What Local Coders Can Tell Us About Our Industry

Findings from deep-dive interviews with 11 news nerds from smaller market publications

A moment from the early roots of the news nerd survey: SRCCON 2015 participants brainstorm topics.

Last year, OpenNews released the findings from a News Nerd Survey, which gathered responses from more than 700 members of the journalism code community. Today, we’re excited to share findings from deep-dive interviews with a subset of those respondents: 11 “local coders,” journalists in technical roles from smaller, local, and regional publications. Thanks again to all of the respondents to the survey, to Network Impact for conducting the interviews, and to Google News Initiative for underwriting this work.

What’s a Local Coder, and Why Did We Focus on Them?

The concentration of media jobs in New York and DC is a known issue. The News Nerd Survey data bore out this trend, with 51% of respondents from the U.S. living in zip codes in New York, DC, and Los Angeles. But, that still leaves a huge portion of the respondents in the rest of the country, largely working for smaller, regional, and local publications. Many of those respondents throughout the rest of the country are members of the Lonely Coders Club Slack, and they find connection and support through that network. There is a lot of slipperiness in even that (self-named!) term, which includes folks in a range of roles who have moved between organizations of varying sizes, as well as remote workers for larger companies. From this research, we’ve landed on “local coder” to describe the people we’re focusing on—those working around the country at local dailies, regional outlets, and numerous nonprofits. We know that supporting these local coders is important to the health of the local journalism ecosystem and the sustainability of journalism overall.

In the first iteration of the survey, we asked respondents what they thought could help local coders, and we got back a range of ideas about tools and resources. We wanted to better understand these needs, so we set out to ask those technologists themselves.

What We’ve Learned from This Research

The findings from these deep-dive interviews have been tremendously useful for OpenNews, shaping how we’ve approached sessions selection for our conference and other work this year. We’re eager to share these findings more broadly and you can reach out to me directly if you’d like to talk about the results.

Network Impact compiled a three-page executive summary of the findings, and I strongly encourage you to check it out. It is chock-full of insights, questions, and opportunities for the news nerd community and any organization working with local journalists (including some insights that local newsrooms’ leadership should see).

Three major themes jumped out at me from our survey (and it wasn’t easy to choose just three, with so many great insights).

  • News nerds are particularly well suited for understanding newsroom challenges and moving into leadership roles. Especially at smaller news organizations, technical journalists often sit between a lot of departments and have a cross-newsroom perspective that few other journalists have. The skills they’ve developed to lead technical projects are directly applicable to leading other newsroom projects, plus this interdepartmental view has helped news nerds understand the cultural challenges facing journalism and the immediate need for action to make newsrooms more equitable and inclusive.

  • News nerds play numerous technical roles within their newsrooms. As noted in the executive summary, “acting as technical advisors, trainers, and mentors these journalists find themselves training both their editors and other reporters on tools and data and digital literacy.” Their skills are highly sought-after by these newsroom colleagues, who understand there’s more they need to know about technical challenges—things like using new tools, communicating securely with sources, and lots more. News nerds are important conduits for this critical knowledge and skill building within newsrooms, and they hold a wealth of domain expertise with the institutional knowledge that they gain from their cross-newsroom roles.

  • News nerds support one another between newsrooms. The journalism-code network is tremendously important in providing informal training, support, and feedback to one another. This finding was also a significant piece of the News Nerd Survey overall, but it’s even more acutely felt by local coders who reported experiences like seeking editorial support from a community member outside of their newsroom because the editorial and technical support they needed did not exist in their newsroom.

These findings underline the importance of community support, the need for newsrooms to better understand how technical roles actually function, and the need for all of us to support career development for these super-skilled journalists.

Where This Research Leads Us

We can, and must, make decisions based on this research. These 11 interviews give shape and nuance to the responses we received from the survey overall, which you can also explore in this data visualization and through an analysis by Soo Oh on the salary data respondents shared. With a better understanding of how these roles operate in newsrooms, there’s so much opportunity to work together on strengthening and supporting the journalism happening in these news organizations.

And since we’re such fans of this data, we’re going to do another round of the survey next year, with local coders helping shape the development of the survey itself. We’ll have more information about that in the new year, likely around NICAR.

In the meantime, we’re going to continue to seek out ways to support the local coder community and the work they’re already doing to help each other. We’ll have another round of our Ticket+Travel scholarship open in December, to help local coders (and others!) get to events for skill building, and at SRCCON:POWER we’ll have two days to dig into the power dynamics that inform work at the intersection of journalism and tech.

Thanks again to the survey respondents; Network Impact; and Google News Initiative. If you’d like any additional information about these interviews or the survey results overall, feel free to email me.



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