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"Hacker" journalism. A new utopia for the press?

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Sylvain Parasie. Sociologist and professor

The links between the press and computer worlds have indisputably flourished in recent years. This is borne witness to by the increase in web spaces designed by programmers, outside of traditional media organisations, which are positioning themselves in the information world. The best known by the French in no doubt the Wikileaks initiative, which has revealed far-reaching information on Guantanamo, the US wars and international diplomacy. The owni.fr web space in France is another example, but where these sites are more numerous is in the US (ProPublica, Politifact). That which also attest to this phenomenon, in leading newspapers, are the new professionals who consider themselves journalists and programmers. In the New York Times (related to the Aron Pilhofer sphere) in the Guardian (Simon Rogers) or the Chicago Tribune (Brian Boyer), specifically, these journalists/programmers are part of the newsroom. They create new journalistic products, presented in the form of databases accessible online, maps or interactive animations.

Viewing the Italian budget on the Guardian website

Relative to the scale of entire journalistic production, the output of these new journalists is marginal, particularly in France where they are outside the big daily newspapers. On the other hand, these new products have for the moment only a limited audience. However, in these times when the creation of information on the web is often associated with imitation among journalists, the decline of investigative journalism and the rule of the "web metrics", all of which which lead to standardization of on-line information, it is worth questioning these new practices from the point of view of the democratic role involved for the journalist. The research we have conducted in the US and France show that the new links being established these days between the computer and the press worlds give rise to a collective experimentation of what could be the role of journalism in our democracies.

Why are encoders interested in the press?

They are self-taught programmers, web entrepreneurs, web project managers, programmers engaged in open source communities or are open data activists. Why are they interested in journalism when the economic situation of the press is most alarming? The first reason relates to values. Despite the diversity of its trajectory and the extent of their powers, they are mostly linked to the "hacker" culture. That is, they are presented as computer enthusiasts, in which programming is the expression of their identity. This culture, whose outline was defined with the creation of personal computing in the early 80s, values above all the freedom of information and knowledge, and universal access to technology. Never confined to the restricted space of the professional world, this culture partly takes the form of a social movement that aims to transform institutions and social relations. In this perspective, the interest of these people in the media is because it is one of the fundamental means of production and circulation of information. Many associate their link to the world of the press with democracy itself. If you decide to give up generally better paid careers, it is because they have the feeling of participating in something bigger.

This commitment is also explained by the technological interest in the eyes of the press sector. Technological excellence is a fundamental rule for these hackers who see it as an ideal place to experiment and innovate in speedy programming -indispensable to keep up with changes in the press production- data processing and displaying. Although, for some years, many different journalists have become references in the world of programming and open source code, the North American Adrian Holovaty is undoubtedly the most emblematic figure.

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