PolitiFact’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting recognized its straightforward approach to politics, and it also validated the work of a little-understood, emerging type of journalist: the news app developer.
PolitiFact is structured around one core element: the Truth-O-Meter. The Truth-O-Meter is editorial content, showing at a glance a statement that was fact-checked and whether it was true or not. And it functions as navigation, enabling users to browse content by the type of ruling.
In organizing its journalism in this way, the site is like a news app that encourages the user to browse and explore however she wants. So while the Pulitzer board was no doubt compelled by PolitiFact’s reporting, programmers took the award as affirmation of their contribution to journalism.
It’s not surprising, then, that programmer Matt Waite’s termination from Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times, which runs PolitiFact, was seen as a setback. What did this say about the role of news apps in journalism?
Waite is headed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to be a professor, although the St. Pete Times is now trying to secure him as a contractor, according to Waite and Joe DeLuca, publisher of TampaBay.com.
But on Thursday, another news developer, Jeremy Bowers, announced that he’s taking a job at The Washington Post, leaving at the Times just one of the original three-person news app team. (There are also a couple of developers who came from IT.)
Waite sparked a wide-ranging Twitter conversation last week when he tweeted that, despite a few successes, he’s “disappointed” in the state of news apps. He asked, “Why am I wrong?” but no one contradicted him.
When we talked last week, he expressed frustration that more news orgs, outside a small group of the nation’s top news outlets, haven’t embraced this new form of storytelling.
And “what about places that never even had a @mattwaite?” asked Scott Klein, news applications editor at ProPublica. “Why aren’t data apps taking off at every paper?”
The short answer: News apps aren’t like other kinds of journalism, and they’re not like other kinds of programming. Editors who understand how to craft compelling narratives can’t necessarily envision an engaging, useful news app. IT departments set up to support the manufacturing and distribution of a daily newspaper may not know how to handle deadline-driven software. And although computer-assisted reporting — which has been around for years — is in news apps’ DNA, many journalists don’t really understand what developers do.
Traditional news outlets have some tough decisions ahead if they believe programming is part of journalism’s future. They need to decide where to place the people who do this kind of work, whether it’s in IT, the department that manages the website (which may be separate from IT), or in the newsroom. They need to figure out how they’ll balance the day-to-day work of running and improving the website against news-related programming. They need to find and retain employees who express an interest in and talent for this kind of work.
They have to do all this as online-only upstarts push forward in this niche, unhindered by organizational barriers and legacy publishing systems.
News apps — from a database of pending bills in the state legislature to a prison inmate lookup tool — now comprise two-thirds of the Texas Tribune’s page views, according to Matt Stiles, reporter and data applications editor.
“All this stuff goes to our core mission — if it’s already public information, we want to make it more accessible to people and help them make sense of it,” he said. “More and more, we’re trying to help them make sense” of data with apps and data visualizations.
None of these challenges are insurmountable, especially when you consider that this form of journalism is still just a toddler. And when you think about how little news orgs have invested in training, some of these one- and two-person teams around the country deserve credit for building some useful, creative apps.
Several key factors have influenced the field so far and will determine how it matures:
- News apps challenge longstanding perceptions of who owns technology within a media company.
- Regardless of who is placed in what department, developers and journalists must be able to collaborate so they can create new tools.
- News organizations will have to emphasize project management and product development if they hope to compete with digitally-native information companies.
- News organizations must truly support risk-taking in order to see its rewards.
To get a sense of what programmers do in newsrooms, I created an informal survey, asking developers to describe who they report to, how they split their time between news-related projects and site infrastructure, how much they collaborate with reporters and how they’re perceived in the newsroom.
In addition to some of the more well-known news orgs with dedicated news developer teams (Chicago Tribune, ProPublica, Los Angeles Times) I heard from people at the Des Moines Register, the Providence Journal, Dallas Morning News and others.
One of the themes I noticed was how much some of these people have in common with reporters, who also are asked to juggle many different tasks. In some cases, that’s because they are reporters — at small news orgs around the country, one- and two- person teams are building news apps, often as they do traditional reporting and writing.
Two of the online news orgs, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica, have larger development staffs than some mid-size metro papers.
And in following the conversations online, I was reminded just how young this field is. Django, one of the Web frameworks used by many news developers, was released just six years ago; Ruby on Rails is a couple of years older. Amazon only started renting space on its servers in 2006, which freed developers from having to buy and set up their own servers. Imagine the conversations about what constituted photojournalism when photography tools were this new. (And as tools change, those discussions continue.)
