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Review of Editorial Technologists as Engineers of Journalism’s Future: Exploring the Professional Community of Computational Journalism

By Cindy Royal, Professor
January 31, 2022

I read with great interest the recent research study in Digital Journalism on “Editorial Technologists as Engineers of Journalism’s Future: Exploring the Professional Community of Computational Journalism,” by Juliane A. Lischka, Nadja Schaetz, and Anna-Lena Oltersdorf of Universität Hamburg in Germany. Building on Bourdieu’s field theory (1983), the concept of pioneer communities (Hepp and Loosen, 2021) and professional imagination (Kunelius and Ruusunoksa, 2008), the authors explored the “self-perceived status and influence of editorial technologists as a professional community within the journalistic field” (p.2).

My interest in “editorial technologists” or those in “newsroom-facing or integrated roles for which programming skills are essential to a varying degree” (p.1) started in 2009 when I spent a week studying The New York Times Interactive News Technology team. This group of data journalists and software engineers was one of the first teams creating interactive news products. I interviewed eleven (all male at the time) professionals in the group and submitted my research to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in a paper entitled The Journalist as Programmer: A Case Study of The New York Times Interactive News Department, only to have it rejected. Considering this an important, emerging topic, I was committed to getting the research noticed, so with my own website, I made a blog post and published the paper, along with the peer review comments, the gist of which I have described as a "manifesto for why programming will never be journalism.” The overall critique was skeptical of the future of data journalism, while I found these new roles to offer an important direction for journalism’s future. Ultimately, my research was presented at the International Symposium on Online Journalism and published in their #ISOJ Journal (Royal, 2012), as have several other of my data-journalism-focused papers. This work forms the foundation of my current research agenda on product management in journalism.

All this is to say that innovation is hard, even, or especially, in academia. There are social, cultural and symbolic barriers to the acceptance of the new and novel as members of pioneer communities, which is exactly what the authors found in studying this group of professionals. 

The current Digital Journalism study proves that programming is indeed an important and emerging aspect of journalism. The authors chose a novel and relevant method, a qualitative analysis of transcripts of 86 sessions from four years (2016-1019) of the SRCCON conference. SRCCON brings together “a network of developers, designers, journalists and editors to collaborate on open technologies and processes within journalism” (p.6). These are the folks that have the skills to make digital media accessible, interactive and customizable, developing unique and innovative products that support the missions of news organizations. SRCCON is one of a few professional organizations for people with technology jobs in media, including the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) and the News Product Alliance (NPA). The study analyzed the community with research questions dealing with symbolic and cultural capital, collective agency for change and shared principles of the profession. Responses were grouped by status quo, or how participants felt about the current state of the field, and professional imagination, the hopes and dreams they held for the future.

Symbolic, cultural and social capital at work
Transcripts of SRCCON sessions revealed a field seeking validation through “a process of gaining recognition within editorial offices” (p.8). Comments in this area included participants feeling as “kind of servants that are just supposed to mindlessly recreate” (p.8), but expressed hope that “eventually [journalists] start to understand that there’s depth to the things we do” (p.9). 

In regard to cultural capital, participants expressed feelings of strangeness in the newsroom.  “I’ve spent most of my career working for people who usually [...] react to something that me or my team does as ‘magic’” (p.8). The hope in this area was that roles would eventually be normalized. “This is a discipline. This is a craft. Just like any other part of the industry” (p.9).

Participants indicated an intersection of technology and journalism skills emerging in what are described as “bridge roles.” “I think a lot of us have a traditional journalism background, but we’ve adapted to the technology aspects in a way that we enjoy, and straddle the fence and use those two backgrounds” (p.9). Often these professionals must use social capital via collaboration and communication to build relationships that allow them to work more effectively with traditional journalists. 

Agency for change?
Participants felt that the community building and collective goals of groups like SRCCON helped provide the agency to influence change in newsrooms. “While some participants may be ‘unicorns’ in their organizations, they feel they belong to one supportive community of people who have ‘each other’s back’s’” (p.9).

Editorial technologists imagined a future with more technology insight at management levels. Solutions were posited in the long term as editorial technologists begin “moving up through the ranks as a technologist” and gaining “real power in their organizations“ (p.10). This echoes sentiments from my own research on product managers in media, as newsrooms move from “a culture of reporting and editing on limited platforms to one that is focused on building trust by representing communities and solving problems across products.” (Royal and Kiesow, 2021, p. 1561).

