In actuality, this means I’m SiliconANGLE’s chief bottle-washer. Today, for instance, I’m editing up a full length documentary. Yesterday, I was choosing and editing a series of short clips highlighting the round-the-world trip John Furrier, Dave Vellante and I took with EMC. The week before that, I was behind the camera exclusively.
The week before that, I was elbows deep in code on a revolutionary product launch we’re working on behind the scenes at SiliconANGLE. The week before that, I was playing sales engineer, coming up with product descriptions that the general public could understand. Before that, I was focused on refinancing our editorial processes as we onboard more writers and editors.
I could go on down the timeline in either direction in time and come up with more hats I’m wearing, but you probably get the point. Changing hats isn’t hard, or even particularly stressful to me. I enjoy it, actually. I’ve always been a bit of a jack of all trades, and now that SiliconANGLE has grown to the point where I have support staff, I don’t have to lose sleep at night wondering what mission-critical tasks I’ve let drop completely.
The Journo-Programmer and Me
Dave Winer talked today on his blog about the “journo-programmer” and whether or not it could “save journalism.”
There’s an idea, emanating from New York, that if we somehow combine the talents of programmers and journalists, we’ll figure out how to make news work in the age of the Internet. I haven’t been sure what to call this, but I agree that there’s a lot of power in the combination.
Justin Ellis, writing on the Nieman Lab site today, came up with a simple name that works, "the journo-programmer." Until a better term comes along, let’s go with that.
One of the reasons it’s important, here, is that two of the journalist-teaching universities, NYU and Columbia, have launched programs to create them. At NYU, Jay Rosen, my colleague and partner in the Rebooting The News podcast, is leading the effort with Studio 20. Columbia hired Emily Bell to lead their effort, a graduate program called Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
I visited with Bell last week at her office at Columbia. It was a snowy cold day, but what a beautiful place!
What is a journo-programmer, and how does higher education create one? Or is it a god-given gift, and is our job merely to develop the talent where it already exists? Can you teach a programmer to be a writer, or a writer to be a programmer? It seems the first step is to ask people who have already made the journey. From both directions.
Dave never gets around to answering his own question there – and while I will say that being able to write and program proficiently has helped my career prospects immeasurably, I will say that I don’t think it’s in any way a viable career prospect for most folks in either field.
It isn’t that the programming that I do is particularly hard, nor is it that my writing ability is so far above everyone else’s – but one thing I have done quite a bit of the last few years working with John Furrier here at SiliconANGLE is seen a lot of programmers and writers filter through our community.
And so you know the scope of what I’m talking about – we have had a large community accrue. We’ve had 4000 people sign up to participate with us through the site. Our contract programming team numbers in the double digits, as does our contract writing team. Our “occasional contributors,” that is folks who contribute at least 12 written pieces a year number in the hundreds. The work that this motley crue puts together is distributed to a combined audience of hundreds of thousands (with occasional flash mobs of millions).
Only in a few rare circumstances (and I’m talking a handful of times) have I seen folks who have the ability to write long form thought leadership posts and contribute to our code base regularly. In fact, I can count the folks who I call experts in both areas on one hand (maybe two).
Believe It Or Not, This Isn’t the Hard Thing About What I Do
This isn’t the post I set out to write, actually. I do think it’s worthy to note that the “journo-programmer,” as Dave calls it, is going to be a very rare breed, at least in the near term. I’ve been making it a point to write avocationally and daily for most of my life, both code and prose.
Most programmers and writers are specialists, though, and rarely cross over. With the decreasing cost of development services from foreign economies, I see the incentive to cross over actually decreasing in the future, instead of increasing.
What’s most hard about what I do isn’t juggling jobs, it’s deciding how deep (as opposed to wide) our editorial coverage should be.
I’ll borrow from Dave again here to set up my premise:
The importance of linking is comparable with procedures in programming languages. Imagine if every piece of code you wrote had to go all the way back to the beginning and define what it means to add two numbers. Same with writing. I don’t have to write the Nieman article because it has already been written and I can link to it.
In that sense the web is a prior-art machine. A way of sharing know-how. There’s another key, different concept. In the past, as a writer, it was easier to just reinvent than to reference earlier works.
Part of the brilliance of universities is their iterative nature. We need to do a lot of iteration in pursuit of the journo-programmer. Every semester is a new beginning. Every new student is a chance to try a new approach.
The difficulty I’ve had editorial at SiliconANGLE, particularly since I came directly here from Mashable, is writing for an advanced audience while still being concerned about audience growth. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but a lot of what we write is very focused and requires a great deal of subject matter expertise.
The great thing about writing for Mashable was that while I could naturally apply a lot of expertise that I had hard-won over the years to my writing, a lot of what I was writing about was accessible to everyone. That’s the nature of social media (and why there always seems to be a social media expert within spitting distance at all time).
Human beings are social creatures, and there’s not a human on the planet that doesn’t have some valuable experience and advice on at least a subset of social interaction.
SiliconANGLE focuses, on the other hand, on some esoteric but universally necessary areas of technology – mostly infrastructure and mobile. Mobile is getting increasingly easy to cover in the last couple years because there are now more mobile devices than people on the planet.
While infrastructure is similarly exploding, the general public’s personal dealings with infrastructure are getting increasingly rare due to the *aaS trend. The cloudification of our world adds an abstraction layer between everyone, even our IT department, and their hardware.
Our struggle, editorially, is whether or not we go wide with our coverage and make it more universally accessible (and in the process, perhaps lose credibility with our core, die-hard audience), or continue to cover infrastructure like a blanket and maintain our high-level analysis.
It’s a line we continue to straddle, since there’s only so much time in the day, and every member of SiliconANGLE has to decide whether to comment on the impact of the protests in Egypt on information architecture or to comment on the impact of EMC’s megalaunch on Netapp’s long term strategy.
Thankfully, It Isn’t a Business Problem, Too
Both are important topics – but one has a much wider audience than the other.
I should re-iterate that this isn’t a business problem for us. Thankfully, we’ve constructed a business model that doesn’t require us to constantly be ambulance chasing in our editorial so we can get the biggest audience in the world.
Still, as a matter of editorial pride, one always wants to continue to increase the size (not just the influence) of one’s audience.
It’s a tricky path, but that’s part of what makes it fun.
[photo credits: Michael Sean Wright, Michael Sean Wright/SiliconANGLE and Wm. Marc Salsberry.]