Programmers and Journalists Speak Different Languages

There is so much potential for groundbreaking journalism to spring from a room full of web developers and reporters. There’s a wealth of data available on the Internet. Journalists know there are stories there. Web programmers know how to mine the date quickly. If the two groups team up, thousands of good stories previously buried beneath mountains of paperwork will reveal themselves. It sounds like the future of journalism.

The ScraperWiki logo (via

Unfortunately, when you get the two groups in a room, things rarely work out the way the new media prognosticators envision this next generation of journalism.

Programmers jump on computers, guzzle two-liters of soda, and zone out in their code. It’s not their fault. While writing code and mining data, programmers are immersed in another language. After hours of speaking that language, it cannot be easy to have a journalist walk in speaking newsroom speak.

That was the position many programmers and journalists were in when our American University School of Communication grad class visited the second day of the ScraperWiki Conference at the Washington Post on March 31.

Our class spent the day with roughly 25 programmers and 15-20 journalists working together – in theory – to identify possible stories in data, mine the data, and build the code to present the data.

However, when we arrived at the conference, programmers had already spent the first day of the conference identifying data and were deep into their coding. The class moved around the room to identify topics that interested them, but the programmers were already lost in their code. Many were friendly, but it was hard to figure out where we fit in as journalists.

The organizers needed to create more structure to the conference to facilitate collaboration. But that’s easier said than done. The fundamental issue with this new union in journalism is that the two groups do not speak the same language. Both groups are looking for stories, but programmers were looking for stories on their own and journalists were trying to identify how they could help. If this is the future of journalism, who is responsible for creating stories? Are programmers in charge or are journalists in charge? With nobody in charge, it’s chaos.

Despite the chaos, I tried to jump around the room and absorb knowledge from programmers. In that process, I was able to identify what had potential to be an interesting story. One group of programmers was working on mining data on Washington, D.C., crime incidents. Across the room, another group of programmers was mining data on D.C. vacant properties. The two teams were in no way working together, but it seemed like a natural. Was there any correlation between crime and vacant properties in D.C.? I called it the “broken windows” story.

By the end of the day, the two teams did come together to match their data. They took home second place during the awards ceremony.

So I guess our class left with the feeling that there was some hope that we could learn to speak the same language.


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