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February 10 2012


Still shaping the way people think about news innovation? A few reflections on the new KNC 2.0

As someone who probably has spent more time thinking about the Knight News Challenge than anyone outside of Knight Foundation headquarters — doing a dissertation on the subject will do that to you! — I can’t help but follow its evolution, even after my major research ended in 2010. And evolve it has: from an initial focus on citizen journalism and bloggy kinds of initiatives (all the rage circa 2007, right?) to a later emphasis on business models, visualizations, and data-focused projects (like this one) — among a whole host of other projects including news games, SMS tools for the developing world, crowdsourcing applications, and more.

Now, after five years and $27 million in its first incarnation, Knight News Challenge 2.0 has been announced for 2012, emphasizing speed and agility (three contests a year, eight-week turnarounds on entries) and a new topical focus (the first round is focused on leveraging existing networks). While more information will be coming ahead of the February 27 launch, here are three questions to chew on now.

Does the Knight News Challenge still dominate this space?

The short answer is yes (and I’m not just saying that because, full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Lab). As I’ve argued before, in the news innovation scene, at this crossroads of journalism and technology communities, the KNC has served an agenda-setting kind of function — perhaps not telling news hipsters what to think regarding the future of journalism, but rather telling them what to think about. So while folks might disagree on the Next Big Thing for News, there’s little question that the KNC has helped to shape the substance and culture of the debate and the parameters in which it occurs.

Some evidence for this comes from the contest itself: Whatever theme/trend got funded one year would trigger a wave of repetitive proposals the next. (As Knight said yesterday: “Our concern is that once we describe what we think we might see, we receive proposals crafted to meet our preconception.”)

And yet the longer answer to this question is slightly more nuanced. When the KNC began in 2006, with the first winners named in 2007, it truly was the only game in town — a forum for showing “what news innovation looks like” unlike any other. Nowadays, a flourishing ecosystem of websites (ahem, like this one), aggregators (like MediaGazer), and social media platforms is making the storyline of journalism’s reboot all the more apparent. It’s easier than ever to track who’s trying what, which experiments are working, and so on — and seemingly in real time, as opposed to a once-a-year unveiling. Hence the Knight Foundation’s move to three quick-fire contests a year, “as we try to bring our work closer to Internet speed.”

How should we define the “news” in News Challenge?

One of the striking things I found in my research (discussed in a previous Lab post) was that Knight, in its overall emphasis, has pivoted away from focusing mostly on journalism professionalism (questions like “how do we train/educate better journalists?”) and moved toward a broader concern for “information.” This entails far less regard for who’s doing the creating, filtering, or distributing — rather, it’s more about ensuring that people are informed at the local community level. This shift from journalism to information, reflected in the Knight Foundation’s own transformation and its efforts to shape the field, can be seen, perhaps, like worrying less about doctors (the means) and more about public health (the ends) — even if this pursuit of health outcomes sometimes sidesteps doctors and traditional medicine along the way.

This is not to say that Knight doesn’t care about journalism. Not at all. It still pours millions upon millions of dollars into clearly “newsy” projects — including investigative reporting, the grist of shoe-leather journalism. Rather, this is about Knight trying to rejigger the boundaries of journalism: opening them up to let other fields, actors, and ideas inside.

So, how should you define “news” in your application? My suggestion: broadly.

What will be the defining ethos of KNC 2.0?

This is the big, open, and most interesting question to me. My research on the first two years of KNC 1.0, using a regression analysis, found that contest submissions emphasizing participation and distributed knowledge (like crowdsourcing) were more likely to advance, all things being equal. My followup interviews with KNC winners confirmed this widely shared desire for participation — a feeling that the news process not only could be shared with users, but in fact should be.

