OPINION

The Hacker Journalists

The audience at the Bell Harbor Conference Center in Seattle was full of geeks, and its members would probably have been proud to identify themselves as such. After all, it was the ninth Gnomedex conference, the annual gathering of tech bloggers, business types, private tech enthusiasts — anybody and everybody who has a fascination with technology’s impact on society, culture and media.

Most of those attending were using social media long before “social media” became the easy buzz-phrase to describe not only a revolution in communications, but also a symptom of what’s good — and bad — about modern journalism. I put myself in the camp that wants to meld social media with best journalistic practices, which is why I was one of the geeks attending the Gnomedex session entitled “Hacker Journalism.”

As mentioned in my last column, I don’t think I’m what you would call a true hacker journalist in that I’ve never written any computer code and I’m not able to leap any programming obstacles in a single bound. And that’s how the two men leading the session — Mark Glaser, executive editor of PBS.org’sPBS.org’s “Mediashift” column and Jim Ray of MSNBC.com — defined hacker journalists: programmer-journalists who regularly use computer databases and search engines to assist with reporting and are also helping to develop the technology tools that will help journalist dig up the facts.

My big questions for the session: What about the storytellling — where does that rank in this process? Are there enough hacker journalists out there now to attend to the needs of an media-saturated public?

Thankfully, others in the audience were thinking along the same lines. While the Gnomedex crowd is certainly more tech-centric and voracious in their media consumption than the average news consumer, it was encouraging to hear that they had the same concerns about credibility and accuracy. I’m guessing that like a lot of other Americans, they’re tiring of biases and agendas, of the sensational tack taken by some local and cable news channels, and of trying to drink out of the firehose that is the daily 24/7 media stream.

The ‘T’ Word

I heard those worries about journalistic relevance when an audience member asked Ray, “Do you ever get asked to use your skills in determining editorial priorities? I have concerns about journalism’s role in our society.”

Ray had just rattled off a list of examples involving computer-assisted reporting relating to everything from politics to hurricanes; how new data software is being used to track trends. But even Ray knew where things were heading in the discussion. “Is it our job to be an archive, or to tell them (users) what’s happening in the world today?” Ray said. “It’s the classic media criticism. It’s very easy for everyone to chase the same ball. We’re working on internal tools to help with that.”

The “T” word — Twitter — is mentioned, along with its role in the Iranian elections and the “Miracle on the Hudson” airplane accident. “Every journalist in the country discovered Twitter on Jan. 15, I think,” Ray said, referring to US Airways Flight 1549’s successful ditch-landing in the Hudson River and the fact that the world heard about it first via tweet and Twitpic. “Is there a way that we can tap into that zeitgeist and determine priorities? We are still going to do our jobs, which is an important role that a journalist plays in determining what is and isn’t news. We don’t want to be TMZ, but we want to know if there’s a role you play in determining news. It’s important for us to understand what you guys want us to report about, but it also gives us a competitive edge. If we could have been able to get that five minutes before CNN, it’s a huge competitive advantage. We’re driven not just by altruism, but we have got to lead in this market.”

Glaser added, “Maybe let’s not chase where the zeitgeist goes, let’s not always follow that.”

There you have it; the 21st-century version of the old school argument — what the public needs to know vs. what they want to know. I think the judicious use of news judgment has always been a key part of storytelling and will continue to be as digital technologies have more of an influence on the news universe. Ray is saying that Twitter helps traditional newsrooms know what everybody is talking about, and maybe that’s worth reporting on. Twitter also helps put more citizen journalists at the scene of breaking news stories like the “Miracle on the Hudson,” and if MSNBC gets that picture or tweet before anybody else, it’s a new media/old-school scoop.

However, Glaser cautions against blindly letting the herd dictate the news agenda of the day. That’s how you end up with frittering away precious resources on celebrity news or chasing some bias-laden item making its way through Internet salons. Some have called that kind of news judgment arrogance; I say if you want to chase silly news stories, feel free to do so on the Web.

Journalist or Blogger?

So who’s around to work up this mashup of old and new media? “People think of the storytelling but not of the technology,” asks one attendee. “How are you able to basically get what you’re doing into a newsroom? It’s a hard sell trying to get some (news) people on Twitter.”‘

Ray jokes that he’s only got 30 minutes to describe this “huge challenge — how do we get more technically-savvy people into newsrooms? At MSNBC we have the inverse problem, where we have techy people who are interested in journalism. For a long time, from where I’m sitting, there’s been this huge divide between technology and news.”

A possible answer lies within universities and their journalism departments. “We need to be graduating more people who not only have the skills but think differently about the news,” Ray said. Glaser points to a Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism scholarship program to develop hacker journalists that’s a partnership of sorts with school computer science departments.

The inevitable discussion about opinionated blogs and old-school journalism surfaces. Ray and Glaser agree that the lines are blurring, with more journalists blogging and more bloggers breaking news stories. “It’s hard to say who is a blogger and who is a journalist,” Glaser said. “Whether that’s good or bad, we’ll find out.”

Do users even care about this issue anymore? “Most people look for news that fits their existing viewpoint,” says one audience member. “No one’s giving us straight-fact journalism anymore.”

“There are lies, damn lies and statistics,” Ray said. “One thing we hacker journalists can do is use the actual raw numbers and put information up in a way that doesn’t have an opinion. That’s one thing I like about working with data sets — we can throw that data into a database, let people query it and at the end of the day the numbers are the numbers, and we’re hoping that can add some context to the written story.”

All very commendable, but I can hear the arguments now that numbers-driven stories won’t be very compelling, that all journalists have biases, and please lighten up on the “news I want” chant. All I can think of is something Ted Koppel, a very good interviewer who was courteous but tough with all, said about important stories: Giving people the news that they need doesn’t have to be akin to force-feeding them broccoli. Compelling storytelling, writing and pictures work will always do the trick.

Of course, Koppel never had to deal with a Twitter account. When Glaser and Ray started soliciting ideas from the audience involving hacker journalism, about half the suggestions involved use of the 140-character short messaging service. Some of them were pretty good; ideas for combining tweets, trending topics and geolocation to help boost hyperlocal news coverage. One suggestion focused on a Twitter Storm Team that would call for tweets on weather conditions as dark clouds begin to gather.

There’s an obvious comparison begging to be made involving inclement conditions in journalism, thanks to technology, but I’ll pass. But some of the Twitter suggestions from an audience full of geeks were encouraging; some old media/new media mashups that might be worth hacking.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.


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