The tech/editorial culture clash

Illustrations by Daniel Zender

At this year’s annual meeting of the Online News Association in Denver, many of the 2,000 attendees and delegates crowded into the opening keynote address. In the middle of the most charged US election in living memory, at a time when the relevance and role of the news media were under intense scrutiny, the assembled newsroom operatives were not coming to hear a leading editor or garlanded correspondent give insights on the upcoming election or the state of the world. Instead, they listened intently to Fidji Simo, Facebook’s director of product, talk about how the future is all about giving users more of what they want.

The intertwining of interests between enormously powerful technology companies and every news organization on the planet has troubled both sides. Mark Zuckerberg has firmly stated he does not see Facebook as a media company, but as a technology company. Journalists at the Online News Association, known as ONA, were skeptical about the influence of technology companies, though aware of the interdependence. “To tell the truth, they are keeping us alive at the moment,” said the founder of a small news startup. “If it wasn’t for advertising from Facebook pages, we might not be here.”

Another technologist working with international newsrooms was far more dogmatic in questioning the motives and values of the Silicon Valley interlopers: “They are not your friends. They are interested only in growth and money, and once news is dependent on them, they will turn off the traffic tap and start charging.”

The mutual unease in this new pact is symptomatic of a deeper, systemic dysfunction in the relationship between journalism and production technologies. The cultures of journalism and software development are ostensibly working toward the same goal—organizing information, informing the public, generating money from advertising—but in most respects, they are very different. In 1959, the British public intellectual C. P. Snow famously identified what he called the “two cultures” into which society was divided: “literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other, scientists,” he wrote. “Between the two a gulf of incomprehension—sometimes…hostility and dislike, but most of all a lack of understanding.”

The concepts and dissonance Snow described will be familiar to anyone who has worked to assimilate legacy media companies into the digital environment. While many fields have been disrupted by automation and computation, few have converged as abruptly and as publicly as software engineering and journalism. The news media is witnessing its business models and production processes being remade by Web publishers and search engines. Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have replaced media companies as the most important information delivery mechanisms within the space of a decade. Every major news event in the world, from bombs raining down on Aleppo to the late night tweeting of presidential candidates, is broken through social media and seen through our luminous mobile phone screens. Facebook’s value is now over $360 billion, twice as much as that of The Walt Disney Co., its nearest traditional media rival.

The wealth and influence generated by Silicon Valley has devalued media owners’ and news executives’ political capital, and increasingly replaced them completely. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, when its former owner, Don Graham, acknowledged that his family no longer had the resources to keep the Post relevant in the digital era. With Bezos’s investment and under the editorship of Martin Baron, the Post is a resurgent and innovative force. Pierre Omidyar, who made a fortune as the founder of eBay, has invested in both a local news initiative in his home state of Hawaii, and in First Look Media, which owns The Intercept and invests in documentaries and films with a journalistic focus, including the Academy Award-winning Spotlight. (Omidyar’s Democracy Fund also supports CJR’s local news coverage.) Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes had a brief and less happy association with media when he bought the New Republic, triggering mass staff resignations and selling the title to publisher Win McCormack after only four years.

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In engineering, there is always a right answer, whereas in journalism, there are only more questions.

 

The difference between the Silicon Valley and East Coast publishing mindsets was most dramatically illustrated during the Gawker lawsuit, whereby the media news and gossip website founded by British journalist Nick Denton was bankrupted in a privacy suit brought by wrestler Hulk Hogan and covertly funded by Silicon Valley investor and billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel’s single-minded pursuit of Gawker was sparked by a 2007 story outing Thiel as gay. Thiel, often a supporter of free speech and the Committee to Protect Journalists, saw no inconsistency in successfully closing down Gawker. “I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations….I think much more highly of journalists than that,” Thiel told The New York Times. “It’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker.”

Thiel could not see what made many journalists uneasy: that the operation of a free press is not a case of picking the people whose journalism you approve of, and closing those you don’t. In the world of billionaire technologists, the prize lies in creating the most efficient and logical systems possible, cutting the “best” path for users or customers. Anything that stops the progression to seamless scale must be eliminated or “debugged.” In engineering, there is always a right answer, whereas in journalism, there are only more questions.

Shortly after Omidyar established First Look Media, he held a series of meetings with journalists, academics, and technologists to think about what a new model news organization ought to look like. During one session in the basement of his Laguna Beach resort hotel, the exchanges became heated around how and where the technologists ought to work. Surely in the heart of the newsroom, a number of us argued, as the ideal would be a journalistic process rethought and designed to benefit from a deep knowledge of the technology behind it. “But engineers and journalists are so different, surely that is not going to work?” came the response.

There are many different kinds of technologists and many different kinds of journalists, and a large number of them intersect. The best data journalists are often gifted technologists, and the most creative developers can make far more progress in building future applications for news than someone whose main skills are writing or making videos. In most newsrooms, what was once a hostility by journalists toward “the techies” has become an admiration and understanding that journalists with the right technical skills hold the keys to the survival and health of the field. Diversity in thinking about how to tackle stories or harder problems in the organization of our reporting and information has undoubtedly made journalism better.

