Book Review: Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data, and Code
Nikki Usher, Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data, and Code. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016). Paperback. 254 pages
Reviewed by: Kaaria Quash, MA student in Digital Innovation in Journalism, Department of Communications and Journalism, Concordia University.
Hackers, programmers, coding…what does all of this have to do with journalism? In her book Interactive Journalism, Nikki Usher sheds light on a new form of journalism evolving out of the technological revolution.
Usher, currently an associate professor in the University of Illinois' College of Media, is also the author of Making News at the New York Times (2014) and co-editor of the Oxford University Press book series, Journalism and Political Communication Unbound.
Interactive Journalism is a book targeted at anyone working or studying in the field of journalism, either professional or academic, and engages the audience by setting the profession in the greater context of where the industry is moving, and the changes incumbent with it. Its use of what the author terms “hybrid ethnography” as a research method can prove particularly useful to journalism students and scholars by allowing them to go “beyond a single case and still [carry] out some form of sustained observation.” (p.209).
Usher begins by introducing us to interactive journalism by using the New York Times article “Snowfall” as an example, before going into trends of the journalism industry and the current crisis it is facing—such as decreased revenue from advertising. Usher believes that interactive journalism is the future of the industry, and much of her book aims to outline what interactivity means, and how it is incorporated into the newsroom.
The first chapter focuses on defining interactive journalism and giving the reader a sense of the term, laying a sort of base knowledge for the discussions in the subsequent chapters. She defines it as “a visual presentation of storytelling through code for multi-layered, tactile user control for the purpose of news and information” (p.20). The second chapter delves into the history of how interactive journalism came about, making mention of early innovators such as the Lawrence Journal World. It shows how the rise of coding and the vast amounts of data present today have fused with photography, graphics and data visualization to form what we call interactive journalism (p.39).
Chapter three seeks to define the "new" types of journalists—namely hacker, programmer and data journalists—and highlights the ambiguity of the terms, showing how all three relate yet also differ from each other. Whereas hacker journalists come from a tech background before getting into journalism, programmer journalists come from a journalism background and then learn code; they also identify as journalists first and foremost. Data journalists are those who work with large datasets, and although they often use computer programs in the service of interactives, Usher notes that, “not all interactive journalists are data journalists, and not all data journalists are interactive journalists.” (p.90)
The next chapter explores how interactive journalism is carried about in different big newsrooms (eg. The New York Times, Wall St Journal, The Guardian): from the staff, to the process, to the relationship dynamics between the programmers and journalists who work together to make these types of stories possible. Chapter five discusses the skills and knowledge that interactive journalists bring to the world of journalism. It also talks about “build-it journalism”, which involves using code to solve problems and improve both the process and the product of journalism.
Usher does a good job of using anecdotes at the beginning of each of her chapters, giving an example of a piece of pertinent interactive journalism. This makes for light reading at the start, facilitating an easier transition into the heavier reading throughout the chapter. For example, Chapter four “Inside the Interactive Journalism Newsroom” began with the “Great Falls” article and how it was put together in the Washington Post newsroom.
Other academic works touched upon similar topics to Usher and help fill some of the gaps she left. Coates Nee (2013) and Schumpeter (1975) talk about creative destruction, where advances in technology cause industry leaders to be displaced by smaller firms “that developed product and process revolutions” (Anderson & Tushman 1991). Considering that smaller companies tend to be the ones who innovate, Interactive Journalism fell short by not giving more insight into how small newsrooms are making use of interactive journalism.
Another pitfall is that Usher frequently uses the term "hacker journalist", but in today's world, the word “hacker” carries negative connotations. However, Usher makes up for this by admitting that certain newsrooms refrain from using the term at all, such the New York Times and Al Jazeera, the latter stating that “hacker comes too close to the kind of anti-social efforts Syrian computer terrorists continually engage in.”
Usher does a good point of bringing up the question: can hacker journalists be considered journalists? Many journalists and scholars have mixed views on the definition what a journalist is. Panelist at the World Journalism Education Congress Alan Knight identifies journalists as having a particular set of standards, and Alex Gerlis of the BBC College of Journalism stresses the need for formal journalism training to be called a journalist. Yet Interactive Journalism shows that hacker journalists and programmer journalists blur these lines; some hacker journalists at The Guardian even refrain from calling themselves journalists. But Usher notes that “if we fail to consider hacker journalists as journalists, we are disregarding the value of what they add to the editorial process.” (p.82). Involving hacker journalists in the newsroom is a further example of adapting to the disruptive changes discussed by Coates Nee above.
Interactive Journalism is a quintessential book to understanding the field of journalism today and the direction it is heading in. It clearly delineates the new types of journalists evolving out of the increased reliance on computers in the profession and shows how they integrate into the newsroom. Usher’s book joins a growing list of academic research done on interactivity (Downes and McMillan 2000), media and technology (Newman 2017), and journalism trends (Shattered Mirror 2017); and finds a way to amalgamate and draw links between all these areas. This book will be most beneficial to journalism researchers, in particular those who can use it as a stepping-stone to further investigate the changing dynamic of newsrooms as technology continues to drive and shift the journalism industry.
Anderson, P., & Tushman, M. (1991). Managing through cycles of technological change. Research Technology Management, 34(3), 26–31.
Coates Nee, R. (2013). “Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Study of How Digitally Native News Non-profits Are Innovating Online Journalism Practices”. The International Journal on Media Management, 15:3–22. CA: Routledge.
Downes, E.J.; McMillan, S.J. (2000). “Defining Interactivity: A qualitative identification of key dimensions”. New Media & Society. London: Sage Publications.
Knight, A., Gerlis, A., and George, C. (2008). “Who is a Journalist?”. Journalism Studies, 9:1, 117-131.
Newman, N. (2017). Journalism, Media and Technology Predictions 2017. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Public Policy Forum (2017). The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age. Ottawa: Public Policy Forum.
Schumpeter, J. (1975). Capitalism, socialism and democracy. New York, NY: Harper Collins. (Originally published 1942)
Usher, Nikki (2016). Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data, and Code. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.