Cassie Werber

Writer & journalist

Technomorphosis

As media industries undergo disorienting changes, the lines between journalism and technology are becoming ever more blurred.

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First published in German on ZDF’s Hyperland blog, 25th February 2012. Below is the original text, which appeared shorter in translation.

 

The basement of The Shooting Star, a pub near London’s Liverpool Street Station, is crowded. Chairs and old church pews are lined up so close that attendees had to shuffle sideways into the rows. Now that the meeting is over the heat, the smell of beer and the noise level have all cranked up several notches. It might not look like the cutting edge of media technology, but the room is packed with journalists and self-confessed geeks changing the way we encounter news.

This is the London chapter of Hacks/hackers, a monthly meet-up group for “hacker-journalists” which has been running – and growing – for 18 months. Developers from Google and Microsoft wedge themselves between journalists and online news experts.  They chat, tinker with mobile devices or, most often, both. On this wet February evening the room is buzzing after a presentation about the development of mobile technology at the Financial Times.

What is developing through forums such as Hacks/hackers is a new kind of media professional. A “hack” is a derogatory but, in this context, affectionate term for a journalist, while “hackers use the digital equivalent of duct tape to whip out code,” according to the Hacks/hackers site. “Hacker-journalists try and bridge the two worlds,” it explains. And some are doing it brilliantly.

Steven Pinches, Product Manager for Mobile and Emerging Platforms at the FT, describes himself as “an inbetweener”. Beginning as a freelance writer for the FT nine years ago, he has gradually moved into development but still insists that he doesn’t “know about technology” – in the way that a developer knows. The fluency with which he describes his team’s work makes it clear that he knows a great deal; though not all about code. Design of the FT’s iPad application began long before they got hold the device. Instead, they constructed an iPad out of foam and slid pieces of paper across its “screen”. The app ultimately won one of five Apple Design Awards in June 2010. In December 2011 the FT bought Assanka, the company with which they had collaborated on the build.

A sense of gloom, even impending doom, has pervaded the journalism industry since traditional outlets began to realise their business model (of journalism supported by advertising revenue) was undermined by the internet. Joanna Geary is Digital Development Editor at the Guardian and the co-founder of Hacks/hackers London. She explains that commercial stresses were compounded by the 2008 financial crisis:  “This horrible cyclical thing hit us, at the same time as devastating structural decline was really starting to bite,” she says. Geary was working in local news at the time, building up a blogging platform at the Birmingham Post . “By the end the paper had under 12,000 readers,” she says. It has now become a weekly publication.

The participants of Hacks/hackers, however, seem fired-up about future. “There’s never been a more exciting time for the industry,” says Martin Belam, Lead User Experience & Information Architect for guardian.co.uk. He’s just sorry that not all journalists see it that way.

Geary didn’t envisage becoming the nexus of a movement when she and James Ball, a student who has since also joined the Guardian, first discussed a meet-up group. She wanted to learn to code. Chatting about the idea on Twitter generated interest, says Geary: “That’s how Ruby in the Pub was born.” Ruby is a programming language, and the first sessions focussed on journalists being taught code by willing technophiles.  “There’s a strata of the developer community that’s very giving,” Geary says. “It’s that kind of collaborative, open aspect to the way they work. And with social media they knew who we were, they understood what we were trying to do, and they wanted to help.”

A year before, in 2009, the original Hacks/hackers was conceived, simultaneously, on different sides of America. “It was one of those rare things you can really, truly chalk up to destiny,” says Aron Pilhofer, who runs a team of journalists/developers at the New York Times. At an event in New York, Pilhofer and colleague Rich Gordon concocted an idea “to bring together journalists, entrepreneurs and technologists in a way that we didn’t see many of the existing membership groups doing.” They called the idea “Hacks and hackers” and branded it a “DISorganization”, an unrestricted coming-together of interested people. Then, says Pilhofer: “Here’s where it gets weird. About two weeks after that conference a friend forwards me a tweet from Burt Herman.”  Herman, a former Associated Press reporter turned dotcom entrepreneur based in San Francisco, had just founded a group with the same purpose. He had also called it Hacks and Hackers.

Chapters have developed across the United States and four other continents (there are none yet in Asia; or in Germany). Ruby in the Pub became the London chapter following a visit from Pilhofer, who nevertheless expresses surprise that the movement has developed so far and fast: “It is absolutely amazing to me to see how quickly the organization has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. Shocking is the word I would use.” Geary is now learning code “for fun” through Code Academy, a free online code school. Three days after it launched in, August 2011, it already had 200,000 unique users. Code Year, its initiative to get people coding in 2012, has 400,000 sign-ups.

While the energy of the movement may be infectious, however, many remain unconvinced. Journalists have embraced social media “pretty aggressively,” says Pilhofer, but do they feel the same enthusiasm for coding, or data analysis? He says not. “I do see more newsrooms (obviously) bringing technologists into their midst, but I don’t see many journalists spontaneously deciding that these tools and technologies are critical for the job they do, unfortunately. I don’t think that has really changed.”

In London, Martin Belam seems pleased to be surrounded by enthusiasts. “It makes my brain hurt, that so many journalists aren’t interested in technology.” At the rate things are changing, he may not be in pain for long.

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