Phillip Smith

What would you ask Emily Bell?

I'm sitting here thinking to myself "What will you ask Emily Bell?," in preparation for her upcoming visit to Toronto this week.

Emily Bell has an incredible range of experience, as Director of Digital Content for Guardian News and Media, Editor-in-Chief of, founder of, and as Business Editor of the Observer before that. She is now training the journalists of tomorrow as the Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She will also oversee the new dual-degree Master of Science Program in Computer Science and Journalism with Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

So, there are really two distinct perspectives that Emily brings:

  • How technology & journalism are colliding in large news operations, and how to push that intersection to its limits;
  • And how those lessons apply to the future of reporting & journalism that is currently unfolding in the academic world.

However, not everyone's experience of combining developers and reporters has been so positive. In fact, there is a tension in some journalism-meets-technology conversations today -- a tension that is excellently captured in Steve Myer's recent piece on Poynter about "news application developers" and the current state of the profession. (If you haven't read it yet, go read it now, seriously.) Basically, the article points out that people on the vanguard of the news-application development community are asking important questions about the state of the art, and why so few publishers are making this new form of reporting a priority.

So, jumping off from there, there are a few questions that I'd love to ask Emily Bell:

  • The first question -- one that continues to emerge when I'm speaking with publishers -- is about the return on investment that should be expected when investing in developers and data specialists. I get the sense that, from the publishers perspective, hiring another reporter is a much safer bet, and -- frankly -- that's difficult to refute. So the question is: What was the initial proposal for the Guardian's investment into digital, data journalism, and news apps, in terms of potential return on that investment? And, consequently, what was the reality?

  • Next up: What were the motivations behind heading into the academic world, and what are your aspirations for the new digital journalism program? If the program is successful, what kinds of innovations can we expect to see in the field of journalism in five years time?

  • Finally: How feasible is the concept of the programmer-journalist? Is it really possible that one person can be excellent at these two time-consuming pursuits? Can we really expect more than a tech-dabbling journalist, or a punctuation-aware programmer?

My gut says that it will be darn interesting to hear from someone that is both a leader in this rapidly evolving space, and also a person that has the real-world newsroom experience to back-up that thinking. As I read through my notes from NICAR11, no doubt, I'll come up with a few more question... in the meantime, what would you ask Emily Bell?


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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