So I understand why the people who do this work are still figuring out what to call what they do, how to define a “news app,” and where they fit in news organizations.
Here are four key factors that I see influencing how this field develops.
News apps challenge longstanding perceptions of who owns technology within a media company.
There are important differences between news developers and corporate technologists — what they value, how they approach problems and what tools they use.
- Corporate technologists — the people who set up and support computer systems for billing, classifieds and publishing — value stability and reliability. Their counterparts in the newsroom value flexibility and experimentation.
- The people who build and maintain systems for the rest of the company are used to working on long timetables, with clearly defined goals and deliverables. News developers, whose work may be interrupted to focus on a deadline project, rely on methods that enable them to iterate on a design, perfecting pieces as they go.
- And IT departments are often not well-versed in the relatively new Web frameworks — Django and Ruby on Rails — preferred by news technologists.
Additionally, many, if not most, companies maintain physical servers for their in-house software and public websites. But news developers opt for outside servers that can be modified and turned on and off as their needs change.
Technological autonomy is key to “getting software out the door on a daily news cycle,” said Brian Boyer, news applications editor at the Chicago Tribune.
Not being able to access the equipment is like “telling reporters to go out and tell the news, but only the people who work at the press can write anything down,” said Josh Hatch, online content manager for Sunlight Live at the Sunlight Foundation.
With that freedom comes the responsibility to make sure those servers work and can handle the apps once they’re launched, including some projects that attract a lot of traffic.
“It does require some additional work to get started and maintain, but it’s so worth it since we can scale up at the speed of news,” Jacob Harris, a senior software architect at The New York Times, told me in an e-mail.
“The general questions of where does this stuff belong and who is responsible for it, it’s been going on since the early days of Web publishing,” said Rich Gordon, director of digital innovation at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. “We had the exact same issue back in the early days of computer-assisted reporting.”
“What’s unusual is the idea that these functions live in the newsroom and report to the newsroom,” he said. “That piece is still fairly unusual, in part, because few journalists have had these skills, and few programmers have come into newsrooms.”
Regardless of who is placed in what department, developers and journalists must be able to collaborate.
In my admittedly unscientific survey of developers at news orgs, I saw a loose correlation between developers who believe they are highly valued within their companies and those who said they often collaborate with reporters.
“It’s important to be within arm’s reach of your stakeholders,” Boyer told me. “You need to be working closely and very frequently with people who care about the work.”
In some cases that collaboration means building a tool to help their colleagues do their reporting. In other cases, it means building an app so the public can explore a trove of information.
“We’re in the room for story meetings,” Klein said of his five-person team at ProPublica, “and have a peer relationship with reporters more akin to co-reporters than to a graphics desk working at arm’s length from a reporter.”
Matt Waite said this collaboration was key to the development of PolitiFact, which started out as a series of conversations between him and St. Pete Times Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair. “Bill had the proverbial sketch on a cocktail napkin, and I put it into code,” Waite said.
That collaboration suffered, he said, when he and his two news app developers were moved from the newsroom into a new group at the Times that included former IT developers.
Joe DeLuca, publisher of TampaBay.com, told me that he agrees on the importance of such collaboration. But with a few groups from different departments all working on pieces of the website, too many projects were half-finished, and the site looked patched-together.
The Times plans to move developers back into various parts of the company so they can work on projects prioritized by those department heads, DeLuca said. But they’ll all remain part of the same group.
Not surprisingly, it’s small online startups that seem least challenged by such issues. “The lack of hierarchy is really key,” said Erik Hinton, the sole developer at Talking Points Memo.
“We talk to people all the time that have to go through layers of bureaucracy to get a little app out the door,” he told me via Instant Message. “I sit about 10 feet from our owner and CEO and just holler at him.”
Hinton was one of two developers (the other, Al Shaw, now works at ProPublica) behind TPM’s Election Night app, which parsed Associated Press data and provided election results for races around the country.
If you want to develop news apps, you need to understand project management.
Most reporters who have worked on a big project have seen how hard it is to stay on track amid daily deadlines. Reporting can get cold when it’s pushed aside for too long. Trains of thought are forgotten; notes become meaningless.
