Benji Lanyado is a journalist, coder – and a glimpse of the future?

Reddit

Flickr/Eva Blue

When I first heard about The Reddit Edit, I thought it was a nifty idea.

It takes Reddit’s functional, information-laden appearance and turns it into a streamlined, colourful depiction of the top trending stories. The top three stories are displayed in an easy-to-use side-scrolling interface, plucked from five popular subreddits: /r/worldnews, /r/politics, /r/technology, /r/science and /r/pics, plus the reddit.com homepage.

You might think a project like this would be the undertaking of a web developer, but it’s the brainchild of 28-year-old British journalist Benji Lanyado. The Reddit Edit was his final project while taking front-end web development classes with General Assembly, a New-York based digital education company who have recently expanded to London.

Benji, who writes for The Guardian and The New York Times, is part of a growing number of media types that are taking it upon themselves to know how to write and code to bring their content to life. I think this is interesting, and so do a few other people.

I recently sat down for a Skype session with Benji to ask him about The Reddit Edit and his other ideas – Top5News.co.uk and Kerouapp – and the future of journalism in general.

Benji, you’ve a journalist. You’ve wandered the world as a travel writer. You’re also a web developer, and you’ve leant a hand in the development of a number of services, in the creation of Top5News.co.uk, and in particular the Reddit Edit. We’ll get to that in a moment, but can I begin by asking you how did you get into this? How did it come to pass that you had this particular set of skills? What’s the story?

Well, I’ve always been a journalist, and a journalist who is hopelessly obsessed with the web, and that’s actually how I got into journalism in the first place. A friend and I built a website at university, which was a sort of user-generated travel guide for Europe. It was actually more or less when Trip Advisor was going huge. We never got to the levels of Trip Advisor but it’s just – I think I’m quite lucky where I’m of an age where sort of growing up I was sort of digitally native. Where news only sort of properly existed on the web for me. That’s quite a lucky place to be. In terms of the whole actual skill set, I’d say my skill set has been actually fairly standard as a journalist recently. I’ve been a web producer, which doesn’t actually involve building stuff itself, but recently I have learnt how to code. Not an expert level but a proficient level. And so whereas stuff before, professionally and things on the side, like Top5News and Kerouapp involved developers, and you had to come up with the idea and then find the person that could build it, now I can code myself. Reddit Edit is the first thing that I’ve done totally from scratch, on my own. It’s quite empowering to have the ideas and then build them yourself.

How did you learn to code? Did you take it upon yourself to teach yourself? Did you go to a bookstore and just get out a whole bunch of books and burn the midnight oil? Or did you sort of rub up against a couple of developers and get a bit of knowledge in your head, get a bit knowledge imparted from them?

BL: I actually cheated, and I paid for a course. I’ve done stuff like Code Academy before. It’s decent. You get a basic understanding. I know I’m the kind of person that needs someone that I can consistently ask questions. There’s a company called General Assembly who has recently located to London, they’re a New York based start up, and they’re utterly fantastic. It was actually a 10 week course, 2 lessons a week. And by the end of that, I was proficient in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. I’m actually going to be doing another course with them to get more backend stuff, so I’m doing a Ruby on Rails course. They were amazing. The best thing about it is that it’s an intense course. So, you almost sort of get fed the fundamentals during classes and then you go away and then you cram as much as you can on top of that. And, also, I’m lucky – through my work, through my social life – I know quite a lot of developers. And one of the greatest things that I’ve found about developers is that they want to help and that everyone that plies their trade they’re good at. So, pretty much every day, I’m pestering any developer I know when I get stuck with something, or I’ve got a little problem that I want so solve. And so, I did the course. And I would so recommend that people throw themselves in – yeah, you’ve got to pay a little bit of money, but it’s a proper investment, but I think it basically increases your skill set. And in journalism right now, to have that range of skills – to be able to write and code, two seemingly very complementary skills, but at different ends of the spectrum – they help an awful lot.

Benji Lanyado

Benji, who writes for The Guardian and The New York Times, says he was motivated to make Reddit easier for the average journalist and the time-poor after struggling with the site as a relative newcomer.

JB: And obviously this investment has paid off. It’s started to reap some dividends because you came up with the idea of Reddit Edit and you were able to bring that concept to reality. So, to Reddit Edit – what does it do? How did you come up with the idea and what do you hope to achieve with it?

