What’s with this programmer-journalist identity crisis?

I’ve felt it myself: somehow, people want me to declare an identity. Am I really a programmer or a journalist? And if people ask you something a lot, you can internalize it. But I think I just figured out my definitive personal answer.

Other people have been thinking about this too. Like this person and this person and just about most of the news nerds out there. Partially this is because there is recognizably a community of people who like to program with journalistic intent within the more or less traditional journalism industry. That community needed an identity to help it stick together, so we got language like programmer-journalist and hacks/hackers, and the hyphens are always awkward. ┬áMakes people wonder about the “right” balance. For that matter, I spend lots of time doing things that wouldn’t fit either label, yet somehow go together with both.

I’ve realized how to articulate my answer to “what’s your profession?” and such vexing questions as “what’s the difference between being a programmer-journalist and an IT person?” It’s this: can you code, are you good at helping people learn about their world, and do you see how software as civic media might contribute to some sort of democratic or social good / making the world a better place? Excellent.

Now suppose you work as one of these hyphenated creatures. Your on-the-job mixture of more traditionally journalistic-y activities (like talking to people to get otherwise unobtainable information) and more traditionally geeky activities (like all-weekend coding binges) is a matter of personal preference. If you personally find that you’d rather be doing more of something, or believe that it might be the sort activity that will improve the press in a way you believe is important, then you should try to do that. Choose different projects or talk to your boss or convince other people this is a good idea or change jobs or something. Do any of the things people do when they want to try to change the kind of work they’re paid to do.

Don’t worry about what the “right” mixture is or how you describe your affiliations. Just worry about living your life in a way that changes you and the world in a way that is pleasing.

And please, let’s not tell news organization IT people they’re not “journalists” or reporters they’re not real programmers. Are they creatively contributing to the mission of the organization? Then why deny the credit?