News orgs are 'up against the Googles' to hire dev talent: @eramshaw #superpowers Click To Tweet

codeCoding and development know-how was the top hiring priority for the news organizations we surveyed — but not for all kinds of media companies. And news leaders also meant very different things when they talked about these skills and their particular needs.

More than two-thirds of the media companies that responded to our questionnaire (22 of 31, or 71 percent) said coding and development skills were among their top five to 10 needs in the coming year. That held true for many categories — especially among organizations that began as digital publishers (11 of 13, or 85 percent) and for all 11 of the non-profit news outlets that responded, including five public radio companies and a number of primarily digital startups.

Companies that publish newspapers, on the other hand, were far less focused on coding and development (3 of 8, or 38 percent). The difference was even greater for companies based in small- to medium-sized media markets (2 of 7, or 29 percent) — all but two of which were newspapers, and only one of those papers said coding and development was among its hiring needs.

At the same time, editors from two small-to-medium market newspapers joined other media leaders in noting that coding abilities were hard to come by even when those hires have been a priority.

In open-ended answers, seven news leaders noted that their organizations had newly created positions with titles such as developer or engineer. Nine news leaders also said they had a difficult time finding qualified candidates to fill those kinds of jobs, as well as positions they described as technologists and “journalist coders.” And as Fusion’s Daniel Eilemberg noted, finding those “with experience and/or interest in media” only made the hiring challenge greater.

Finding devs 'with interest in media' is tough: @ThisIsFusion's @deilemberg #superpowers Click To Tweet

The news industry’s needs for coding skills mainly fall into two categories — both of which require some mix of technical and editorial experience:

  • Newsroom-friendly coders: Those with enough of an editorial sensibility to work with their journalist colleagues on everything from big editorial projects to publishing systems to new news products; and
  • Code-friendly journalists: Those with enough development skills to build out editorial features and products on their own, working closely with (and, frankly, sometimes around) the teams who have direct technical responsibility for an organization’s overall digital presence.

In smaller news outlets, there may be more mixing and matching of these abilities and responsibilities, with much depending on a company’s organizational chart (is digital publishing part of or separate from the newsroom?) and its corporate digital strategy (is the news organization part of a larger media company that relies on shared digital systems across all of its properties?).

The job descriptions gathered for this report were filled with examples of both kinds of positions.

For instance, the vacancy in McClatchy’s Washington bureau for a digital news developer required someone with a track record for “conceptualizing and building data visualizations and interactive graphics.” It also required “advanced experience with HTML5, CSS, JavaScript (jQuery); an understanding of responsive design and proficiency with interaction design and user interfaces; familiarity with mining and manipulating data and Web scraping; comfort with graphics and layout.”

Such detailed technical requirements are not as unusual to see in an editorial job as they used to be — and at almost any level of the organization. While a Chronicle of Higher Education announcement for interns said the company was looking for applicants with “a strong interest in pursuing a career in journalism,” the job posting also noted that “experience with web production… and front-end coding are a plus.”

Storyful news editor Mandy Jenkins said organizations like hers find that it’s sometimes easier to train journalists on technology than it is to “find tech people who have the journalism.” “It’s way harder to make a non-journalist think like a journalist,” she said. “It’s much harder to train someone to ask a good question and bring a critical eye to content.”

Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw echoed that, and said they were seeing an increasing number of journalists who already came with some combinations of coding and reporting experience: “We’re seeing a breed of journalist that can do both…. They have the ability to do coding and pick up the phone. It used to be you got one or the other — but now it’s coming in one package.”

News organizations do have technical positions that do not require experience working a beat or cultivating news sources. That’s especially true at organizations that depend heavily on high-end digital distribution. In the time we gathered job postings, we saw numerous openings at the Bloomberg finance news service for software developers, applications developers, software engineers and infrastructure developers. Bloomberg also was hiring research scientists to work on “projects at the intersection of machine learning, natural language processing and computational linguistics.”

Familiarity with news processes and culture matters most in front-line tech positions. At the Washington Post, for instance, a job announcement for a system support specialist made “experience with web and print publishing systems and knowledge of user workflows” sound as important as familiarity with data formats such as xml and json and experience troubleshooting website rendering and performance issues. Likewise, the Associated Press was looking for a news systems specialist with technical chops as well as “professional experience in broadcast or online news creation/production, broadcast or on-line systems or operations.”

Boston public radio station WBUR had fairly explicit needs for a lead web developer it was hiring last year, including 100 words of detailed technical requirements. But right between experience with “web serving technologies such as Apache, Nginx, IIS 7+” and “Amazon AWS, EC2, S3,” there was this: “A passion for news and storytelling.”

News leaders say writing job descriptions is usually much easier than filling the jobs, especially given the competition for people with the code and development skills needed in high-intensity, around-the-clock newsroom operations.

“We have a hard time holding on to our developers because they are so in demand,” said Melanie Sill, vice president of content at Southern California Public Radio (KPCC-FM) in Pasadena, formerly a newspaper editor. “We pay what we can, but they can command much higher salaries. Our turnover in that team is much higher than other teams.”

Some of that turnover is purely financial, as Sill noted. But newsroom culture can be as much of an obstacle as newsroom budgets, with technologists thought of as support staff rather than problem-solving partners.

“Media suffers from an IT mentality with tech,” said Vox’s Trei Brundrett. “Tech today is everything. It’s the medium we’re communicating in. [Developers] should be core to all sorts of decisions and things we’re building.”

In their words: recruiting mission-driven coders

News leaders say two keys to reeling in qualified tech talent are creating a culture where those people feel that their opinions and abilities are valued and that they can make significant contributions to a mission they believe in.

Emily Ramshaw, editor, Texas Tribune:

“When it comes to hiring developers, a news organization like ours isn’t just competing with the top newspapers for talent — we’re up against the Googles, the Facebooks, the tech startups that can pay three to four times what we can. We have an additional hurdle: We have to find developers who are so devoted to our mission that they’ll come aboard for the goodness of the gig.”

Jim Schachter, vice president, news, WNYC-FM:

“We have a couple incredible people who could go to work tomorrow for a technology company — Google, Facebook. They stay here because they’re really into the mission and like working in public media.”

Trei Brundrett, chief product officer, Vox

“Developers want to have a well-defined mission. They like challenging problems. If you think big about that, you can find people. If you’re thinking broader about the ways we tell stories or use data to drive product, redefine what the problems are — that’s a tech culture…. [Developers also want to know] there’s a path for them in their career. A lot of media companies don’t consider a path [for developers]. Many of them get stuck. There’s rarely leadership opportunities. In a newsroom, it’s editors. You can create that tech culture but someone in tech has to have a seat at the table. That’s important.”