Is it time to Occupy newsrooms until they finally get digital?

I read this piece about a new venture from the digital team behind the data-crunching of Obama’s election campaign by Jim Rutenberg last night, and it just made me feel fucking miserable for the future of journalism and our industry.

The vitriol and contempt for technology drips off the page. He puts the words “code” and “algorithms” in scare quotes as if they are some forbidden words. “The technology wizards” he refers to says things like “the computer code alone was thousands of lines.” Because, you know, that’s how we measure if software is any good — the number of lines of code. The article describes using Facebook’s API and developer features as if you need to be the NSA to get this data.

And now these techies he speaks of are going to be making money in advertising instead of campaigning for Obama. Advertising! Of all the things! As I read it on a web page where the essay has been split into ten parts to maximise page impressions and the audience’s exposure to advertising.

Oh, I’ll head you off at the pass here — Jim Rutenberg is a more distinguished and accomplished journalist than I’ll ever be, and he is writing for his audience. But that’s part of what makes it so utterly depressing. People who went into a profession filled with fire and curiosity and a determination to understand how things work and explain it simply to people so they could understand how it impacted on their lives, disdaining the technology that is the only chance of publishers staying in business.

So I was quite miserable.

And then I read this — John Patten’s “The Past Can’t Buy The Future.”

And my heartstrings soared again, because it is a passionate rebuff to what Patten calls the “editors resisting change [who] are aided and abetted by lousy CEOs and news executives who refuse to take the necessary risks to build this industry’s future.”

His numbers show that doing nothing is not an option — “$1 of operating profit will turn into $0.56 of loss in 5 years.”

He talks about the need to “build products customers want.” It has always astonished me that businesses that were so honed on giving the customer what they wanted in the newspaper, on the whole have made such a bad job of delivering things that people want on anything that isn’t ink on paper.

And this wonderful line stood out. If you are working in the news business, the process of making your news organisation more digital should be “your own personal Occupy moment.” What an image. Newsrooms under siege from their digital staff refusing to budge until change comes.

We have to find a way to make this work. And calling people who can code and know how to make money “wizards” and treating them like they come from an alien planet isn’t it.

With UsVsTh3m I’ve just had the opportunity within Trinity Mirror to take a project from idea to public launch in five weeks, which included hiring all the staff. It is an investment by the company, and a risk, and an experiment. And taking risks and experimenting is the only way forward. And as an industry we need to be doing more and more of it, and not being afraid to try and fail.

If you are in London you can come and see me talk about how and why Trinity Mirror launched UsVsTh3m at Hacks/Hackers London at the Frontline Club on Tuesday 25th June 2013.

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