Newsroom Unicorns: Behaviours, habitat and life cycle


“Rare and magical creatures who live in the newsroom at the intersection of journalism and coding.”

This, as described by Garrett Goodman, director business development at Wochit, is the unicorn. Basically a catch-all phrase used to describe ‘interactive journalists’, ‘journocoders, ‘newsroom technologists’ etc…. The journalists who write and use computer code, or vice versa, the coders who work with or as journalists.

The collaboration between traditional journalism and the new technologies of the Internet has grown exponentially in the past decade – as have the possibilities of what those technologies can do. Garrett Goodman, John Crowley, Wall Street Journal digital editor, and Aron Pilhofer, executive editor of digital at the Guardian, have both been involved in huge projects of this type – from covering elections, to shootings, to the WWI centenary.

New people are emerging – the mysterious eponymous ‘unicorns’ – who are just as at home in a newsroom as they are in cyberspace, and they are using coding tech to tell good journalistic stories in exciting, innovative and better suited ways. Jacqui Maher, currently an interactive BBC journalist, is one such unicorn.

How does someone become a unicorn?

Jacqui Maher took a slightly long and meandering path into her route as a interactive journalist, after first getting involved in a hacker group, linked to the 2600 Magazine, in her teens.

“I wanted to be a poet…” she admitted, “Thankfully I ended up falling in with a bunch of hackers.” In the mid-nineties Maher ended up “falling into” a job in technology, then quickly moving on the Hearst Corporation’s Interactive Studios – an early endeavour in mixing technology and journalism – a job that involved writing CMS for magazines and “making a lot of interactive quizzes for Cosmo”.

After the Interactive Studio’s closed, Jacqui headed west and worked at a number of start-ups: Friendster, Live Nation and StreetEasy all among them, followed by a stint in Africa working for a NGO non-profit.

Eventually she clinched a job in the New York Times newsroom, getting involved in a number of projects including covering the London Olympics, and using coding technology to build a tool to help people find their missing loved ones in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquakes.

“Working in a newsroom was hugely rewarding”, said Maher. Since the New York Times she’s moved to London and is three months into her new role at the BBC.

What does a unicorn do?

What these coder/journalist unicorns actually do is a broad question. “There are many many many many flavours of this work,” explained Aron Pilhofer.

“And it’s actually nothing new…finding ways to make data part of the story has been going on in the states for 50 years.” It’s just that now that data work (and the people who do it) has moved to the “top of the table” and taken a central role in news storytelling.

“It is the ability to not just use data as a means to tell a story in a traditional format…you’re starting to see, and have been seeing, completely different story forms appearing.”

If you want to tell those kinds of stories you need to have people in a storytelling capacity who are not just journalists but capable of creating that kind of work… you’re bringing new skills into the newsroom.”

Where once graphics and coding teams were regarded are offshoots, or a second thought thrown in for good measure, now they have become and integral and essential part of journalistic practices.

What kind of projects?

Showing examples of the sort of work that a marriage of coding and good journalism can bring about, Pilhofer and John Crowley brought up some examples from the Guardian and Wall Street Journal respectively.

The Guardian’s ‘Immigrants in their own words: 100 stories” is one example. A piece designed to be made from “the voice of immigrants and not told through journalists, the work consisted of stories of migrants into the UK, written in their own words with our without photos, collected by the Guardian and fed into an interactive template created by the coders of the team.

The Guardian’s 2015 election poll coverage is another example, here using interactive graphics and design to allow audiences to track and compare how well British political parties are doing – at least according to the polls’ data.

Over on the American side of the pond, the Wall Street Journal has been using coding and interactive journalism in projects as their special 100 Legacies of WWI project, released a few days before the centenary, when readers can interact with, share and suggest stories of the legacies and outcomes that came of World War One.

It took a core four-person team six months to complete the massive project – a task that included editing over 44,000 words and creating unique videos, graphics or various interactive elements to go with each story.

As well as that, the Wall Street Journal has used coding tech to create projects about the Greek Golden Dawn, an ultra-rightist group behind a number of killings, and create a spider web visual representation of the Libor Scandel – arguably the biggest financial scam in history.

As John says, it’s all part of “that transition from something more text-based to something that’s more digital… more interactive.”

“Last year we only had one coder…we now have three. We will soon have four.” They are working not only on big projects, but tools for things like mapping, graphics and layouts that can be simple and useable for journalists everywhere.

This sort of work is not without its downsides of course. For one, big projects are expensive and laborious – and not guaranteed to work out. But with more and more online resources for journalists (like GitHub and ProPublica), a lot of open sourced code available and a willingness from editors to get involved…journalism is ready for all the unicorns we can find.