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Developers and journalists speak different languages

On Saturday, I went to BarCamp NewsInnovation and spent the day half at the unconference, and half at the “start-a-thon.” I led a session titled “What I talk about when I talk about news apps,” intending to get journalists unfamiliar with news applications and developers in a room together and discussing what this fun, interesting field is really growing into (and does it even exist?), from my perspective of a developer new to the media world (with the exception of webmaster and design editing at my university newspaper … we weren’t exactly muckrakers).

Then, in the (lively) discussion period, as I was wrapping up, someone asked:

What annoys you most about journalists?

A loaded question? Maybe it was. After stammering a second, I hesitantly said:

A lot of them just don’t seem savvy. It’s embarrasses me when I need to teach someone how to use Google Drive [rather than them figuring it out].

And that’s when I got the most valuable feedback of the entire day (and my entire news apps career thus far):

No, I think you don’t understand how journalists approach problems. They’re taught to ask questions all day, so that’s how they approach a problem.


I’m a little embarrassed to share this interaction, because I pride myself on being an accessible teacher when I’m teaching … but that’s just it. I’m a great instructor in front of a room or one-on-one in that context, but if you’re interrupting me when I’m working independently on a task, I really want to know why you couldn’t figure it out yourself first (see lmgtfy), or at least make it look like you tried.

But even as I’m startled at my startlement (?) I think this is a really important point as more journalists start interacting with the software/engineering world, and vice versa. It is my personal experience that talented engineers are people who approach problems, generally work independently, and then you come to your mentors/friends/colleagues when you need some help getting pointed in the right direction versus asking for tutoring or an “answer” (ex. “What’s your favorite library to solve this problem?” vs. “Can you teach me to make Django queries?”).

I honestly had very little clue that journalists have (apparently) been completely conditioned to do the opposite. And when I stepped back I thought, “Well, yeah, how great is that, if you ask lots of questions?” See: my admiration for Ms. Frizzle. Maybe I should be asking a few more.

As I mention this discussion to journalists I know, I get push in different directions — so what do you think? Is this true for all/most journalists, or is it an “old” journalism pattern? Share in the comments!

One Reply to “Developers and journalists speak different languages”

  1. I’m really disappointed that I was unable to make it to the BCNI because I was really excited to go. I’m not strictly a journalist or a techie, but I work with both words and technology and kind of pride myself on being able to speak both languages and speak to both kinds of people!

    With the way journalism is heading, it surprises me that you imply journalists aren’t embracing technology in the way I assumed. I wish I’d been there to see the whole conversation.

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