Wednesday, October 26, 2005

News journalist and Cobol programming

Why is news journalism like Cobol programming? No it's not a joke, it's true. I invite journalists to comment.

Cobol is an acronym for COmmon Business Oriented Language which was "invented" in 1959 (a very good year, but besides the point). Admiral Grace Hopper, a fascinating woman who served her county for many years, was part of the commision who "invented" it. The significance of Cobol is that it was the first computer language designed to make computers usable for business purposes. Admiral Hopper's idea was that computers should be programmed in English. Cobol is still in use today by most (all?) Fortune 500 companies.

The other significance of Cobol is that it is verbose. Writing a Cobol program takes NUMEROUS lines of code. A simple program for student purposes may be under 100 lines, but by the time the student finishes an introductory course, he is easily working with programs 300-500 lines. In the business environment, programs over 1000 lines are common and if you work on a system, you describe it's length in k-locs (pronounced "k locks"). One k-loc is 1000 lines of code.

Here's the similarity to journalism. In college, I learned that no one ever wrote an original program. Well, maybe Grace Hopper wrote the first one, then everyone copied that and modified it. In classes I took, we started with one simple program and modified it. In businesses, there are models everywhere that are copied and modified.

This morning, I was doing some web research on the Iraqi constitution. I recalled reading an article last night that told the number of voters and the number of voters in the January election. In looking through several newspaper (via the web) articles, I kept seeing the same articles over and over, with slight variations (maybe only the headline?)

So journalism seems to be just like Cobol programming. Comments?


Super Reporter said...

It's called "wire services." Most newspapers can't afford to send a reporter to Iraq, so they subscribe to the Assocated Press or the New York Times News Service or Reuters. The newspaper Web sites post the wire copy on their Web site, the same wire copy that all the other newspapers have. In print, it doesn't matter because someone in Fresno doesn't have the same paper as someone in Richmond. But online, everyone has access so you end up getting the same story. Look at google news. You see one article on the main page, then a link that says "see all XXXX related." Most of those articles are the same articles, just on different news sites.

Randy Barnett said...

Why is there no reference to the wire service? Many articles have (AP) at the beginning. I realize it's from the AP.

Why must they change the headline, to be cute? OK, that's probably some editor, not the journalist.

Why do they change small bits and pieces of the article, so they can impose their "style"? OK, the editor again.

And finally, are the "all XXXX related" all the same article, or would some have substantial differences but would be "related"? I was looking for stats on the Iraqi constitution vote. Finding the particular stats I was looking for took a while.