Journogeek: Old world meets new for the newshound of the future

Meet the journogeek. They’re the future.

Not a pretty word. And hard to work out who it’s rudest to, geeks or journalists. But get used to it. The idea of it, at least. There aren’t many of them – yet. But they’re the only ones who seem to understand the mighty subterranean shift under our industry –that the two plates we – journalists – used to call ‘news’and ‘information’are now one and the same. Maybe they always were. 

They’re the ones who understand that most of our readers, viewers and listeners want us to give them the quickest route to the information they need and care less and less about what we think ‘news’is. They’re looking to us now to help them find their signal in everyone’s noise.

Lists, spreadsheets, data and maps

Journogeeks understand how they can do it. Not with the powerful headlines and intros, polished prose and chiselled quotes of their journo half. But with lists, spreadsheets, data and maps – online tools of their geek half.  

The idea of journalism being all about gathering data and helping each individual in the audience mine it for a unique take, maybe with a cool visualising tool, is a hard one to grasp. Apart from anything else, it surrenders the power of framing and selection that was once our sovereign territory. And it seems to assign little value to journalism’s traditional skills. Not a great lesson to teach.

Not so. We need young journalists to ‘assume a whole new swathe of skills which enable them to allow the public… to be part of the production… that means that, in fact, you’re going back to core values of journalism,”says Charlie Beckett of media think-tank POLIS. 

So what is this ‘new swathe of skills”? And when we teach it (in addition to, not instead of, the more traditional skills) will it take us back to the core values of journalism rather than the crushing dullness of geekdom?

Here’s a few. One is some understanding of journalism’s bogeyman – numbers. Most of us in the trade have devised guilty tricks and evasions to hide our inability to, say, spot a trend … or even know when something, literally, doesn’t add up. Numbers hide more than they reveal: We need to teach journalists to understand how.

Another new skill is learning what visualisation tools can do. Even journalists who do maths and stats find (inadequate) ways of getting their take across without actually using the numbers themselves. Take a look at Gapminder (www.gapminder.org) – bought last year by Google – or flowingdata.com.

Most of all, though, it’s about teaching young journalists that one of the wise, old sayings of the trade is wrong. You can do original journalism sitting at a computer screen – and you can do it in partnership with your audience. If journalism is telling your audience something someone doesn’t want them to know, it’s also telling them something no one else has spotted – and sometimes, they’re the same thing.

Learning to use maps to crowdsource, for instance, is probably one of first things a young journalist needs to become an L-plated journogeek. At last, we can use thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – in our audiences to build accurate pictures of what’s really happening in our communities. And that’s what takes journalism right back to its core public purpose: Helping citizens know enough – reliably enough – about the world to make the decisions they need.

Bring on the journogeek.

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