I called this an “ethic of participation,” a founding doctrine of news innovation that challenges journalism’s traditional norm of professional control. But perhaps, to some extent, that was a function of the times, during the roughly 2007-2010 heyday of citizen media, with the attendant buzz around user-generated content as the hot early-adopter thing in news — even if news organizations then, as now, struggled to reconcile and incorporate a participatory audience. Even while participation has become more mainstream in journalism, there are still frequent flare-ups, like this week’s flap over breaking news on Twitter, revealing enduring tensions at the “collision of two worlds — when a hierarchical media system in the hands of the few collides with a networked media system open to all,” as Alfred Hermida wrote.

So what about this time around? Perhaps KNC 2.0 will have an underlying emphasis on Big Data, algorithms, news apps, and other things bubbling up at the growing intersection of computer science and journalism. It’s true that Knight is already underwriting a significant push in this area through the (also just-revised) Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project (formerly called the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership — which Nikki Usher and I have written about for the Lab). To what extent is there overlap or synergy here? OpenNews, for 2012, is trying to build on the burgeoning “community around code” in journalism — leveraging the momentum of Hacks/Hackers, NICAR, and ONA with hackfests, code-swapping, and online learning. KNC 2.0, meanwhile, talks about embracing The Hacker Way described by Mark Zuckerberg — but at the same time backs away a bit from its previous emphasis on open source as a prerequisite. It’ll be interesting to see how computational journalism — explained well in this forthcoming paper (PDF here) by Terry Flew et al. in Journalism Practice — figures into KNC 2.0.

Regardless, the Knight News Challenge is worth watching for what it reveals about the way people — journalists and technologists, organizations and individuals, everybody working in this space — talk about and make sense of “news innovation”: what it means, where it’s taking us, and why that matters for the future of journalism.

October 07 2011


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.

August 03 2011


Transparency, iteration, standards: Knight-Mozilla’s learning lab offers journalism lessons of open source

This spring, the Knight Foundation and Mozilla took the premise of hacks and hackers collaboration and pushed it a step further, creating a contest to encourage journalists, developers, programmers, and anyone else so inclined to put together ideas to innovate news.

Informally called “MoJo,” the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership has been run as a challenge, the ultimate prize being a one-year paid fellowship in one of five news organizations: Al Jazeera English, the BBC, the Guardian, Boston.com, and Zeit Online.

We’ve been following the challenge from contest entries to its second phase, an online learning lab, where some 60 participants were selected on the basis of their proposal to take part in four weeks of intense lectures. At the end, they were required to pitch a software prototype designed to make news, well, better.

Through the learning lab, we heard from a super cast of web experts, like Chris Heilmann, one of the guys behind the HTML5 effort; Aza Raskin, the person responsible for Firefox’s tabbed browsing; and John Resig, who basically invented the jQuery JavaScript library; among other tech luminaries. (See the full lineup.)

There was a theme running through the talks: openness. Not only were the lectures meant to get participants thinking about how to make their projects well-designed and up to web standards, but they also generally stressed the importance of open-source code. (“News should be universally accessible across phones, tablets, and computers,” MoJo’s site explains. “It should be multilingual. It should be rich with audio, video, and elegant data visualization. It should enlighten, inform, and entertain people, and it should make them part of the story. All of that work will be open source, and available for others to use and build upon.”)

We also heard from journalists: Discussing the opportunities and challenges for technology and journalism were, among other luminaries, Evan Hansen, editor-in-chief of Wired.com; Amanda Cox, graphics editor of The New York Times; Shazna Nessa, director of interactive at the AP; Mohamed Nanabhay, head of new media at Al Jazeera English; and Jeff Jarvis.

In other words, over the four weeks of the learning lab’s lectures, we heard from a great group of some of the smartest journalists and programmers who are thinking about — and designing — the future of news. So, after all that, what can we begin to see about the common threads emerging between the open source movement and journalism? What can open source teach journalism? And journalism open source?

Finding 1:
* Open source is about transparency.
* Journalism has traditionally not been about transparency, instead keeping projects under wraps — the art of making the sausage and then keeping it stored inside newsrooms.

