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October 07 2011

18:30

What newsrooms can learn from open-source and maker culture

“Newsosaur” blogger and media consultant Alan Mutter some time ago suggested that journalism has become a lot more like Silicon Valley. Newspapers are too risk-averse, he said, and so they “need some fresh DNA that will make them think and act more like techies and less like, well, newspaper people.”

When Seth was at the Hacks/Hackers hack day at ONA11 last month, as part of his larger project studying Hacks/Hackers, he mentioned this idea to Phillip Smith, a digital publishing consultant who has been instrumental in the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership (the same collective we wrote about in August).

Maker culture is a way of thinking — a DIY aesthetic of tinkering, playing around, and rebuilding, all without fear of failure.

While Smith generally agreed with Mutter’s premise — of course Silicon Valley could bring a little dynamism to newspapers and journalism — he offered a caveat: The technology sector that Smith knew a decade ago was more about hacking-in-the-open and building cool stuff for others to enjoy, with a secondary emphasis on making money. Now the inverse is true: Silicon Valley is much less about the ideals of the open web, and much more about (as another observer has put it) short-sighted technology for the sake of “big exits and big profits.”

So it’s a bit of a mistake, we think, to go down the route of saying that journalism needs to become like Silicon Valley, in part because Silicon Valley is not simply a world of innovation, but also a highly competitive, secretive, and unstable metaphor. (Think: Groupon IPO, or even The Social Network.)

Instead, open source might be what people are hoping for when they think about remaking journalism — both in terms of innovating the business/system of news, and in terms of making it more transparent and participatory.

In a widely circulated recent post, Jonathan Stray suggested that the news industry could draw on “maker culture” to create a new kind of journalism — one that plumbs the institutional and technical complexities of major issues (like global finance) in a way that invites bright, curious “makers” to hack the system for the good of society. “This is a theory of civic participation based on empowering the people who like to get their hands dirty tinkering with the future,” Stray wrote. Josh Stearns built on this line of reasoning, arguing that “maker culture is the willingness to become experts of a system, and then use that expertise to change the system.”

Their approach to “maker culture,” we believe, can have a direct and practical implementation in journalism through a focus on integrating open source into the newsroom. As both Stray and Stearns point out: Maker culture is a way of thinking — a DIY aesthetic of tinkering, playing around, and rebuilding, all without fear of failure. Just the kind of thing journalism needs.

Maker culture is bound up in the technology and ethos of hacker culture, as James Losey of the New America Foundation has helpfully showed us. Losey (and colleague Sascha Meinrath) think this kind of “internet craftsmanship” is instrumental to sustaining the very architecture of the web itself: having the freedom and control and playful curiosity to shape networking technologies to meet one’s needs. Gutenberg, as Losey and Meinrath argue, was the first hacker, fundamentally rethinking technology. And it’s from this hacker mindset that we can take cues for rebooting the tools, practices, and frameworks of journalism.

Silicon Valley is not just a world of innovation, but also a highly competitive, secretive, and unstable metaphor.

So: Add maker/hacker culture, mix in a bit of theorist Richard Sennett, who believes in the capacity of individuals to reshape and innovate new media, and sprinkle some open-source juice into journalism, and you get the following:

1. New tools, stage one
We see this already. At ONA11, Knight-Mozilla’s Dan Sinker led a panel on open source in the newsroom that featured representatives from several major players: ProPublica (Al Shaw), The New York Times (Jacqui Cox), and the Chicago Tribune’s News Apps Team (Brian Boyer). Meanwhile, folks at The Seattle Times are using fairly simple tools like Tableau Public to visualize census data. In short: Already there are people inside newsrooms building cool and creative things.

2. New tools, stage two
This stage means going beyond the existing crop of databases, visualizations, and crowdsourcing applications (amazing as they are!) to look a bit more holistically at the system of news and the incorporation of open source in truly opening up the newsroom. In other words, can news organizations build open-source platforms for refining whole content management systems, or for building entirely new distribution systems?

Gutenberg was the first hacker, fundamentally rethinking technology.

