Tech, less terror

JOURNALIST, EDITOR and writer Cassie Werber, co-founder and board member of Hacks/Hackers London, came to the September London Freelance Branch meeting to tell us about collaborations between journalists and techies in a world where these distinctions are, some say, increasingly blurred.

Cassie Werber
Cassie Werber

Cassie was formerly a theatre director and then an energy reporter for WSJ, among other journalism gigs. She now writes for Quartz online magazine.

Quartz is an example of the type of project presented by visiting speakers to the Hack/Hackers London monthly meet-ups. In contrast to WSJ, "a fairly traditional news room with a content management system", in Quartz "there is not really any divide between the journalists" and the techies. The magazine has a "WordPress back end" platform: journalists write copy straight into this production system. They also "do their own tagging" (with keywords to help search engines find the story); do "chartbuilding" (making infographics, pie-charts and the like); do "search engine optimisation" tweaks; and "source and edit images... create a package" to send to their editor.

Journos at Quartz don't do deep tech. There is a team of people who code and who do the "back end tech". The publication is still a start-up, the baby of the long-established US print magazine The Atlantic. Eventually Quartz will have its own advertising revenue stream. These and other projects or "pitches" for "digitally done differently" are the sort of thing that gets discussed at Hacks/Hackers London. The people who go to the meetings are not actual hackers in the sense of breaking into computer systems, but aim to embody the earlier sense of doing creative stuff with techie stuff.

Although a co-founder of "disruptive" online currency Bitcoin gave a talk there, it is, Cassie stresses, "not an activist organisation."

Another example of a Hacks/Hackers London presentation, described in the pub afterwards by a regular attendee from LFB, was the Guardian's Virtual Reality team presenting their project on prisons two weeks before its official launch. (The LFB member said they'd received useful advice on "your online presence" at such events.) Hacks/Hackers London is supposed to be a safe space where journalists can debate as yet "unresolved issues" around journalism becoming "a digital business". It hopes to make "digital journalism... a bit less terrifying."

As well as much "talk about jobs", there have been mentoring sessions. And attendance at Hacks/Hackers London has, we are told, resulted in "at least one marriage." Hacks/Hacker's London's popularity, though, means you'll have to be alert to get tickets to their gigs, which are released a few at a time in advance.

They have a network of "about 5000" and room for 200 at their events, which they don't want to make any bigger. Watch their website for details - the next one's on 19 October at Twitter UK.

What we'd ideally like

There was praise for Cassie's brave step of involving a room full of cynical hacks in an interactive session - giving out blank index cards and asking us to imagine that a "perfect" organisation five years from now was supporting journalists, and asking us in what ways we thought that an "ideal" body would support us. (The imagined perfect body could be some sort of trade union or network, but needn't be.)

Ideally speaking, what would being a member of an organisation like the NUJ or Hack Hackers to offer you, we were asked. This is what LFB members wrote on those cards:

  • Paying handsomely. Using lawyers. Lots of investigative journalism in Northern Ireland.
  • Helping blind people when they are turned down by editors. Find an alternative to touch-screen tech for blind people or teach them to use it. Encourage young people into coding. Providing outlets for investigative journalism and quality journalism/reporting.
  • Help find paid work esp in areas not currently working in (these being a dead end at the moment) eg features.
  • Support in using digital technology.
  • New ways of using web/internet.
  • Ways of finding new markets/readers.
  • Offering more niche communities/forums for discussion.
  • Create a social learning network face to face and online to explore and use tools journalists will need to use - in an organisation - as an individual for research - publicly.
  • The opportunity to exchange ideas on how to keep/make journalism better (quality) and to make business models sustainable, considering the changing context and people.
  • New - and development of old - models for freelance journalism, e.g. art journals, which pays and helps to increase readership and access to finance.
  • Work to do (paid).
  • Connect with interesting projects.
  • Build a supportive community.
  • Giving free training in the most up-to-date skills to thrive in the digital age.
  • Paid work- Help in finding it.
  • Mentoring. Digital networking platform.
  • If we - all of us concerned (NUJ, Hack hackers, whomever) - could show people a) how to get the good paying jobs our skills merit b) how to spread the word about not working for nothing, none of us and... out of that by addressing all the good stuff the digi media offer and rejecting all the bad stuff, we can lift journalism up to deliver everything it can to our civilisation!
  • Looking after my health.
  • Training.
  • Opportunity.
  • Life style.
  • Office space.
  • Insurance.
  • Work.
  • Family.
  • Transport.
  • Perks.
  • Connecting me to others - by geography, by subject - example: NW Sports Editors, or SW Editors - Plymouth...
  • Working out how journalists jobs can be protected and trying to ensure that savings from shutting or scrapping print titles are invested into digital media. Helping to protect the reliability and integrity of news.
  • A go-between organisation that offers links between complementary interest groups - conferences,, physical space (buildings); digital platforms.
  • Publishing. I need [name of publisher] to take me seriously and publish my works regularly with reasonable rates of pay.
  • It would help me learning more and more quickly new ways of being great at work.
  • Increasing my SEO. Helping me finding balance between job and family.
Last modified: 03 Oct 2016 - © 2016 contributors
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