Event: Journalism and Technology Breakfast

The Tow Center hosted its inaugural Journalism and Technology Breakfast on Wednesday 30 May at Soho House. Journalists and tech entrepreneurs gathered at the swanky Chelsea members’ club to discuss the interplay of digital innovation and journalism over artisan granola and baked goods. The event, moderated by Tow Director Emily Bell, is to be the first of a twice yearly event which aims to plug Columbia Journalism School further into the New York tech community. In his opening remarks the Dean of the Journalism School, Nicholas Lemann, said the event was keeping in tone with the move of the school towards further engaging with the digital journalism world.

The first speaker, John Borthwick, CEO and founder of betaworks, spoke of the changing landscape of technology and its impact on journalism. Borthwick said that when he founded the new media investment company four years ago, he did so “outside of the noise” around current media-tech startups. Borthwick described betaworks as a company rather than a fund; a position that allows the organization to participate in the development of its investment projects without becoming trapped in the politics of legacy organizations. Speaking in relation to one of the recipient companies of betaworks’ investment, bitly, Borthwick emphasized the importance of data in the newsroom. “The data layer is a shadow because it’s part of how we live; it’s there but usually not observed”, he said.

Since its launch last year, the New York World has focused on producing heavily data-driven stories about government accountability in New York. Editor, Alyssa Katz, introduced the work of two of her team that particularly demonstrated the role of data in finding stories. Via video link, Michael Keller presented a four-part interactive – Our Future Selves. Keller was unable to attend the breakfast because he was in Paris receiving the second place prize for the project at the Global Editors Network International Data Journalism Awards. The piece, originally produced for Columbia Journalism School’s News21 workshop, was published by the Washington Post. It uses census data – collected and analyzed by Keller and his partners on the project, Jason Alcorn and Emily Liedel – to show the effect of an aging population.

Alice Brennan went on to explain another project she produced with Keller and other members of the New York World team. Using NYPD stop and frisk data, the New York World worked on a series of stories about incidents of stoppings around city and the demographics behind the figures. Brennan said the biggest challenge the team faced was the state of the data, which took three weeks to clean and required interrogation of 117 columns of data.

CEO and co-founder of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, and editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, closed the event with a discussion that built on Borthwick’s remarks about the changing nature of the web. Peretti described the BuzzFeed homepage as “a place to share”, catering to the shift in the behavior of internet users. Smith went on to explain the impact of Twitter and how its changed the way people converge on the social web. “The beast wandered off to tweet. People were no longer hitting refresh on their RSS feeds anymore,” he said.

Like Borthwick, Peretti and Smith acknowledged the importance of data in the newsroom. Web publication is not only a cheaper production option than print, they said, but also gives editors and journalists a clearer picture of their audience. There has been a fetishization of the news which lacked engagement with the larger picture. The initial excitement generated by the gizmos has now faded and journalists and developers have arrived at a place to think more critically.