Jul 312012

Hacks and Hackers is an informal global network of meetings discussing the intersection of technology and journalism. The inaugural Sydney Hacks and Hackers meetup recently looked at how journalists use data and showed the challenges the news media face in an age where information isn’t scarce.

The panel in Sydney were Sharona Coutts, Investigative Reporter at Global Mail; Edmund Tadros, Data Journalist at Australian Financial Review; and Courtney Hohne, Director of Communications Google Australia.

Courtney looked at some of the big data opportunities for journalists, a topic covered in the Closed Data Doors post. One of the areas she highlighted was emergency services sending out PDFs of updates during crises like bushfires and floods.

Listening to Sharona and Edmund, it was clear they were two overworked but keen young journalists who had neither the resources or the training to deal with the data flowing into their organisations.

Because journalists in modern media organisations don’t have the skills or the resources to properly understand and use raw data the public ends up with relatively trivial stories like league tables of school exam results or council building approvals – both of which are important, but are misread and used to confect outrage against incompetent public servants and duplicitous politicians.

For the public servant, school teacher or even bus driver it’s understandable they don’t want their performance measured if the measure is going to be misused and possibly jeopardize their jobs.

A deeper problem for journalism is the skills of the trade. Both Edmund and Sharona are smart young journos who will go far; but both admitted they had no training in statistic and mathematics.

Even more worrying are the older journalists, when I mentioned the lack of older and more experienced journalists to the organiser she said none would agree to come on the panel. One suspects this is because forty and fifty year old journalists have even fewer data skills than their young colleagues.

This lack of skills or understanding of data is probably one of the biggest challenges facing the media. In a world awash with data, the role of journalists is to filter the feed, interpret and explain it.

Pure reportage is being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of news and information available; the 1980s model of opinion based journalism is also failing as the audience now realise they have a voice, and better informed opinions, than the experts and columnists.

One of the notable themes that seemed to jump out of the evening was the divide between journalists and the wider community that always seems to appear when the future of journalism is discussed.

Usually this expressed in terms of those employed by major mastheads sneering at “citizen journalists” but at Hacks and Hackers it was about “geeks and journos coming together.”

In reality there is no divide – good analytic and technology skills should be as much a part of journalism as any other field in a modern economy.

The fear from the Sydney Hacks and Hackers night is that the media industry is one of the sectors that’s failing to deal with technological change.

It’s hard not to think that journalists wondering at the power of spreadsheets and pivot tables is like 18th Century blacksmiths trying to figure out how steam engines can make better horseshoes.

For an industry that is so deeply challenged by technological change, it seems the news media is still unprepared for the changes that hit nearly a decade ago.

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