BL: Well, I’ve found myself – I’m relatively new to Reddit, I’ve only been going on it for about 6 months. I’ve always been aware that it’s this vast community of people sharing links. To be honest, I initially thought it was all puerile and a little bit silly – you know, full of GIFs and pictures of cats – but actually what I’ve increasingly realised is that it’s an incredible source of news, and of quirky interesting stories from around the world. I would consistently find stories there, and two days later or three days later they would be in the features section of The Guardian, or The Telegraph, or the Huffington Post. It’s probably the greatest bit of news sourcing software out there. The way that it sorts things according to popularity is a pretty interesting. You know, it’s a bit of a litmus test for what the Internet is interested in. So anyway, I kept on finding myself being captivated by the people on Reddit but Reddit itself, from a visual point of view, I’ve always found to be a visual disaster. Now a lot of people would argue that the point of Reddit is to put as much information as possible on a page, so that’s how it has to be. It has to be a vomit of links. I had the thought of making it pretty and making it much more user friendly. And also a lot less intimidating. I think a lot of people arriving on Reddit, having heard it’s a really important site, look at it and go, “oh, I can’t be bothered”. So I wanted to make something that used an open API and make it very, very simple and also give just the top stories. These days people don’t have time. You just want the three most important. So I think that’s something that is increasingly wanted within the news-reading public.

So, would you say that it’s bringing the concept of Reddit to a broader audience perhaps? Perhaps a less technically-oriented audience – more of a layperson, if you will? I mean, what do you see as the applications of it?

I hope it does that. It will never – at least I hope it never – it will never be able to compete with Reddit for pure numbers. That site has got millions and millions of people on it every day. What I hope it will do more than anything else is show people how bloody brilliant Reddit is. I think there are lot of people that perhaps use The Reddit Edit that have might not even used Reddit itself properly before. I think that’s the main thing. I hope people realise that Reddit is actually a fantastic discovery mechanism, and if the Reddit Edit helps them do that, because it’s slightly more UX friendly and design focused.

You and I used Reddit quite closely, I imagine, because of our backgrounds and because of the industry in which we work, but for other people out there – I think it’s reasonable to say – Reddit has more or less demonstrated that it does have the potential to be harnessed as a sort of crowd-sourced fact-checking engine, or news gathering resource, or discovery mechanism. What do you think is the impact of Reddit and the way in which Reddit Edit, as in invention which sits on top of that, will have for journalism? What do you think these sorts of APIs on curated, social news platforms will mean for the future of journalism? What role do you think they’ll serve in the media landscape?

That’s a very good question. I hope they make things simpler because that’s one of the major challenges within the news landscape at the moment – it’s just pure noise. You combine Twitter, with Redditt, with Facebook and actually we are utterly bombarded with news. And it’s very difficult to work out what – not what the essentials are, but sometimes you just want to be like, “shut up and tell me what to read”. And I hope things like the Reddit Edit – because it’s taking the cream off the top of the crowdsourcing pile. It’s sort of letting Reddit do all the chattering and discussion and upvoting and downvoting about what matters, and then you skim off the top. It’s quite a selfish enterprise, really, because you’ve got all these millions of worker bees really working out what matters and doesn’t, and you’re just sort of reaping the fruits of the labour. But to be honest, that’s what people want, and I think that’s what people need, because everybody’s just so overwhelmed. And I think, that kind of Top 5 News idea, is “this is what I need to read, the rest: sorry I don’t have time.” I hope that’s something that makes news consumption something a slightly more enjoyable and simpler experience for people.

Clay Shirky once famously said there’s no such thing as information overload, there’s just filter failure. So do you see endeavours like this as a means to grab a whole bunch of information that’s user-generated and user-curated and sift through it and serve it to people that might not be particularly well-versed with Reddit? Do you see it serving a role in helping channel this fire hose of information that social media offers to a broad audience?

