In defense of unicorns

I remember being rubbed the wrong way when I first read Liz Hannaford’s piece “Recalculating the newsroom: The rise of the journo-coder?” but I couldn’t put my finger on why until I started teaching my Advanced Data Journalism class at Mizzou again last week.

My problem wasn’t with the piece itself, which I enjoyed. It was with the attitude projected in responses to a survey of working journalists on which the piece was based. Specifically, quotes like this:

“I don’t think a person can straddle both (programming and reporting/writing). To make an interactive requires so many different areas of knowledge, you need years of experience just doing that. And journalism is a whole other area of expertise so you’d be lacking in focus on one side.”

Put another way, this person doesn’t believe in unicorns — the rare hybrid journalist/coders who are equally adept at both coding and traditional storytelling. Unfortunately, quotes like this, and a few others in the piece, show that the caucus of nonbelievers remains strong.

Anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to be my boss knows how much this drives me crazy. I think of myself as a hybrid. I’ve been an investigative reporter and writer at traditional and nontraditional news organizations, and I’ve built production-quality websites, news apps, and even machine learning workflows. Being pigeonholed is my worst nightmare because I believe my reporting complements my programming and vice versa.

I’ve been lucky to find bosses who have indulged my split skillset. But I’ve also often found that I sometimes fall between traditional newsroom roles in a way that creates tension, either for myself or colleagues who, like the source of the quote above, believe that mastering one skill requires sacrificing ability in another.

It’s that kind of attitude, especially when left unchallenged, that perpetuates a culture of forced specialization in newsrooms — one that that not only limits talented hybrids, but also deprives the industry from knowing what great work could come from turning them loose.

Newsrooms thrive on templates. Designers don’t report, they design. Photogs don’t write investigative pieces. People come and go, but beats stay the same. That continuity is no doubt a big reason why news organizations are able to put out a paper every day.

But it’s also lazy and outmoded, particularly now that students are graduating with a broader array of skills than ever before. Certainly some of my students have wanted to learn to programming specifically because they wanted to create interactives and data visualizations. And that’s great! But many have also wanted to use programming to augment reporting, writing, photography and other more traditional storytelling skills.

For a student who wants to write, but also happens to be a talented programmer, the temptation to accept a newsroom coding job is great. They’re easier to find, more lucrative and more secure. But reflexively shunting these students into templated roles cheats them out of a broader journalistic experience, which hurts both them and the field as a whole.

Newsrooms need a template for unicorns, particularly young ones, before they find themselves pigeonholed. Maybe it means creating new positions that take advantage of their hybrid skills. Maybe it means rotating them between writing and technology jobs. Or maybe it means pairing them with managers, like the ones I was lucky enough to have, who can resist exploiting their scarce tech skills in order to develop them in other ways.

Either way, it starts with believing they exist.



Editor, interactive news @nytimes

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