Closing The Technology Gap In Journalism

The lack of communication between publishers and developers is the force behind the technology gap in journalism. So, why aren’t they talking?

I’ve had quite a ride over the past four months at the Tow-Knight fellowship here in New York City. I arrived “prepared” to explore new business models for a technology platform for local news and didn’t skip a day to submerse myself in the field. Constantly, I kept my ears open to listen to local publishers who serve the boroughs, and my mind open to learn how technology could be improved to serve their current needs. Yet, as the program comes to a close, I realize my venture is just beginning.

After building relationships with their teams and talking about their specific challenges, I quickly found my viewpoints to be slightly flawed. Whether my approach was too technical, or my assumptions and priorities were invaluable, we were contrary. With that, I quickly reevaluated my understanding and am now more confident in my ability as a developer to innovate for local journalism than I’d ever imagined.

I’d like to acknowledge my misunderstanding because I know I’m not alone. The lack of communication between technologists and journalists is in almost every newsroom, and reflects the technology gap the two have today.

Unfortunately, It’s Obvious…

The intentions for journalism and technology are not balanced.

People working in journalism and technology are blind to the business priorities of one another. Journalists are blind to opportunities in technology, and technologists are blind to opportunities in journalism.

As a developer attending journalism events that covered the news products of the future and impact of platforms, I left shaking my head. Each time, my anxiety shot through the roof as I realized how close journalism is to bridging the gap. Even if a publisher has an advantage of staffing an internal dev team, the opportunity for teams to collaborate is still missed.

“At the New York Times or Washington Post, the newsroom sits as this sort of obelisk in the middle of the organization, and people just kind of circle around it. At some point, I hope, we can get to the point where the product is the story. Look at something like Quartz’ new news app, that was a thing that was constructed from the ground up — from the journalism up — which is why I think it’s important and impressive. That’s really hard to do in a traditional news organization— really, really hard to do.” — Aron Pilhofer, The Guardian
“That’s what’s the exciting thing in media right now. We’re evolving to think about how do we build really great products… Product today, for us, used to mean people who are building the CMS — I think we’re evolving to people who building really valuable user experiences for people who are interested in getting the news.” — Trei Brundrett, Vox Media

Fortunately for some large publishers, technology companies are willing to be friendly with them as they realize the profitable value of their audience. But this opportunity to build a relationship is rare, it’s something only a handful of publishers currently have.

  • So, why doesn’t this type of collaboration, and agreement, come more naturally?
  • How can platforms make it easy for publishers to create relationships with them? And vice versa?
  • How can these relationships be leveraged within smaller newsrooms?
“We hope platforms will have stronger relationships with hyperlocals” — Choire Sicha, Vox Media

After speaking with local publishers here in New York, I’ve learned that they know their business priorities by heart — they can communicate them extremely well, but only from an editorial perspective. It takes a developer to translate them effectively, to determine how technology can fit in.

If this team collaboration doesn’t happen, however, publishers will be forced to change their priorities in order to meet standards of technology. Unfortunately, I already see this happening — furthermore, I see it happening as the publisher’s last resort.

Technology needs to be built to meet the priorities of the newsroom, not the other way around.

What scares me even more is that this communication gap also exists in journalism foundations. Despite technology ventures having little experience and uncertain intentions, they are being funded by foundations if they simply fill in the blanks. I believe this is because there’s no standard set of rules for what a technology news venture should be — what exactly is “innovation” in journalism?

Organizations like the Democracy Fund are working to better define local journalism, which helps to act as a protocol for technology ventures. I think their recent report was fantastic at outlining the priorities of local publishers in a clear way that technologists can understand. The next steps could be to translate the information mapped here into a technical perspective along with highlighting what flaws exist and what opportunities are being missed.

What’s To Come

I volunteered my time to work with local news publishers every week since the beginning of this year. After learning about their priorities in detail and showing them where the technology is at risk, we’ve been able to clearly outline next steps for their businesses and Bloom’s.

It was surprising — our collaboration took little effort, yet based on their reaction, I got the sense that it’s a rare occasion for them to talk with a developer. I know these publishers in New York City are not a unique case — this lack of communication is affecting newsrooms around the world.

We’ll keep our feet in New York City for the next few weeks, deploying new personalization tools into a few local news websites — one of which will be launching in early June. We’ll continue to keep close connection with their teams as we begin working with other publishers around the country later this year. I’m looking forward to the collaboration ahead, working towards breaking the communication and technology barriers before they grow too big to fix.

Thank you to Tow-Knight for giving me the opportunity to work with the team at CUNY this year. If you see an opportunity in journalism, no matter what your background is, I highly recommend applying for their 2017 fellowship.