Yes, well I hope so. I think those are bold aims for something that’s essentially a small project, but I hope it helps with that. It’s similar to another website I’ve made for the UK and US news called Top5News.co.uk and Top5News.net, which basically scrapes the most popular articles from various websites and puts them onto a single page. And so, again, it’s trying to be very much like what Clay Shirky was talking about – a kind of filter on top of too much information. And, of course, he’s right, there’s no such thing as too much information because you need that as a kind of global fact-checking mechanism, just making sure that things get out there. That’s why the Internet is so wonderful. But I do hope that it can kind of provide a bit of a filter on top of it, to show what people are interested in. I think that metric is something that’s fascinating and we don’t get enough. When news is given to you it’s usually either a.) what editor’s think matter or b.) what’s the latest. And the thing that often gets missed out in all of that is – what are people actually reading? Even if that is people – you might find out the most popular article on The Guardian’s website is actually about David Beckham’s pants. But The Guardian might not want you to see that or to be in people’s faces – it might be a bit self-perpetuating. But they still want to know what everybody is reading. The entire flip side is that maybe what’s the most important is what nobody’s reading. Certainly, for a kind of popularist point of view, that metric, what people are focusing on right now and what people are interested in right now, is massive. And I think people want it, and want to be served in that respect.

Now, you’ve touched upon some of your other projects. You mentioned briefly Top5News.co.uk. But can you tell us more about Kerouapp in particular? What I understand it to be is a sort of social media slash map mash up, if it’s fair to describe it as such. How do you see news consumers and journalists using that service in particular in the future?

The whole idea of Kerouapp is to tell a story geographically, and that can be live or in the past. The way it works is a journalist, or anyone really, authorises Kerouapp to track their Twitter account, and then every single tweet that they do that is geotagged gets displayed on a map. So, you’ll in real time be watching a journalist. The Guardian have used it; they sent one of their journalists across most of southern Europe to find stories about the Euro debt crisis. And you could watch, you could see where he was. Every time he tweeted, or tweeted an image, it would appear on this map and it would draw a line to the next place, and then the next place, and then the next place. It’s an alternative way of live reporting things. So, whereas in live blogs you’ll have a stream of updates of people showing what they can see, and writing what they can see, Kerouapp takes that and applies it to a map. Again, it’s a little side project, but it’s been used quite a few times by The Guardian, by the BBC and by Time Out. It’s trying to add a richness that didn’t exist before. It’s the simplest thing as well. As a journalist, you need a smartphone and a Twitter account, and that’s it. You can stream all the traditional elements of reportage: images, audio, video, text; it all appears via Kerouapp on the news map.

How important do you think it is that journalists start to really embrace this very different – very similar, but many respects very different – mode of storytelling?

I personally think it’s non-negotiable. I think if you’re a journalist these days that at least doesn’t have a bit of a handle on it, then you shouldn’t be a journalist. Admittedly, we are at an odd sort of slight crossroads, where you’re finding a lot more senior and experienced journalists, who are incredible within their field, but who don’t have a handle on all the modern means of reporting and communication – and that doesn’t mean that they don’t count, are redundant, and should get out and make the tea, because their expertise are invaluable. However, for the new generation of journalists, it’s – first of all, it’s instinctive. In the same way most newspaper organisations, these days have to try so hard, having social media editors all pushing their staff to using this stuff. In the future it will be knee-jerk, it’ll be instinctive.

This is an excellent segue way to the next concept that I want to explore, which is that you’ve written on your blog and perhaps elsewhere of this great importance of journalists and developers to collaborate and to produce these new ways of storytelling. But you’ve hinted that perhaps this intersection of ideas and skills is yet to really take hold in most newsrooms. Why do you think that’s the case and how do you think this can be rectified?

I think there are a variety of reasons why I think journalists and developers don’t work closely together enough. One of them is a very sort of structural one, which is almost historic. Back in the day, in the pre-digital age, journalist was a very upstairs downstairs enterprise. You had upstairs making the stories and the layouts, and doing all the creative bits, and the print room underneath was churching out the actual product. So, it’s a kind of brains and brawn delineation. And when the digital age kicked in, developers were sort of shoved downstairs because they were making the new digital means of production. I think because of the legacy of that, there’s still a lot of editors and journalists who think of developers as the IT department. You know, people who will come and update Windows or make sure the CMS is working properly. The point is, over the last 10 years, you’re increasingly getting these sort of rock star developers who aren’t only incredible programmers, with a real eye for design and client side stuff, they really get journalism as well. So, if news organisations harvest those talents equally, really extraordinary things can happen. However, most news organisations are sort of strange cross. They can’t work out if they’re a media organisation or a technology organisation. I think in a technology company you’ve got a fairly standard way of working with products. So, you have product cycles and you have sprint cycles – the most important thing is getting your products made. And that doesn’t allow for developers to do the other stuff, the more experimental stuff when working with journalists. It’s quite an important thing to reconcile. You need to make sure the developer is doing the things he needs to do, the same with journalists, but also collaborating.