Reflecting on Knight-Mozilla’s “hacking and making” week in Berlin — a gathering (dubbed, despite the month, “Hacktoberfest“) that featured journalists, designers, developers, and several news organization partners — Sinker made an interesting observation about open-source tools for newsrooms. Some of the news partners worried that “open-souce code would reveal too much,” but then it dawned on them that coordination among them would actually be facilitated by “working in the open.” They realized that “it meant far more than just code — it meant a new way of working, of embracing collaboration, and of blazing a real way forward.”

Beyond the benefits to collaboration, it’s important to remember that “open source” doesn’t necessarily mean “non-commercial.” If newsrooms develop open-source tools that make newswork (or knowledge management generally) easier, they can find revenue opportunities in selling services around that open code.

3. New thinking: A maker mindset + open source
What does it mean to incorporate the tinkering and playing and reshaping of maker culture back into journalism? The news industry is one of the last great industrial hold-overs, akin to the car industry. Newsrooms are top-heavy, and built on a factory-based model of production that demands a specific output at the end of the day (or hour). They’re also hierarchical, and, depending on whom you ask, the skills of one journalist, are for the most part, interchangeable with those of most other journalists — in part because journalists share a common set of values, norms, and ideals about what it means to do their work.

Thus, merging elements of maker culture and journalism culture might not be easy. Challenging the status quo is hard. The expectations of producing content, of “feeding the beast,” might get in the way of thinking about and tinkering with the software of news, maker-style. It can’t just be the newsroom technologists hacking the news system; it has to be journalists, all of them, reflecting on what it means to do news differently. We have to make time for journalists to rethink and reshape journalism like a hacker would retool a piece of code.

4. New frameworks: The story as code
While observing the Knight-Mozilla digital learning lab, some of the coolest things we saw were the final projects designed to reimagine journalism. (See all of the projects here and here.) What made these pitches so interesting? Many of them tried to bring a fundamental rethink to problems journalism is struggling to resolve — for instance, how to make information accessible, verifiable, and shareable.

So if we think about the story as code, what happens? It might seem radical, but try to imagine it: Journalists writing code as the building blocks for the story. And while they write this code, it can be commented on, shared, fact-checked, or augmented with additional information such as photos, tweets, and the like. This doesn’t have to mean that a journalist loses control over the story. But it opens up the story, and puts it on a platform where all kinds of communities can actively participating as co-makers.

We have to make time for journalists to rethink and reshape journalism like a hacker would retool a piece of code.

In this way, it’s a bit like the “networked journalism” envisioned by Jeff Jarvis and Charlie Beckett — although this code-tweaking and collaboration can come after the point of initial publication. So, your investigative pieces are safe — they aren’t open-sourced — until they become the source code for even more digging from the public.

In all of this thinking of the ways open source is changing journalism, there are some clear caveats:

1. For open-source projects to succeed, they require lots of people, a truly robust network of regular contributors. Given the amount of time that people might be willing to spend with any one article, or with news in general, who knows whether the real public affairs journalism that might benefit the most from open source would, in fact, get the kind of attention it needs to change the framework.

2. Open source requires some form of leadership. Either you have someone at the top making all the decisions, or you have some distributed hierarchy. As one newspaper editor told a fellow academic, Sue Robinson, in her study of participatory journalism, “Someone’s gotta be in control here.”

Image by tiana_pb used under a Creative Commons license.

December 13 2010

15:00

What will 2011 bring for journalism? Clay Shirky predicts widespread disruptions for syndication

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we at the Lab decided to ask some of the smartest people we know what they thought 2011 would bring for journalism. We’re very pleased that so many of them agreed to share their predictions with us.

Over the next few days, you’ll hear from Steve Brill, Vivian Schiller, Michael Schudson, Markos Moulitsas, Kevin Kelly, Geneva Overholser, Adrian Holovaty, Jakob Nielsen, Evan Smith, Megan McCarthy, David Fanning, Matt Thompson, Bob Garfield, Matt Haughey, and more.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results later this week.

To start off our package of predictions, here’s Clay Shirky. Happy holidays.