Shared beliefs
Editorial technologists held strong doxa, or the “deeply internalized, self- evident understandings of how things ought to be and how they ought to be done” (p.3). The authors considered doxa within four stakeholder groups: democratic society (“problematic issues regarding algorithmic design and the use of data,” p. 10), audiences (“strive to understand audience needs and act in their interest,“ p. 11), the news organization (“take responsibility for understanding strategy and products holistically,” p. 11) and the editorial team (deepening the understanding of, as well as appreciation for, technology and their responsibility regarding a healthy culture,” p. 12).

In this area, a respondents expressed needs for product thinking (“To foster this cultural change, editorial technologists introduce terms that are known from project management such as ‘sprint,’ ‘stakeholder’ or ‘product owner,’” p. 12), attention in journalism schools (“We really need to be teaching [students] how these programs are changing the world,” p.13) and diversity (“technologists should be more considerate about practices of ‘promoting’ to ‘make sure we’re giving those resources to people who are going to help us be inclusive,’” p.12). 

The study includes a useful table that provides examples of comments that represent the status quo and professional imaginations within each of the stakeholder areas (p. 13).

Co-author Anna-Lena Oltersdorf said the research team was inspired to take on this project by the breadth of source information available. “For me, it was mostly the richness of the material of the SRCCON transcripts,” Oltersdorf said. “I assume, it is quite a luxury for researchers to get such detailed insights into the discourse of practitioners who know what it means in practice to implement technology in newsrooms, and who also come from different organizations and can, therefore, bring in different experiences and perspectives.”

However, the extensive data presented challenges for analysis, according to co-author Juliane Lischka. “Trying to understand the central themes across the SRCCON conferences over several years needed time and discussion,” Lischka said. “The doxa are, according to definition, unspoken. So we were not sure to find any doxa when we started.”

“But the hints were in the material, and we just needed to extract and relate them,” Lischka continued.

Co-author Nadja Schaetz pointed to the value of conferences and professional organizations in community building for those in emerging roles. “There is a need for practitioners to have a space to reflect and discuss their own responsibility, as well as consequences stemming from algorithmic design and data use,” said Schaetz. 

Success for these roles depends a lot on leadership and the resources dedicated to their functions. “Resources are needed to expand professionals' capacity to interrogate technological implications and address problematic issues, such as systemic biases,” Schaetz said. “Our findings show that news professionals are eager to use technology in responsible ways.” 

“However, whether or not they can make sustainable changes, is not at least a matter of resources granted towards these efforts,” Schaetz continued.

I am happy to see continuing research on the progression of editorial technologists and media product developers 13 years after my initial research in this area. My early work on programmer-journalists is not often mentioned in current studies, as the #ISOJ Journal does not index in research databases. Such is the challenge of finding a home for innovative research projects. However, an early study that did reference my work, and is missing from this piece, is that of Parisie and Dagiral (2013), who studied the programmer-journalists at Chicago Tribune. 

The role of these pioneer communities, via organizations like SRCCON, NICAR and NPA, is considered valuable to the media industry as a whole. “Editorial technologists are not only individual change agents in a news organization but can be regarded as a change agent community“ (p. 16). It is important that we capture attitudes and imaginings throughout the entire history of their emergence, as these professionals move from the periphery to central importance in media organizations. 

And it is important for newsroom leadership to be cognizant of their need for career development and support. As mentioned in the study, “editorial technologists face struggles to receive appropriate recognition, and therefore sufficient symbolic capital, in their newsrooms” (p.14). This research also has specific relevance to the ways in which these topics are addressed in media curriculum and within faculty competencies. I look forward to watching the continued progression of research in this area. 

Bourdieu, P. 1983. “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed.” Poetics, 12 (4–5): 311–356.

Hepp, A., and W. Loosen. 2021. “Pioneer Journalism: Conceptualizing the Role of Pioneer Journalists and Pioneer Communities in the Organizational Re-Figuration of Journalism.” Journalism 22 (3): 577–595.

Kunelius, R., and L. Ruusunoksa. 2008. “Mapping Professional Imagination: On the Potential of Professional Culture in the Newspapers of the Future.” Journalism Studies 9 (5): 662–678. 

Parasie, S., & Dagiral, E. (2013). Data-driven journalism and the public good: ‘Computer-assisted reporters’ and ‘programmer-journalists’ in Chicago. New Media & Society, 15(6), 853-871.

Royal, C. (2012). The journalist as programmer: A case study of the New York Times interactive news technology department. In #ISOJ Journal (Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 5-24).

Royal, C., & Kiesow, D. (2021). From Boundary to Bridge and Beyond: The Path to Professionalization of Product Roles in Journalism. Journalism Studies, 22(11), 1546-1565.