that the problems are not (just) about the people, but about the profitable, hard to refocus legacy businesses called print media that publishers are loathe to abandon till the money goings straight down the drain.
UPDATE II: The most linked-to post from the ONA that I’ve come across so far is Rafat at Paid Content (The Bunker State of Mind.) It’s a passionate examination of the lack of passion he found at the conference. Well worth the read as one barometric reading of the state of the industry and be sure to read the comments, too. And see Terry Heaton’s response.