Hack Jersey: Celebrating Creativity in Journalism

January 3, 2013

The decline of the American newspaper is generally seen as a tragedy of modern journalism. The villain in the story is the internet, that great disruptor — which, by the way, has disrupted the businesses of book publishing, real estate, retail sales and many other fields as well.

It is true that the economics of the news industry are tough these days. But — just as talkies did with silent pictures — the internet has created a whole new dimension for the practice of journalism. It’s not just the link economy, which facilitates connections between articles across time, space and brand, but the plasticity of the web, which has created fabulous possibilities for non-linear storytelling.

Outside of a Harry Potter novel, newspapers made out of pulp can’t talk or move. But on a computing device, videos, graphics and data can be combined to make the most complex stories understandable. Take just three examples from the institution that used to be called The Old Gray Lady. The New York Times graphics department’s 2012 portfolio included ingenious features like What Percent Are You?, which allowed readers to enter their own incomes to see their comparative wealth in different regions of the country, The iPhone Economy, a multimedia feature on how America lost manufacturing jobs, and What Romney and Obama’s Body Language Says to Voters, a perceptive video feature on the hand gestures of the 2012 candidates for president.

From my vantage point, I see some of the brightest minds in journalism gravitating toward these new tools. John Keefe, now famous for his data projects at WNYC, began his second career, as a data journalist, after taking a programming workshop at the Online News Association in 2009. Lisa Williams, founder of Placeblogger and a fellow at the MIT Media Lab/Center for Future Civic Media, began learning to program several years ago so she wouldn’t “have to beg” for help with tech projects she came up with.

This is why I’m so excited about Hack Jersey, and why 50 people have already signed up to spend the weekend of Jan. 26 and 27 with the NJ News Commons and Knight-Mozilla Open News at a journalism-themed hackathon at Montclair State University. Our keynote speaker Saturday morning will be Matthew Ericson, deputy graphics director of The New York Times, who will show us just what is possible when multimedia creativity is unleashed in the service of journalism.

Hacker, by the way, is a somewhat freighted term. In popular culture, it often refers to the kind of bad guys who hacked into cell phones for News of the World or computer experts who break through security systems to wreak havoc or steal data from corporations. But hacker is also another term for computer programmers — or coders — who simply like to use their skills to build cool things. And hackathons — weekend-long contests where hackers come together, work in teams and compete to see who can build the coolest thing under a tight deadline — are a storied part of hacker culture.

Convincing journalists that spending a whole weekend eating pizza and sitting in front of a computer was a harder sell. But so far, almost half of the registrants are journalists.

Obviously, no one knows yet what projects will come out of Hack Jersey. Will there be a great data visualization to show how Superstorm Sandy ravaged NJ Transit rail cars in Kearny? A brilliant mobile platform to empower citizen journalists? A graphic visualization of how New Jersey property taxes have ballooned over the past 20 years? We’ll find out later this month, but if past events are any indication, be prepared to have your socks knocked off.  “It’s amazing the amount that can be done in a day,” says Williams.

What I know for sure is that storytellers in the Garden State will have a unique opportunity to start playing with the new tools of the trade. To me, it feels like getting to spend a weekend in Santa’s workshop. At a time when there’s so much doom and gloom about the future of journalism, I think that’s something to celebrate.

Read more about Hack Jersey here. See all the partners and sponsors who have worked to make the weekend possible here.

Debbie Galant is a regular contributor to the Dodge blog on media issues. She is the Director of the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University. For more information, visit the NJ News Commons website, and follow NJ News Commons on Twitter @NJNewsCommons.