The old news business model has had a series of shocks in the 15 or so years we’ve had a broadly adopted public web. The first was the loss of geographic limits to competition (every outlet could reach any reader, listener or viewer). Next was the loss of progressive layers of advertising revenue (the rise of Monster and craigslist et alia, as well as the “analog dollars to digital dimes” problem). Then there is the inability to charge readers easily without eviscerating the advertising rate-base (the failure of micropayments and paywalls as general-purpose solutions).

Next up for widespread disruption, I think, is syndication, a key part of the economic structure of the news business since the founding of Havas in the early 19th century. As with so many parts of a news system based on industrial economics, that model is now under pressure.

As Jonathan Stray pointed out in “The Google/China Hacking Case” and Nick Carr pointed out in “Google in the Middle,” the numerator of organizations producing original news is tiny — absolutely tiny — compared to the denominator of those re-publishing that news. Stray notes that only 7 of the 121 outlets running the China story were based mainly on original reporting, while the vast majority was just wire service copy. Carr similarly pointed out that Google news showed 11,264 separate outlets for the Somali pirate story in 2009, almost all of them re-running the same couple of stories. (I was similarly surprised, last year, to discover that syndicated content outweighed locally created content in my old hometown paper by a 2:1 margin.)

The idea that syndication should be different in a digital era has been around for a while now. Jeff Jarvis’s formulation — “Do what you do best and link to the rest” — dates from 2007, and the AP started talking about about holding back some stories from subscribers in order to drive their PageRank up last year. What could make 2011 the year of general restructuring is Google’s attempt to give credit where credit is due, in the words of their blog post, by offering tags that identify original and preferred sources for syndicated stories.

This kind of linking, traffic driving, and credit are natively web-like ideas, but they are also inimical to the older logic of syndication. Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs. When news outlets were segmented by geography, having live human beings sitting around in ten thousand separate markets deciding which stories to pull off the wire was a service. Now it’s just a cost.

Giving credit where credit is due will reward original work, whether scoops, hot news, or unique analysis or perspective. This will be great for readers. It may not, however, be so great for newspapers, or at least not for their revenues, because most of what shows up in a newspaper isn’t original or unique. It’s the first four grafs of something ripped off the wire and lightly re-written, a process repeated countless times a day with no new value being added to the story.

Taken to its logical conclusion, giving credit where credit is due will mean things like 11,260 or so outlets getting out of the business or re-running the same three versions of the Somali pirate story. If Reuters has the best version, why shouldn’t people just read it from Reuters?

Like other forces brought to bear by the web, there’s no getting around this one — rewards for originality are what we want, not just as consumers but as citizens — but creating an environment that generates those rewards will also mean dismantling the syndication model we’ve had since Havas first set up shop.

September 28 2010

10:09

Jonathan Stray: Digital news needs better products, not just emulations of old media

Professional journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray argues in this thoughtful blog post that journalism and news organisations should create products to better support civic culture and “the people who are actually changing the world”. He looks at the existing state of product design in journalism and how it could be improved:

Newspaper stories online and streaming video on a tablet are not those tools. They are transplantations of what was possible with paper and television (…) Much of the ongoing future-of-journalism discussion focuses on how reporting needs to change, and rightly so. But that analysis stops short of the user, and how journalism is actually used – or could be used.

Digital news product design has so far mostly been about emulation of previous media. Newspaper web sites and apps look like newspapers. “Multimedia” journalism has mostly been about clicking somewhere to get slideshows and videos. This is a little like the dawn of TV news, when anchors read wire copy on air. Digital media gives us an explosion of product design possibilities, but the envisioned interaction modes have so far stayed mostly the same.

News and journalism “products” need to consider who will be using them and what those users’ expectations will be – news outlets’ current perception of what they are offering and to whom is not matched by users’ behaviour on their sites, the post explains.

Full post on Jonathan Stray’s website…Similar Posts:



February 26 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: The Times’ blogs behind the wall, paid news on the iPad, and a new local news co-op

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A meter for the Times’ blogs: Plenty of stuff happened at the intersection of journalism and new media this week, and for whatever reason, a lot of it had something to do with The New York Times. We’ll start with the most in-depth piece of information from the Times itself: A 35-minute Q&A session with the three executives most responsible for the Times’ coming paywall (or, more specifically and as they prefer to call it, a metered model) at last Friday’s paidContent 2010 conference. No bombshells were dropped — paidContent has a short summary to go with the video — but it did provide the best glimpse yet into the Times’ thinking behind and approach to their paywall plans.

