File Under: Events, Programming

DjangoCon: Can Django Save Journalism?


Ben Welsh of the LA Times, Matt Waite, creator of PolitiFact, Maura Chace of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Matt Croydon of the Lawrence Journal-World talk about the various ways Django is changing journalism.

Day two of DjangoCon brought together a number of journalists working with Django to talk about how the framework is helping change the way we get our news.

It’s no secret your local newspaper is in big trouble — even major publications are hemorrhaging money and readers. Hounded by aggregation sites like Reddit and Digg on one side and hampered by conservative management unwilling to take risks on the other, the newspaper world is in real trouble. But the good news is that some new organizations are starting to turn to Django to help them do more innovative things online.

Django began life at the Lawrence Journal-World, a progressive online newspaper site, and the journalism background makes itself felt throughout the project. And then there’s Ellington, a Django-powered commercial content management system aimed specifically at newsrooms.

While Django can make a nice CMS for journalists, its real power lies in the potential to completely transform the way news and realtime data is presented online. From the groundbreaking app ChicagoCrime.org to the more recent EveryBlock, Django is helping newspapers discover that, often, the database itself is the news.

The two common themes that quickly emerged from today’s panel were the vast amounts of time newspapers can save with Django — like hurricane evacuation shelter tracker that Waite was able to build in a scant 4 hours — and the ability to flexibly handle and display large chunks of data in organized ways.

Part of the appeal for the newsroom stems from Django’s admin tools which allow developers to almost instantly give reporters a place to post their stories, even before the views, URLs and user interface have been created.

As moderator Adrian Holovaty pointed out, journalists are “some of stupidest people when it comes to using computers,” and the Django admin system makes it relatively simple to manage and update a site.

Of course Django isn’t a panacea — often times the real and more pressing problem is that so much news data is in truly useless, inflexible formats.

But even in the case of awkward source data, Django has helped some journalists change the way they look at their stories — Politifact’s Matt Waite, for instance, said that Django encouraged him to learn programming, which is a familiar refrain here at DjangoCon.

As LJWorld‘s Matt Croydon pointed out, there’s a good bit of crossover happening because of Django — journalists turn to programming because of Django and programmers increasingly find themselves working for newspapers interested in pushing the future of online news. Django has become a kind of bridge between the two once disconnected groups.

Naturally, not everything is rosy. Like nearly everyone at DjangoCon, journalists have their gripes about Django. The main complaint from the journalist panel was the lack of good database migration tools — changing a Django model when the database is already storing a good bit of data is not easy (though Simon Willison’s dmigrations tool promises to make that task much easier)

While Django alone isn’t enough too save the floundering world of online news, it is at least offering journalists and their editors some innovative ways to present data, stories and mashups in new and creative ways.