Ian Burrell: Hacks Hackers is the place smart, young, would-be recruits looking for the right job head to these days

The Media Column

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Finding a good job in the media used to be about old-school-tie networks or else climbing those long career ladders from making the tea in the newsroom to working as a “runner” in the corridors of broadcasting.

It’s all very different now. Smart, young, would-be recruits head to Hacks/Hackers – and the smart employers go there, too. It is a global network where journalists and technology specialists come together.

The London branch started under the name Ruby in a Pub, with 30 people attending its inaugural meeting in the basement of The Shooting Star in Spitalfields.

Today, four years later, it holds most of its “meet-ups” at the UK headquarters of Twitter. Early next year, Hacks/Hackers will be hosted by the BBC, which is providing its prestigious Radio Theatre in New Broadcasting House for a meet-up.

Big employers have come to realise that this is where they should come to find talent for the modern news media, where an ability to use data and an understanding of coding is increasingly part of the required skill set. Trinity Mirror, the Financial Times, Guardian News & Media and The Wall Street Journal have all sent their representatives to mingle at Hacks/Hackers events.

For those who believe that “legacy” or traditional media companies are somehow locked in a mortal struggle with a news culture emerging online, the sight of reporters and editors mixing convivially with young programmers and developers might come as a surprise.

Joanna Geary, co-founder of the London branch of Hacks/Hackers, said both groups realised at the early meetings that they had a “knowledge gap” to cross. While many journalists had little idea what developers actually did, some tech people regarded journalism as so ubiquitous that they assumed it was easy.

This sense of disparate groups is evaporating. At meet-ups, Ms Geary asks attendees to identify themselves as hacks or hackers. Increasing numbers choose both.

“The people in between are growing – the people who see themselves as both journalists and technologists,” she says.

The original Hacks/Hackers was established in 2009 in the US by Burt Herman, founder of social-media service Storify, and New York Times journalist Aron Pilhofer (now executive editor of digital at The Guardian).

Ms Geary, then web-development editor at The Times, set up Ruby in the Pub with James Ball of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (now special projects editor of The Guardian). She is now head of news partnerships at Twitter UK and runs the London group with the developer Peter MacRobert, founder of product incubator Pixie Labs, and the journalists Sarah Marshall of The Wall Street Journal and Cassie Werber of business site Quartz.

The London chapter has a reputation for informality. At least two couples have met at meet-ups. Alcohol is supplied free, courtesy of sponsorship deals with start-up companies who wish to be associated with this influential group.

However, that doesn’t mean that events are not serious.

Meet-ups feature 20-minute presentations from leading media industry figures such as the investigative blogger Eliot Higgins, founder of the Bellingcat website. Mr Higgins is working with Hacks/Hackers on Investigathon, a side project aimed at using open internet sources to probe corruption.

Other speakers have included Lewis Whyld, the Telegraph’s specialist in drone journalism, and the former Independent editor and columnist in the i Simon Kelner, who runs the PR company Seven Dials. After the presentations, media companies have opportunities to make “lightning pitches” to the room.

Individuals pitch, too. Young journalist Elliot Bentley presented details of his oTranscribe app for simple transcription of audio recordings, and was hired by The Wall Street Journal as graphics editor.

There is, of course, a danger that something like Hacks/Hackers becomes little more than another privileged club, an old school tie for people who shun striped neckwear. The organisers say they are determined to keep the operation as democratic as possible – high-profile figures are not permitted to gatecrash the waiting list ahead of students and young graduates. Nobody wears name badges and it’s not easy to distinguish a corporate executive from a start-up entrepreneur.

With London meet-ups limited to 200 people, Hacks/Hackers is looking at ways of putting its talks online and creating a jobs noticeboard.

Ms Werber, who met her Quartz employers at Hacks/Hackers, says the group is cross-generational. “There are old hands who are enthusiastic about the way the industry is changing and 19-year-old students. Neither group has taken over.”

The common thread is optimism. “There’s no moaning about the industry,” Ms Marshall says. “It’s about all the positives that are happening. It’s people that can see beyond the …”

“… fear,” says Ms Werber, completing her friend’s sentence.

Hacks/Hackers is not for people who believe journalism is dying but rather for those who see in the latest search tools the potential for an exciting new era in information gathering.

“The people who come to Hacks/Hackers are doers, whether they come from journalism or from the coding  side,” says Ms Marshall. “It’s good for everybody in the industry who is outward looking.”