The Times execs said they believe the paper can maintain its reach despite the meter while adding another valuable source of revenue. Meghan Keane of Econsultancy was skeptical about those plans, saying that the metered model could turn the Times into a niche newspaper.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon started one of the more perplexing exchanges of the session (starting at about 18:10 on the video) when he asked whether the Times would put blogs behind its paywall. The initial response, from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was “stay tuned,” followed shortly, from digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, by “our intention is to keep blogs behind the wall.” A Times spokeswoman clarified the statements later (yes, blogs would be part of the metered model), and Salmon blogged about his concern with the Times’ execs’ response. He was not the only one who thought this might not be a good idea.

My take: Salmon has some valid concerns, and, piggybacking off of the ideas he wrote after the paywall’s initial announcement, even the Times’ most regular online readers will be quite hesitant to use their limited meter counts on, say, two-paragraph blog posts on the economics of valet parking. Times blogs like Freakonomics and Bits are a huge part of their cachet on the web, and including them in the meter could do them significant damage.

The iPad and paid content: We also saw another aspect of the Times’ paid-content plans at a conference in Australia, where Marc Frons, the paper’s chief technology officer, talked about the Times’ in-progress iPad app. Frederic Filloux, another one of the conference’s speakers, provided a useful summary of publishers’ attitudes and concerns about creating apps for the iPad, including their expectation that Apple will provide some sort of news store built on the iTunes framework.

Two media vets offered a word of caution to news organizations excited about the iPad’s possibilities for gaining revenue for news: Kara Swisher of The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital blog said that “with their hands on none of the key technology and innovation levers online … media giants continue to be without even a pair sticks to rub together to make digital fire.” And citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor wondered whether news orgs “should get in bed with a company that makes unilateral and non-transparent decisions” like the ones Apple’s been making for years.

For those following the future of paid news content, we have a few other new data points to consider: The stats-heavy sports publication The Sporting News will begin charging for its daily digital edition, and a small daily newspaper in Washington State says the first year of their paywall has been a tentative success, with less effect on traffic than expected. Also, Alistair Bruce of Microsoft has a thorough breakdown of who’s charging for what online in a slideshow posted last week. It’s a wonderful resource you’ll want to keep for future reference.

NYT, NYU team up on local journalism: The Times also had one of the week’s big future-of-journalism announcements — a partnership with New York University to create and run a news site devoted to New York’s East Village, where NYU has several buildings. NYU professor Jay Rosen has all the details you’ll need, including who’s providing what. (NYT: publishing platform, editorial oversight, data sources, inspiration. NYU: editor’s salary, student and faculty labor, offices.)

The partnership raised a few media-critic eyebrows, mostly over the issue of the Times using free (to them, at least) student labor after buying out and laying off 100 paid reporters. The Awl, BNETThe New York Observer, and Econsultancy all have short but acerbic reactions making just that point, with The Awl making a quick note about the professionalization of journalism and BNET speculating about the profit margins the Times will make off of this project.

Innocence, objectivity and reality in journalism: Jay Rosen kicked off some conversation in another corner of the future-of-journalism discussion this week, bringing his influential PressThink blog out of a 10-month hiatus with a post on a theme he’s been pushing hard on Twitter over the past year: Political journalists’ efforts to appear innocent in their reporting at the expense of the truth.

Rosen seizes on a line in a lengthy Times Tea Party feature on “a narrative of impending tyranny” and wonders why the Times wouldn’t tell us whether that narrative was grounded in reality. Journalistic behavior like this, Rosen says, is grounded in the desire to appear innocent, “meaning a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved.” That drive for innocence leads savviness to supplant reality in political journalism, Rosen said.

The argument’s been made before, by Rosen and others such as James Fallows, and Joey Baker sums it up well in a post building off of Rosen’s. But Rosen’s post drew a bit of criticism — in his comments, from the left (Mother Jones), from the libertarian right (Reason), and from tech blogger Stephen Baker. The general strain running through these responses was the idea that the Times’ readers are smart enough to determine the veracity of the claims being made in the article. (Rosen calls that a dodge.) The whole discussion is a fresh, thoughtful iteration of the long-running debate over objectivity in news coverage.

