This month’s Carnival of Journalism asks what journalists want for Christmas from programmers, and vice versa. Here’s my take.
Programmers and developers have already given journalists enough presents to last a century of Christmases. Programmers created content management systems and blogging platforms; they wrapped up networks of contacts in social networks, and parcelled up fast-moving updates on Twitter and SMS. They tied media in ribbons of metadata, making it easier to verify. They digitised content, making it possible to mix it with other content.
But I think it’s time for journalists to start giving back.
All of these gifts have made it easier for journalists to report stories. But that’s only part of publishing.
Technology’s place in journalism
Traditionally, journalism’s technology came after the story: sub-editors or designers laid the story out in the way they judged to be the most effective; printers gave it physical form; and distributors made sure it reached people.
Each stage in that process considers the next person. The inverted pyramid, for example, helps subs trim copy to fit available space. Subs talk to printers. Printers work with distributors. Processes are designed to reduce friction. The journalist’s work – whether they realise it or not – is a compromise reached over decades between different parties. An exchange of gifts, if you like.
But when it comes to publishing online, there’s been very little Christmas spirit.
Stories as a vehicle
Stories help us connect with current issues; they act as a vehicle for information that allows us to participate in society, whether that’s politically, socially, or economically.
The job of a journalist is to find stories in current events.
But those stories do not have to be told in one particular way. And if we were to try to tell them in some different ways (adding important metadata; publishing raw data; linking to supporting material; flagging false information), we could be giving a gift much desired by developers.
Here are some things that they could do with that gift – it is, if you like, my own fantasy Christmas list:
- Mark up factually false or misleading statements made by individuals or organisations, and highlight any instances of that statement in new coverage.
- Automatically update old ‘facts’ in the light of new information – and allow people to receive updates when those facts change.
- Link physical spaces to the past, present and future story of that space.
- Add contextual information on any individual mentioned in a story, for example a politician who receives payment from a particular industry
- Relate a story to the individual reading it
- Give users critical information about the source of particular information – beyond “Pictures from YouTube”
- Generate a hyperlinked sentiment analysis of coverage of politicians and corporations to complement factual data such as voting records.
They’re just ideas – and will remain so as long as journalists assume they’re only writing for newspapers, and newspaper readers.
The newspaper is a tool: a way for groups of people to exchange information. In the 19th century those groups might have been political activists, or merchants who needed to know the latest trading conditions.
The web is a tool too – a different tool. We can use it to ask information to come to us, or to seek out supplementary information; we can use it to draw connections; and we can act on what we find in the same space. Stories need to adapt to the possibilities of the new tool they sit in.
This year, put a developer on your Christmas list. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.