Jacqui Maher is the most recent addition to my Interactive News team at the New York Times, and although she started almost six months ago, I have yet to get her business cards — an embarrassing fact she (rightly) points out at regular intervals. I’m not raising this to highlight my shortcomings as a manager, but rather as a plea for help.
The biggest reason Jacqui doesn’t have business cards? I just can’t come up with a title that…fits.
This is a problem of no small significance, because as the career paths of journalists and developers converge, the labels we use affect how we are seen by those around us. I experienced this first-hand a few years ago when I went from being a journalist who used data in his reporting to a computer-assisted reporting specialist.
As soon as the term “reporter” got qualified, I was no longer viewed the same way in the newsroom. At best, I was seen as a reporter with specialized skills. At worst, I was that nerd in the corner you’d call to help with a spreadsheet and maybe troubleshoot your email.
Labels matter. And as this niche of journalism grows more mainstream, labels will matter that much more. So, who are we?
We Are (Not Just) Engineers
According to human resources, everyone on my team falls into one of several categories under the broad title of “software engineer.” I’ll admit, I kind of punted on this question for a while, and “engineer” is the title most of my folks have on their business cards. It’s certainly not inaccurate; it’s just not complete.
Engineer doesn’t in any way fit the position because we are, after all, as much editorial as we are technical. Plus, it’s just a bit too N.A.S.A. for my tastes.
Then there’s the term that seems to be more and more in vogue — “programmer-journalist.” And while that definitely captures the dual nature of mission, it feels like a bit of a cop-out to me. Like we couldn’t find a good title, so we’ll just jam a couple half-baked ones together. It’s clunky to say, clunkier to write and it’s just a little too combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell, you know?
What About Hacker-Journalist
A slightly more casual Friday version is Brian Boyer’s “hacker-journalist,” which I don’t mind as much, even if it shares the same problem as above. Maybe it’s the term hacker, which I’ve always liked. Unfortunately, it’s a show stopper here since the term is perceived as a pejorative among those who don’t know better. Plus, there’s the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell thing again.
At one point, I thought maybe we’d just go with “reporter” or “editor,” which is what we did on the Times’s computer-assisted reporting desk when I was there. But while that title would be newsroom chic, it has the opposite problem as “software engineer” in that it completely ignores the technical aspects of what we do.
Finally there’s “news applications developer,” which is the title the team at the Chicago Tribune uses. It’s a mouthful, but not too bad. Of all the options I’ve considered, it’s probably the best at capturing what we actually do day-to-day. Still, I’m holding out hope that someone will think of something better.