As a follow up question, I wonder if you might be able to cast your eyes into a crystal ball for a moment? Digital technologies are continuing to disrupt traditional media business models; here in Australia and elsewhere, we’ve seen newspaper circulations falter. We’ve seen audiences fragment. There’s been some high profile departures. We’ve seen an explosion in the use of social media. It’s a big, broad question but given all the subject matter we’ve discussed, and keeping it in mind, what do you think the future of journalism looks like?

With these things, I think you just have to go on hunches, and there’s a few dead certainties. Print, as a product, will inevitably dramatically decrease. It certainly won’t disappear. They’ll get to a stage where they’ll be a rise in boutique publications. Magazines are thriving. I don’t know what the situation over there is, but here really design-savvy boutique magazines are doing really well. Newspapers, as a print product, will go that way. You might find that The Guardian or The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age will start to have a production run that’s ten times smaller than what it is right now, but it will cost, let’s say, six bucks or five pounds a copy. It’s re-working that as a product that will actually have a proper audience, rather than continuing to flog print runs of hundreds of thousands or millions. It’s just not sustainable. As for online, again, I’m not really sure what the situation is over there. See, the wonderful thing about Australia is that economically you’re thriving compared to us over here. I’d hope, and I honestly don’t know if this is the case or not, that within that there is plenty of experimentation going on, and media companies trying new things. Now is the time to experiment than any other time, because everything’s changing so much. I think people that experiment the most now will gain the most. Some of the most interesting things over a little while have been coming out of the States. I often look at some of the traditional media companies and wonder what on earth they’re doing, and how they intend to be existing in five or 10 years time. In the States you’re seeing companies like Gawker and the Huffington Post and Slate, and these are digital only publications. We’re getting to a stage now where, not only in terms of readership – they’ve been ahead in terms of readership for ages – but in terms of respect, in terms of a position that they’re held in the landscape – the Huffington Post won a Pulitzer this year, which is absolutely no surprise whatsoever, despite the fact that some of their content is rubbish, because they are doing some really impressive things. I think that kind of balance – increasingly there’ll be more and more digital publications that kick the traditional publications out of the park. And the establishment and production costs of these companies are so much lower than the New York Times. Now, I’m not sure if that’s the case within Australia, but it’s not the case in Britain, which is bad, because it still is the mainstream media here that has the lion’s share of the market. We don’t have a Gawker, we don’t have The Huffington Post, we just don’t have those kind of publications here – which is slightly to do with our sort of history. We’ve had pretty much every corner of the market covered by mainstream media and it’s very difficult to break that stranglehold, whereas in the States, they are where they are because they didn’t have that kind of gossip industry. They had things like The Inquirer or – not The Inquirer, I can’t remember what it’s called – but they never had tabloids like Britain. So sites like Gawker and Huffington Post really found it and penetrated it. In Britain, there really isn’t that area of the market to penetrate. Sorry, I’m rambling.

No, not at all.

Where I hope it will be, which is maybe a little different to where I think it will be – I really hope that within Australia and the UK that we can get to at least that level, which is a digital-only style commanding as much respect from – who cares about journalists, but respect from the public. So, you know, I read this thing on the Sydney Morning Herald but I also read this thing from some local digital start up. I think without those companies the major media companies aren’t forced to innovate or change much. I think you need that competition to realise how you ought to do things differently. I hope that’s an accurate belief.

Here in Australia, in answer to one of your questions, I think newspapers now have started to appreciate the challenge that Internet technologies and “being digital” pose to their businesses. Very recently, as I said, we saw some editorial departures at a few mastheads. Now being “digital first” has become the mantra of media executives across the land. They’re restructuring newsrooms.  They’re downsizing staff in a some areas. It’s been big news here in Australia. With that in mind, and the importance of the Internet, and the importance of digital technology in general, what sort of skills do you think young journalists and student journalists should either be taught at university or should take it upon themselves to learn now? What do they need to know so that they’re geared towards the future?

