Hack to Hacker: Rise of the Journalist-ProgrammerS

As if the journalism job landscape weren't terrifying enough, now you've got to think about learning to code. It's yet another new media skill you'll need to stay ahead of competitors. And make no mistake: they're stockpiling O'Reilly books.

In 2006, when news-app coder Adrian Holovaty called for more programmers in American newsrooms, he didn't get much response. But a few years and newspaper bankruptcies later, writers seem to be awakening to the advantages of learning to develop web apps or hack together quick scripts to handle labor-intensive data collection tasks. Swept up in the nerdy trend are such writers as...

  • Nick Bilton, New York Times: He might be lead blogger on Bits, the Times tech blog, but Bilton has also worked as a user interface specialist and hardware hacker in the Times R&D lab, helping to develop the TimesReader. He also knows his way around a C compiler.
  • Taylor Buley, Forbes: Just publicly accepted a new job as "Staff Writer and Editorial Developer," according to the Gorkana newsletter. "In his new role, he will write both stories and code." In C# — always so conservative, those Forbes guys.
  • Jennifer 8. Lee, former New York Times: As a reporter, Lee made her name as a pioneer in the art of the "conceptual scoop" (man dates and all that). But before she started in professional journalism, Lee was an applied math major at Harvard. Last April, she started learning to code, and now writes the occasional burst of Python (which happens to be one of the key languages at Google, where boyfriend Craig Silverstein is technology director). Rumor has it she may be joining or founding some kind of web journalism startup.
  • Cody Brown, NYU Local: After starting a lively hyperlocal university news site at NYU and penning some way-better-than-average new media meditations, film major Brown started work on a startup called Kommons. And he's begun the New Year by learning the Rails web development framework for the Ruby programming, presumably to get Kommons going.
  • Elizabeth Spiers, novelist, consultant, started Dealbreaker, blogged for Gawker when it was good: The former Wall Street analyst blogged two days ago that she's learning Python as part of a concerted effort to pick up new skills. By auditing an MIT class over the internet, no less. No idea what apps she'll be writing but we can't wait to read her arch code comments, and the take-no-prisoners documentation.

Learning to program is yet another way journalists are becoming generalists, more like pamphleteer, typesetter, postmaster and newspaper publisher Ben Franklin and his fellow ink-stained polymaths than highly specialized publishing types like Bob Woodward, Annie Leibovitz or Mario Garcia. Your typical professional blogger might juggle tasks requiring functional knowledge of HTML, Photoshop, video recording, video editing, video capture, podcasting, and CSS, all to complete tasks that used to be other people's problems, if they existed at all: production, design, IT, etc.

Coding is the logical next step down this road, albeit one that might only appeal to more ambitious or technically-minded journalists, the sort of people who want to launch their own websites, or attach a truly powerful and interactive feature to an existing one.

Hack to Hacker: Rise of the Journalist-Programmer

You don't have to look far to see how programming can grow naturally out of writing. Take Gawker Stalker. Launched by Spiers on a whim in 2003, it became a weekly column, then a more frequent feature, its own section and, eventually, an interactive map powered by Google's API. With some additional coding, it's now updated directly by the users. (Inexplicably, we've removed the map, however.)



As Clay Shirky has written, part-time programmers can make up in domain knowledge what they lack in raw technical skill. In the 2004 essay Situated Software, the NYU professor wrote about how surprised he was to see his students' social software become popular in spite of its hackiness:

I told myself that [the code] had succeeded for a number of reasons that were vaguely unfair: The users knew the programmers; the names database had been populated in advance; the programmers could use the in-house mailing list to launch the application...



The designers came from the same population as the users, and could thus treat their own instincts as valid; beta-testers could be recruited by walking down the hall; and it kept people from grandiose "boil the ocean" attempts. What I hadn't anticipated was the second-order benefits. Time and again the groups came up against problems that they solved in part by taking advantage of social infrastructure or context-sensitive information...

Hack to Hacker: Rise of the Journalist-Programmer

Shirky goes on to postulate that programming, as a craft, will become more democratized. In other words, journalists will do to programming what programmers' blogging platforms have done to journalism: saturate the industry with unpaid amateurs.

Gartner recently caused a stir by saying there would be 235,000 fewer programmers in the US ten years from now. This would have been like predicting in the 80s, that there would be fewer typists in the US by 2004. Such a prediction would be true in one sense — the office typing pool has disappeared, and much data entry work has moved overseas. But actual typing, fingers hitting the keyboard, has not disappeared, it has spread everywhere.



So with programming; though all the attention is going to outsourcing, there's also a lot of downsourcing going on, the movement of programming from a job description to a more widely practiced skill. If by programmer we mean "people who write code" instead of "people who are paid to write code", the number of programmers is going to go up, way up, by 2015, even though many of the people using perl and JavaScript and Flash don't think of themselves as programmers.

Sorry, professional programmers: Disintermediation is a bitch, isn't it? On other hand, if the first wave attacking your profession is a bunch of journalists, well, you probably don't have to start sweating anytime soon.

(Top pic: Bilton in the Times R&D lab, by Dennis Crowley. Bottom pic: Shirky at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, by Sean Salmon)