Hire programmers, but keep it real

A note to Online-News alerted me to a post by Jeff Croft titled “A Few thoughts on Journalism.”

News companies ought to be hiring web geeks by the hundreds, like right now. If you don’t have a web team that can turn a massive spreadsheet of data related to a story into a browseable, sortable, searchable web application (or interactive map, etc.) within 24 hours of you getting the data, then you’re falling behind. A few recent examples of sources we’ve had for this type of journalism include data on public salaries, local soldiers who’ve died in the war, and data from a survey of local street conditions.

Croft references the concepts of Adrian Holovaty, and largely restates Holovaty’s main themes: the value of structured data and the need for programmers.

Like Holovaty, I adore structured data. Anybody who understands structured data has no shortage of ideas on what data to collect, store and disseminate. There is no doubt much of this would be a great public service. Further, I emphatically agree newspaper companies should be hiring more programmers.

But what I have yet to hear from Holovaty or Croft is a business model to support the expense. As much as I love the idea of just hiring a bunch of programmers and saying, “Come back and see me after you’ve built something cool,” that undisciplined approach just isn’t the best way to invent insanely great new products. Businesses need discipline and structure, and decisions need to be driven by data. Projects need the justification of audience growth potential, potential to increase market share or potential to drive new revenue.

ChicagoCrime.org is a worthwhile site and something newspapers might want to emulate. Crime and accidents do drive readership. But not all data is created equal. Some data is important, and some data is useful or fascinating, but important, useful or fascinating does not necessarily equal increased readership, or revenue. With that in mind, any structured data project requires a strong business case to justify it. No business model? Then move on to another project.

Of course, there are always more ideas than time, which is why hiring more programmers is a good idea. There are lots of good ideas to chase.

Setting priorities takes leadership. One thing I know about programmers — they are energetic, curious, creative people, and given free reign, they will turn first to cool. Profitable isn’t always fun. Sometimes, it’s a drag.

The other issues newspapers face is that programmers aren’t miracle workers. They can build all the structured data applications they desire, but who is going to manage the data? Not all data comes into a news room already structured, and even when it does, it still requires maintenance. Furthermore, most data is subject to eventual degradation. Time is the enemy of data. Addresses change, streets are renamed, annual events are canceled, bands break up, people die. Database maintenance is required.

It’s been my experience that it’s hard enough to get reporters and editors to enter keywords in publishing systems. As much as I love the idea of stripping out all structured data from news stories, it’s going to be hard to get over-extended news rooms to do it. In most news rooms there are fewer clerks, librarians and researchers than there used to be, so who is going to maintain all this data? In an ideal world, the staffing necessary would become available, but we still operate in a real world.

That paragraph opens the door to a debate on newspaper economics, which is an entirely different issue. The only issue I’ve ever been in a position to deal with, and expect will ever be able to deal with, is working within the confines of reality, meaning budgets and P&L’s — and reality is, news room resources are always limited.

No doubt, news room cultures need to under go a complete change of heart. They must go from print-centric, deadline-driven, insulated environments, to participatory, creative and digitally focused operations. But hiring 100 programmers isn’t going to change a news room. Only reporters and editors can change news rooms.

I’m just not interested in cool. I want solutions that work, make money, and/or grow readership, and/or increase market share. Throwing spaghetti against the wall isn’t a business model.

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