Algorithms and journalisms, part two

by Andy Boyle.

For part one, click here.

Earlier I wrote a piece about using algorithms to help with your journalism, spurred on by this piece in Wired. Now I want to cover more the area that the piece mentions: Using algorithms to actually write stories.

I’ve actually written something that does this. It’s hosted on Github and I’ve got a tutorial for setting it up. I call it FireTracker.

This isn’t a new idea, and I’ve written about it before. Yet only a handful of news organizations have anything like this set up.

The Los Angeles Times is probably one of the better known organizations that does this. The Homicide Report pulls in a spreadsheet, writes a basic story and posts it. It’s like a mad lib, or so Ben Welsh describes in this awesome video.

Crime L.A. pulls in data and runs automatic analyses of every neighborhood. These were big data projects that news organizations used to do maybe once a year that can now be done as often as you want, as long as you’re receiving the data.

Clearly these projects are worthwhile — they are good journalism, they save journalist’s time and they give our audience more information and context. So why aren’t we doing them?

I would say the main problem is our newsrooms don’t have the bodies or the technological know-how. But in rebuttal, I bet 150 years ago we didn’t have many photographers or dark rooms at our offices, either. That didn’t stop places from setting up photo staffs, did it?

Journalistic web development is still young, but we’ve been putting our content online for almost 15 years. We need to catch up and start developing a product online that matches the times we’re in. This is not going to happen at our schools — although they will help somewhat — but we will have to teach ourselves.

If you’re a hiring manager and you have a few slots open for reporters, maybe you should look for people who are in the civic coder realm instead, like Code for America. While I’m sure everyone wishes they had a few more reporters or editors, I would contend it’s a better business decision to invest in more web developers.

I view most of journalism as solving problems. You need to identify the guy was who was murdered, you need to know how much in donations that candidate received this quarter, you need to find an eye-witness to some awesome event. A web developer is just another person who can help you solve problems. Wouldn’t you want more around?