When I started out as a journalist seven years ago, I had no idea what a developer was – columnists and editors were the rock stars of the business, the computer guys were “the IT department” who could upgrade your Photoshop or give Quark a kick when it froze.
Sadly, I’m fairly sure that the majority of journalists still think this way. It’s a real problem. But it’s also an inevitability of industrial change. Journalism is a centuries old business in which the core skills didn’t change until very, very recently – thoughts and words and layouts at the creative end, ink and presses at the production end.
When the digital age kicked in, developers were bundled into the latter camp, as they had to be – the new digital means of production needed to be built, swiftly. It wasn’t necessary for journalists to understand what was going on in the boiler room, as long as it worked. This division of labour remained as it had done for years on Fleet Street: the brains upstairs being creative, the brawn downstairs pumping out the product.
But developers, of course, are a lot more than brawn. Especially those working at news organisations. If they wanted to anonymously code and check out at the end of each day, they could be earning twice as much in other industries. The developers (and web designers, UX people etc.) I’ve worked with at news organisations are, generally, full of ideas and desperate to be creative.
And gradually, developers are coming up the stairs. But nowhere as quickly as they should be. The wall between journalists and developers may have lost a few bricks, but it’s still there. In an age when the media are desperately looking to technology to save them, the native technologists in their midst are still being largely ignored.
One of the major obstacles is structure. Old industries change slowly. In a startup, it would be very easy for the chief developer to go and sit next to the CEO and bash out some ideas. Media organisations are huge departmentalised organisms, where journalists report to section heads who report to deputy editors who report to editors-in-cheif. In tandem, within their technology departments, developers report to team leaders who report to product managers who report to COOs. For developers to cross-pollinate with editors requires big diagonal leaps, leapfrogging seniors and departments. This is very tricky indeed.
Another problem is time. Editors spent the vast majority of their days thinking about today and tomorrow – filing copy and chasing stories to keep up with the 24-hour expectations of their readers. They have very little space to think about next week, let alone next year. Likewise developers. Continuous firefighting and ongoing optimisation and product cycles allows little time for creativity.
But more than just ancient structural problems and time constraints, the biggest obstacle to developers being properly integrated into the creative process, I believe, is fear. I’ve been shot down for arguing this before, but journalists can be scared of developers. This isn’t because journalists are Luddites. Quite the opposite…journalism is one of the most neophile professions there is. It wouldn’t exist without change: news is about what’s new.
But in any changing industry, when a wave of new brains appear on the horizon it’s inevitable that the existing structure gets a little defensive. For years, words and instinct were enough, and suddenly there’s a trickle of developers coming up the stairs, speaking in a different language. The journalists think the developers just don’t get the news as well as they do, so why should they help change it?
It works both ways, of course. The developers think the journalists just don’t get the internet as well as they do. And yet suddenly the journalists are obsessed with technology and the web, as they know it’s their only hope, so they blunder into it thinking they’ve got all the solutions, which are quickly handed down to the IT department to build.
And, of course, to some extent, both are right. Very few developers I’ve met could edit a section, and very few journalists I’ve met could produce a beautiful interactive graphic. Selfishly, it might even seem in the interests of both parties that it remains this way… knowledge is power: keep the other out, and you’ve still got it, baby.
But this is a tragic interpretation. The gap in skill sets is exactly why journalists and developers desperately need each other. Now more than ever.
In a stable, profitable industry, you could understand resistance to any changes within a creative process. If the division of labour is working, don’t change it. But journalism is not a stable, profitable industry. Just keeping going is not good enough – journalism needs to be experimenting, badly. Developers could, and should, be as central to this process as journalists.
So how do we break the wall down?
Let’s start with the developers. For all their digital wizardry, the average developer will not fully understand the editorial process. If they’ve been kept separate from the newsroom and editorial desks, as is usually the case, how could they? But developers, generally, do not need to be in the same place all the time – IM is enough contact with their product managers and team leaders. Give them a laptop and let them roam. There’s a desk for them if they need it, but otherwise they can pick up their laptop and move around the building. They need to ask a lot of questions. Hell, why not give them an editorial mentor – someone who’s job it is to answer as many questions as the developer wishes to ask. Quite simply, they need to be there – with the journalists, every day, learning.
The journalists need to learn too. Anyone within a news organisation who is making digital decisions needs to understand the digital process, within reason. They don’t need to become fully proficient in CSS or jQuery, but they need to understand the process of how stuff works, and how stuff is built. The developers need to let them in. Once a fortnight, journalists should have to spend a day with a development team, asking as many questions as possible. When the roaming developers come and sit with them, they should be doing the same.
This is the very minimum, but it will go a long way. Journalists and developers need to be in constant contact, learning from each other. Both must perform their daily basic tasks – journalists must make the news, and developers must work on ongoing products – but simply by being around each other, the wall will begin to crumble.
Then they have to collaborate. Once problems are identified – perhaps you need a new section front, or a better way to deliver galleries, or way for readers to interact with a story – journalists and developers need to work together from the start, combining their skills. And they both need to be forced to produce less in order to experiment more – cut back on the provincial sections that don’t make any money and nobody reads, stop bugfixing for Internet Explorer, automate production processes, cut pages, stop incessant pixel shifting on old components that don’t matter any more, allow developers to leave regularly leave the product cycle. With the extra time, prototype, collaborate, and be prepared to fail quickly.
And this needs to be an ongoing process, built into both of their workflows, rather than placebic hack days or “blue sky thinking” sessions. As they’ll have been spending so much time together, they’ll know each other’s problems and capabilities better. News organisations have some powerful brains within their midst. They need to stop wasting them.