I think that’s a really good question, and having learnt very recently this proficient level of HTML, CSS, JavaScript – basic sort of coding languages. I know this sounds a bit silly, but I genuinely think that I sort of saw the light. I was a web producer over at The Guardian for the last few years, something that involves working with developers from time to time. It’s kind of coming up with digital ideas and then working to make them happen. I now feel sort of slightly embarrassed that during that entire period I was working with developers and working with digital products – and I knew the basics, I knew roughly how things worked, and I was a decent translator between some of the much more senior editors and the technologists – but now I properly understand the nuts and bolts of how a digital product is made, and I’ve made one myself. Even from a base level of making digital decisions. Anyone making digital decisions – and essentially that’s an editor – editors are making digital decisions all the time, journalists are making digital decisions all the time, so are product managers, I think you have to understand how these things work. Even if it’s the basic, entry level “this is how a website is built”, “this is how a database works”, “this is the page in which your article appears and why it is constructed that way” – if people can just get their heads around that, they’ll have a real advantage against people who don’t. So, I think increasingly the division between of labour between the technologists who make the website, and the journalists provide the content, those boundaries are going to start coming down. I’m working on something at the moment and I’m really hoping it’s going to see the light of day, even though I’ve scared a lot of the editors that I’ve spoken to. I’ve been commissioned to write an article about a play. I want to go there, and I want to build a website for that article. So, essentially, not only writing the article, making the article – and even that, it’s not something scalable across an entire organisation. Stuff like that, if you’re an emerging journalist, if you can offer all those things, I think hopefully editors and media organisations will realise you’re a cut above the rest. If you can write an article, and then create all the backend and the data stuff around it, I think you become slightly more than the traditional digital journalist. The caveat to that … it’s interesting you talking about these departures at the top level of Australian media organisations because despite all of these all of these positive – hopefully positive – technical changes and the sort of up skilling of the average journalist what I think is crucial is that you have proper organisations that get it. That sounds like a very simple thing: do they get it? And, additionally, are they willing to surround themselves and delegate to people who get it? I think news organisations have to get that. The world has changed. Therefore, the people running these organisations have to get the new world. They can’t necessarily be from the old world, trying really hard to get the new world, they have to really get it. Otherwise they’ll be torn apart by the truly digital companies, by people who truly get the new landscape.

Final question. Where to from here? What’s next for you?

I don’t know. I’ve only been freelance for about a month now. I decided to go freelance with the intention of starting to build products myself, and starting to work in a different way, and basically building things rather than writing things – so yeah, the answer is I don’t know. I’m going to be working with media organisations. Working on sort of bits and bobs, and projects and articles to pay the bills. But I want to do something different. Basically, I don’t know, but the biggest thing that I’m doing, that I’m most excited about, is the next stage of the programming course which is this Ruby on Rails course I’m doing with General Assembly London. Which should complete the circle of being able to fully program websites and make stuff. Once I’ve got that, I’ve got quite a few ideas, like things I want to do with The Reddit Edit involving much more complex backend database stuff. I think people will find it quite fun and exciting. I want to learn more programming languages. I want to be able to do more. As I said, it’s so empowering to be able to have an idea and be able to do it yourself, and then crack on with more fun side projects like the Reddit Edit and Top5News.co.uk. And who knows? One of them might actually sort of start properly propelling upwards and then we’ll go from there.

Great stuff. Benji, thank you for your time.

No worries. Thanks a lot.

5 comments

  1. Burger, You and Beji have inspired me to learn more, and learn how to code. I learned how to publish my own blog last year, and thought I was doing well, but you blokes (especially Benji) have taken the whole thing many steps further. An excellent interview as well! Thank you.

  2. Very inspiring! Thank you for this post!

  3. [...] you have it: BENJI LANYADO IS A JOURNALIST, CODER – AND A GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE? News Burger poses the question that, at least in the Bay Area, is increasingly answered with an emphatic [...]

  4. [...] is a firm proponent of not just social media editors but anyone working in online journalism of learning to code. Not necessarily being a programming guru, but being well-rounded and well-versed in front end web [...]

  5. [...] later. To be aware of these possibilities, you have to be the kind of person who is quite happy talking to a developer. Or finding out what’s new, because in doing so you discover there are many possibilities. [...]

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