The same thing can happen with code. The developers I spoke with described different ways of managing this, from scrupulous documentation to week-long development periods that end with working products, however rough.
Boyer, who had a career as a software developer before he moved into news, endorses agile development practices, a form of development based on short cycles in which small pieces of the software are built at a time. At the end of each development cycle, a working piece of software is ready.
That development process means Boyer’s team was able to drop its work on its election center app to deal with the recent blizzard. “If we had been doing waterfall [a traditional model of software development] we’d be a week late,” he said.
Likewise, “we didn’t know we’d have the Census drop this week,” he said. “When you’ve got something that works every cycle, that enables you to change your mind quickly.”
Those unexpected interruptions may mean the election site will have fewer features, but it’s still functional.
Such knowledge isn’t ingrained into the typical newsroom. “If you want the capacity to do this work for news purposes, you almost have to have ownership of it within the newsroom,” Northwestern’s Gordon said. “But that requires skills — not just developers, but people to manage the developers.”
DeLuca said the problems at the Times didn’t stem from developers who didn’t know what they were doing.
“Our newsroom was complaining about their own Web development in terms of delivering stuff on time and features that were asked for,” he said. “It’s not because they’re not good at what they do. It’s because of organization and project management.”
His description of how he’d like the St. Pete Times to develop its site emphasized consistency and organization more than Boyer’s, although he said he thinks the newsroom should be able to shift to fast-breaking work if editors prioritize it.
Wherever these developers sit, many of them describe a constant tension between working on site infrastructure and buildings news apps. Most of the people who work at small organizations said they have to juggle the two – often to the detriment of news-related work.
The three developers at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., spend time on their custom-built CMS as well as news apps, according to Ryan Pitts, senior editor for digital media.
“I wish we had time to work on all the projects and ideas that come our way, suggested by the editors and reporters we work with,” he told me. “I think we’re viewed quite positively, although we all feel a certain amount of frustration because the Web team can’t move quickly on every single thing.”
News organizations must support risk-taking.
The same night that Talking Points Memo was running its election night app, the team at USA Today was in the midst of a crisis with theirs. They had failed to properly cache their site, causing the database server to crash, said Josh Hatch, who at the time was USA Today’s interactives director.
It was a simple problem, but hard to figure out with all the traffic coming in. And like the other news developers, it was up to his team, not a systems administrator, to get it back up. They didn’t sort it out until the middle of the night, long after users would have wanted to come to the site for real-time election results.
In the aftermath, he said, a couple of team members (including him) found other jobs.
“It was a bad mistake,” Hatch said. “But it also, in my mind, was a learning opportunity, and I think the wrong lesson was applied in the aftermath. I think the lesson was, ‘You just can’t risk it.’ I think the right lesson was, ‘This is the right thing; we just need to have the right resources.’ ”
Hinton described a smaller-scale failure at TPM when he launched his first app, a new login system, in August without any testing.
“So we pull the switch at 6 p.m. on Friday, and everything goes to shit,” he told me. “Perhaps most humorously, everyone who logged in with Twitter was branded ‘CTVoter‘ and given a cat avatar.”
He ran back to the office to take care of it. It was a simple bug; every time someone logged in with a Twitter account, the system assigned that user the user ID and avatar of the first person who had signed in via Twitter. And that person happened to have a cat as an avatar.
What did he take from that? “A: Always write tests. B: Even if you change nothing, let users beta [test] new features because everyone hates new features if they just show up. C: Don’t deploy on Friday night.”
“But the awesome thing about TPM is that they gave me a chance to code for them on a big stage, with no experience, and everyone was patient with me as I learned,” Hinton said. “And as a result they converted a video editor/illustrator to a programmer.”
There’s room for disagreement about the role of these non-narrative, exploratory ways of presenting information. Maybe users will connect with them in a way that they’ve never connected with the 40-inch story. Or perhaps they’ll end up a specialized tool that appeals only to high-end news consumers.
The trouble is, by the time we know for sure, someone outside the news business may already have figured it out for us.
Disclosures: My wife Rebecca Catalanello is an education reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, which Poynter owns. Matt Waite is a professional friend, and we’ve worked together on projects outside our jobs.
The reporting for this story consisted of a Google Forms survey with 20 responses from traditional and nontraditional news orgs around the country, interviews with seven developers and people familiar with this work, and discussion and follow-up e-mails among people on the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting e-mail list.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the USA Today interactives team was disbanded.