What’s the diff?

Posted by Pixafy Team

I’m always intrigued when I see the tools we use here each day employed for another purpose. In this case, it’s being used in a field near and dear to my heart: journalism.

A former New York Times journalist and a pair of sibling programmers, using readily available tools like GitHub, developed NewsDiffs, a service that tracks changes to online articles.  Initially the site is monitoring the New York Times and CNN, but there is consideration being made to add more sites.

The initial concept was spurred on by a viral image, showing a major change to a story about the Occupy Wall Street protests, and how the initial version of the story painted a very different picture then the final story that was printed in the paper and left online.  The developers put it together during a hackathon, showing just how easy it is to do.

Version control is a huge part of working at a company like Pixafy; it helps to see what changes are made at each step, so if errors are introduced or the code evolves because of new features or changes, it’s easier to find why something that did work didn’t, or how the code came to be a certain way.  It’s educational, but it’s also critical if something goes wrong so we can restore the former (working) version or more quickly fix a bug.

Similarly, now that journalism is moving to a “digital first” format, where items are posted online and updated regularly, you can see the same evolution (and sometimes, mistakes) introduced.

The laughable part was a quote in a New York Times column written by Arthur Brisbane last year which said,

Right now, tracking changes is not a priority at The Times. As [then-incoming Executive Editor Jill] Abramson told me, it’s unrealistic to preserve an “immutable, permanent record of everything we have done.”

Jennifer 8. Lee, the journalist on the NewsDiffs team, commented to Beta Beat, “But actually, with version control software, we can get a pretty good approximation. Developers have solved this problem. We just have to use it.”

Indeed – version control is definitely alive and well in the tech industry, and it’s somewhat cool to see such a geeky concept applied in such a fascinating way. Sites like wikipedia certainly have no trouble publicly showing the changes made, although their credibility, such as it is, relies on such transparency. That’s something The New York Times could certainly benefit from when it comes to showing how a story evolves.

The benefits of it are huge, and the New York Times shows that, despite being a leader in the journalism field when it comes to using technology, they definitely haven’t got it all figured out quite yet.