Where do reporting and aggregation fit?: We got some particularly valuable data and discussion on one of journalism’s central conversations right now — how reporting will work in a new ecosystem of news. Here at the Lab, Jonathan Stray examined how that new landscape looked in one story about charges of Chinese schools’ connections to hacks into Google. He has a fairly thorough summary of the results, headlined by the finding that just 13 of the 121 versions of the story on Google News involved original reporting. “When I think of how much human effort when into re-writing those hundred other unique stories that contained no original reporting, I cringe,” Stray writes. “That’s a huge amount of journalistic effort that could have gone into reporting other deserving stories. Why are we doing this?”

Also at the Lab, CUNY professor C.W. Anderson spun off of Stray’s study with his own musings on the definition and meaning of original reporting and aggregation. He concludes that aggregation/curation/filtering isn’t quite original reporting, but it does provide journalistic value that should be taken into consideration.

Two other interesting pieces on the related subjects of citizen journalism and hyperlocal journalism: PR/tech blogger Darren Barefoot raises concerns about citizen journalism’s ability to do investigative journalism, and J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer makes a strong case for the importance of entrepreneurs and citizen journalists in the new system of news.

Reading roundup: I’ve got two news developments and two thoughtful pieces for you. First, BusinessWeek reported on AOL’s efforts to build “the newsroom of the future,” a model largely driven by traffic and advertising data, not unlike the controversial Demand Media model, only with full-time journalists.

Editors Weblog raises some questions about such an openly traffic-driven setup, and media/tech watcher Tom Foremski says AOL should be focusing on creating smart news analysis. Social media guru Chris Brogan likes the arrangement, noting that there’s a difference between journalism and publishing.

The second news item is ABC News’ announcement that they’re looking to cut 300 to 400 of its 1,400 positions and move toward a more streamlined operation built around “one-man band” digital journalists. The best examinations of what this means for ABC and TV journalism are at the Los Angeles Times and the Poynter Institute.

The first thoughtful piece is theoretical: CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis’ overview of the evolution of the media’s “spheres of discovery,” from brands to algorithms to human links to predictive creation. It’s a good big-picture look at where new media stand and where they might be going.

The second is more practical: In a Q&A, Howard Owens of the award-winning upstate New York hyperlocal startup The Batavian gives an illuminating glimpse into life in hyperlocal journalism. He touches on everything from advertising to work hours to digital equipment. Building off of Owens’ comments of the personal nature of online news, Jason Fry muses about the uphill battle that news faces to win our attention online. But if that battle is won, Fry says, the loyalty and engagement is so much greater online: “I chose this. I’m investing in it. This doesn’t work and wastes my investment — next. This does work and rewards my investment — I’m staying.”

February 25 2010

22:31

REAL NEWS WITHOUT ORIGINAL REPORTING? THE CHINA/GOOGLE HACKING CASE

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Jonathan Stray checks for the Nieman Journalism Lab the real sources of the recent breaking-news story about the China/Google hacking case and finds that”

– Out of 121 unique stories, 13 (11 percent) contained some amount of original reporting. I counted a story as containing original reporting if it included at least an original quote. From there, things get fuzzy. Several reports, especially the more technical ones, also brought in information from obscure blogs. In some sense they didn’t publish anything new, but I can’t help feeling that these outlets were doing something worthwhile even so. Meanwhile, many newsrooms diligently called up the Chinese schools to hear exactly the same denial, which may not be adding much value.

- Only seven stories (six percent) were primarily based on original reporting. These were produced by The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Tech News World, Bloomberg, Xinhua (China), and the Global Times (China).

- Of the 13 stories with original reporting, eight were produced by outlets that primarily publish on paper,  four were produced by wire services, and one was produced by a primarily online outlet. For this story, the news really does come from newspapers.

So how are we going co cover real news without original reporting?

And who is going to pay for real reporters?

And real journalism?

Let’s get real.

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