Coders meet journalists; journalists meet coders

Do journalists need to learn to code? Probably not, but those who can are likely to find themselves quickly snapped up by news organisations with interactive and data teams.

I have no grand hopes of learning to code properly, but I would like to feel a little more comfortable with the language and learn more about the ways programmers work and how it could help journalism.

That was one reason I went along to last night’s Ruby in the Pub informal meetup (tagged #RITP or #rubyinthepub on Twitter), initiated by journalists Joanna Geary and James Ball (even though James himself got stuck at work and missed the event).

The other reason was to meet brave souls playing in the programming-journalism no-man’s land. I think there are exciting things to come out of the programmer-journalist relationship. We’re already seeing that in projects led by mySociety and OpenlyLocal, in collaboration with bloggers and other media.

The US, of course, is streets ahead, with news organisations employing designated journalist-programmers. ProPublica, the non-profit investigative organisation, employs application developers and editors, integrated into the news team, as does the Chicago Tribune (for example). The New York Times has a dedicated interactive team – the head of which, Aron Pilhofer, came along to last night’s meet-up (he recently wrote about this new breed of ‘hacker-journalists’ at this link).

Over here, we’re seeing moves in the right direction (the Scott Trust now has a bursary for students who want to learn software development) and of course news organisations do employ developers, designers and programmers, but we’ve got some catching up to do in terms of integrating and prioritising programming skills.

[For some examples of interactives, visualisations and data-driven journalism follow this link]

So…what is Ruby? Ruby on Rails is a open source web application framework, using the Ruby language. Only a minority of programmers use it (you can see a comparison of frameworks at this Wikipedia link), but it was the consensus language agreed for the meet-up.

Developer Dave Goodchild (@buddhamagnet) was restricted by the lack of wifi, but nonetheless he did a grand job in educating us Ruby ignoramuses the very basics.

If you do decide to download RoR to have a proper play, Dave recommends building a blog – the format of which is easy to understand for a journalist – and following this online tutorial on the Ruby on Rails blog.

It was a brief introduction and the properly keen will have to do their homework to learn properly, but it’s good to hear developers explaining how they use it – and showing how quickly something can be built.

The evening was also a meeting of cultures; as journalists explained their various work brick walls and developers explained the differences between various coding languages and platforms.

Most useful for me was hearing about the projects developers are implementing in their respective organisations and the tools they are using.

Whether or not very much Ruby knowledge was gleaned by the hacks in one evening, I have great hopes for the conversation between programmers and journalists. It could result in some very innovative applications and stories that will help British journalists catch up with our US counterparts and break new ground.

If you would like to know more about interactives and data-driven journalism, check out the agenda for news:rewired – the nouveau niche (25-06-10) where these topics will be addressed. Buy your ticket (£80 + VAT) at this link. Speakers include OpenlyLocal’s Chris Taggart; the OnlineJournalismBlog’s Paul Bradshaw; and Ollie Williams from BBC Sport.

7 thoughts on “Coders meet journalists; journalists meet coders

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  2. Judith Townend Post author

    An update. Dave Goodchild (@buddhamagnet on Twitter) who generously gave up his time to teach us on Tuesday night, has emailed me some additional thoughts on how the event could develop:

    The moment I saw the tag ‘rubyinthepub’ I was hooked. As a developer fascinated by both computer and human language and the interface between the two, whether on a technical or cultural level, the idea of getting journalists and developers together intrigued me.

    The first tentative meeting took place in Islington, in a pub with spotty wifi and a small but engaging turnout, including the instigators of the event, Joanna Geary of The Times and self-proclaimed ‘relapsed blogger’ James Ball. We didn’t have much of an agenda, we just set up the laptops, found out what people wanted to know and got moving. Harnessing the power of Twitter and framing the conversation around the #ritp hashtag (which also provided a back channel for feedback and the dissemination of information), greater interest was generated and by the time the second event rolled around we had a decent level of buzz going on. I turned up at the Shooting Star in Spitalfields and was a little taken aback – one side of the pub resembled the blogger’s lounge at South By Southwest and the hubbub signified excited minds at work.

    It could have proven difficult to manage – after all, there were a lot of people and laptops jammed in to a relatively small area, and many of the journalists present had never programmed in any real sense. But the mindset (curious, interested in data, engaged with the culture) and grievances (trying to break down barriers, impatient with the old guard) of both sides emerged as being remarkably similar. In a way, we’re all trying to find solutions to the same problems. On the journalism side, frustration with an 
    often technically impotent and reactionary old school, and a sense that technology is either too difficult or too expensive. On the hacker side, impatience with top-heavy methodologies and obstructive processes. A significant proportion of journalists are excited by the new wave of tools and technologies, and programmers delight in demonstration and explanation. 

    The thing is, the programmers who turned up to the event were hackers. Not simply day job programmers, but creative thinkers and toolbuilders. The kind of programmers it is useful for journalists to understand, because they’re the kind of people that built Twitter and who exert an influence on the changing media landscape.

    It will be interesting to see what happens next. Whether projects emerge, sustainable collaborations happen. On leaving, I remarked to a fellow developer that one of the primary aims of the experiment should be demystification on both sides. Clear thinking, collaboration and a rush towards the future.

    Oh, and great beer of course.

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