I was once wandering round The Guardian’s digital floor, where I was, at the time, a senior editor, when I saw a group of technologists from an engineering firm arranged in a circle, passing a rubber chicken between them. The engineers were helping with a large project, but the chicken ritual was baffling. I asked a colleague about it. “The chicken is like a talking stick,” she explained. “The developers need to know that when the chicken gets to them, they have to describe their work for the day and offer comments on anyone else’s work….otherwise they might just not be able to tell us something important.”

In a news organization, the idea that a group of colleagues would need a rubber chicken as an aid to self-expression was anathema. Journalists offered opinions freely, particularly on the subject of the digital landscape, often with little or no evidentiary basis. Working between teams of developers and journalists, it was easy to discern where the differences in culture and understanding lay. Technologists necessarily needed precision and certainty, while journalists frolicked amid ambiguity and uncertainty. What I regarded as a complete coup as an editor—launching a site in a very short time on third-party technology—made the tech team wince and say, “We should never ever do that again.” What I saw as a tactical triumph, they interpreted as a strategic disaster. While their route would have cost much less long-term “technical debt,” my route took two and a half years less to complete.

This cultural difference was written through every page of the now famous leaked New York Times innovation report of 2014, often in a tone of primal frustration. One anonymous newsroom contributor to the report put it thus: “We have a tendency to pour resources into big one-time projects and work through the one-time fixes needed to create them and overlook the less glamorous work of creating tools, templates and permanent fixes that cumulatively can have a bigger impact by saving our digital journalists time and elevating the whole report. We greatly undervalue replicability.”

Mark Hansen, who leads the Brown Institute for Media Innovation co-located at the Columbia Journalism School and the Stanford Engineering School, sees enormous opportunity in making journalism a truly interdisciplinary field. “It is a lazy line of thinking to say that journalists and technologists occupy different spaces and always will,” he says. “Those caricatures are really not useful. Engineers are incentivized to think differently, as are journalists. But plenty of engineers think like journalists, and vice versa.”

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Journalistic innovation now often means keeping pace with the largest and most agile of the social media companies. New entrants into the journalism market, like BuzzFeed, have made a point and a business of staying as close to the development of companies like Facebook as possible. Others, like Vox, have focused on making their own in-house technologies that are as good as anything Silicon Valley might produce. A new classification of newsroom jobs in “product teams” has been part of the response to this cultural friction. (Journalists of a particular generation detest the word “product,” with its nakedly commercial overtones, or the idea that news is ever a product rather than a process; but in these culture wars, it seems, technology wins even when it comes to language.)

Product teams, social media editors, and curation desks are becoming increasingly present in all newsrooms; the cultural friction between these entities and traditional editorial roles might remain, but it is no longer where the key tension lies. The rise of platform companies is having a particularly strong impact on the news app and product teams of news organizations. Facebook, Google, Snapchat, and Apple have all built impressive new ways for news organizations to distribute their journalism, and in the case of Facebook, new ways to actually assemble and tell stories. Huge teams of developers work on video and photographic applications that would be difficult for individual news organizations to develop even if they wanted to. Facebook Live, which Mark Zuckerberg described as “a TV camera in your pocket,” can stream simultaneous live videos from anyone with a Facebook account and a fast enough internet connection.

When Simo was asked at ONA whether Facebook is in fact a media company, she was more measured than her boss. “We play a big role in the media industry and we take that responsibility very seriously,” she said. “The reason we primarily consider ourselves a technology company is because we don’t create content, and we are not in the business of picking which topic the world should care about. What we really care about is making everyone have an experience in News Feed where they see what they want to see.”

The looming question for many newsrooms is how much to invest in their own technology teams versus using the tools and techniques being developed for them by Facebook or Google? It is almost impossible to get news executives to speak on the record about this, as many are already involved in deals with social media or search companies, but the views of those who are most alarmed by this could not be clearer: “What will happen, if we are not careful, is that the only technologists we will continue to employ will be those who can work on integrating whatever the news organization is doing into their platform,” one executive told me. “Independent thought and independent development will be at an end.”

Another was even more forthright: “What have technology companies done, really, apart from make journalism worse? A couple of years ago, amazingly inventive interactives and graphics were [at the] top of the most-viewed lists at news sites. You wouldn’t get that kind of creativity today because they don’t work with Facebook Instant Articles.” 

Without an informed and independent lens on the work of large technology companies, news organizations could easily surrender to the idea that they no longer belong in the business of shaping their own formats and production tools. But independent and creative advocacy for its own technologies is one of the most powerful ways journalism can retain its relevance.

It was once the case that more technology-focused resources potentially meant fewer reporters in the newsroom. That choice can now be seen for what it always was: a false bargain. As reporting and technology converge, it is not a matter of journalists learning code, but of journalism becoming code.

 

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Twitter is, I still believe, the most important innovation for journalists since the telephone. I use it to find stories, keep track of sources, and find out what is being said. I think all journalists do, which is why I encourage students to build a profile there. Being a bad journalist but being good on Twitter will not help your career, but being a good journalist and knowing how to use Twitter effectively for news sourcing and reporting is now a core requirement for reporters. I use it all the time, though post less and less, mainly because I don’t have time, but also partly because being “good on Twitter” is like everything else: You have to keep doing it or lose the knack. Also, I’m married to a journalist, and if you are not on Twitter you end up having nothing to talk about apart from the children.

Emily Bell

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.