The new media priesthood: the word people now work for the code people

Virginia Heffernan
Yahoo! News

By Virginia Heffernan

Great news: The New Yorker is hiring!

What are the requirements, you ask, to work at the greatest literary magazine in the English-speaking world? Do you need to have gone to Princeton and edited the august literary magazine The Nassau (b. 1848) before you were 22? Should you have edited Toni Morrison for a decade and done the definitive translation from the Turkish of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s short stories?

No. Not even close.

You need to know computer code.

Or—rather—it would be ideal if you could code. And we know what that means. Your job at the literary magazine would not be fixing commas or assigning foreign stories. It would be running tech projects.

Nicholas Thompson, the editor of The New Yorker website, posted the tantalizing job listing on Friday. And just so you know, he didn’t whisper it at the Yale Club or the Round Table of the Algonquin Club. He didn’t try to see if someone’s clever ex-boyfriend from the Harvard Crimson and The New Republic wanted it first. Instead, Thompson posted the New Yorker staff opening to Twitter. And this is what he said: “Hiring a digital project manager. Help us at @NewYorker run cool, ambitious tech projects. Ideally, code too. Ping me.”

If you’re making media in this world—prose, journalism, photography, graphics—you ought to know how to code. And you don’t need to type up a letter extolling the legacy of Janet Malcolm and E.B. White on buttery letterhead. Just ping @nxthompson.

Literary work—editorial work—is now computer work. We’ve known it, on some level, for years. But now it’s right there in the job descriptions. And Thompson’s might not have been such a striking tweet if it didn’t come two weeks after Wired magazine announced a new editor in chief. An eloquent TED talker from MIT with three best sellers about digital literacy and neuroplasticity?

No—not a writer at all. A creative director and project manager—a visual type, clean-shaven, in scarlet-and-pumpkin-colored textiles. Scott Dadich looks nothing like a hacker and he looks nothing like a writer. Because he’s not: He comes from, you got it, product design. His product was Wired’s extraordinary “digital magazine”—its iPad app. Three years ago, using Apple’s then-new platform, Dadich was able to put word and image in a digital disco and actually sell tickets. He became known in media circles as the savior of Condé Nast’s floundering digital side.

Just to drive the savior point home, Evan Smith, Dadich’s old boss at Texas Monthly, told the New York Observer in 2010 that he considered Dadich “some sort of combination of Jesus and Pele” in the realm of magazine design. When Dadich assumed the helm of Wired in mid-November, he said, “I look forward to finding new opportunities to delight and surprise the Wired community, both with the stories we tell and in the ways in which we tell them.”

The stories we tell and how we tell them. The content is the form. And how we tell stories—distribute them, display them, monetize them even—is inextricable from the stories themselves.

What’s the lesson in this for the rest of us? Those of us who aim to make media—whether it’s music, magazines or movies? We must overcome our occupational allergy to product design and marketing and then, as soon as possible, we must learn computer code.

Whether we call it photography or prose or TV or graphics the media we now make is code. The Internet speaks in code; it thinks in code; it moves in code; it looks like code; its strength and value is code. When we write in English for the Internet, as I am now, we are making frosting rosettes and pretending we’re making cakes.

Writers and photographers must learn the new form, the same way that long-line poets of the past century had to learn short-line lyric poetry, because that’s what fit around the cartoons in The New Yorker. The same way Victorian scribblers working for daily papers had to cut their rambling sentimental stories and make room for ads. The same way, when television first appeared, playwrights had to drop their habit of blocking and drama and compose teleplays for three cameras.

We have to internalize what works and doesn’t work online, so that we don’t keep pitching articles that belonged in Time magazine in 2005, or albums that belonged on college radio in 1997. We do that, and then we expect technologists to cram them into new formats—apps or Internet radio or YouTube.

Writing code will be as much or more a part of making media as creating headlines and releasing singles. And, for the right people, who like being on the right side of history, it will be just as creative and much more fun.

Correction, 5:27 p.m. ET Nov. 30, 2012: A previous version of this column stated incorrectly that the New Yorker job was part of the magazine’s editorial staff. The new hire will work for the magazine’s digital staff.