Because open-source software development often occurs among widely distributed and mostly volunteer participants who tinker with the code ad-hoc, transparency is a must. Discussion threads, version histories, bug-tracking tools, and task lists lay bare the process underlying the development — what’s been done, who’s done it, and what yet needs tweaking. There’s a basic assumption of openness and collaboration achieving a greater good.

Ergo: In a participatory news world, can we journalists be challenged by the ethics of open source to make the sausage-making more visible, even collaborative?

No one is advocating making investigative reporting an open book, but sharing how journalists work might be a start. As Hansen pointed out, journalists are already swimming in information overload from the data they gather in reporting; why not make some of that more accessible to others? And giving people greater space for commenting and offering correction when they think journalists have gone wrong — therein lies another opportunity for transparency.

Finding 2:
* Open source is iterative.
* Journalism is iterative, but news organizations generally aren’t (yet).

Software development moves quickly. Particularly in the open source realm, developers aren’t afraid to make mistakes and make those mistakes public as they work through the bugs in a perpetual beta mode rather than wait until ideas are perfected. The group dynamic means that participants feel free to share ideas and try new things, with a “freedom to fail” attitude that emphasizes freedom much more than failure. Failure, in fact, is embraced as a step forward, a bug identified, rather than backward. This cyclical process of iterative software development — continuous improvement based on rapid testing — stands in contrast to the waterfall method of slower, more centralized planning and deployment.

On the one hand, journalism has iterative elements, like breaking news. As work, journalism is designed for agility. But journalism within legacy news organizations is often much harder to change, and tends to be more “waterfall” in orientation: The bureaucracy and business models and organizational structures can take a long time to adapt. Trying new things, being willing to fail (a lot) along the way, and being more iterative in general are something we can learn from open-source software.

Finding 3:
* Open source is about standards.
* So is journalism.

We were surprised to find that, despite its emphasis on openness and collaboration, the wide world of open source is also a codified world with strict standards for implementation and use. Programming languages have documentation for how they are used, and there is generally consensus among developers about what looks good on the web and what makes for good code.

Journalism is also about standards, though of a different kind: shared values about newsgathering, news judgment, and ethics. But even while journalism tends to get done within hierarchical organizations and open-source development doesn’t, journalism and open source share essentially the same ideals about making things that serve the public interest. In one case, it’s programming; in the other case, it’s telling stories. But there’s increasingly overlap between those two goals, and a common purpose that tends to rise above mere profit motive in favor of a broader sense of public good.

However, when it comes to standards, a big difference between the the open-source movement and journalism is that journalists, across the board, aren’t generally cooperating to achieve common goals. While programmers might work together to make a programming language easier to use, news organizations tend to go at their own development in isolation from each other. For example, The Times went about building its pay meter fairly secretly: While in development, even those in the newsroom didn’t know the details about the meter’s structure. Adopting a more open-source attitude could teach journalists, within news organizations and across them, to think more collaboratively when it comes to solving common industry problems.

Finding 4:
* Open-source development is collaborative, free, and flexible.
* Producing news costs money, and open source may not get to the heart of journalism’s business problems.

Open-source software development is premised on the idea of coders working together, for free, without seeking to make a profit at the expense of someone else’s intellectual property. Bit by bit, this labor is rewarded by the creation of sophisticated programming languages, better-and-better software, and the like.

But there’s a problem: Journalism can’t run on an open source model alone. Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news. Maybe open-source projects are the kind of work that will keep people engaged in the news, thus bulking up traditional forms of subsidy, such as ad revenue. (Or, as in the case of the “open R&D” approach of open APIs, news organizations might use openness techniques to find new revenue opportunities. Maybe.)

Then again, the business model question isn’t, specifically, the point. The goal of MoJo’s learning lab, and the innovation challenge it’s part of, is simply to make the news better technologically — by making it more user-friendly, more participatory, etc. It’s not about helping news organizations succeed financially. In all, the MoJo project has been more about what open source can teach journalism, not vice versa. And that’s not surprising, given that the MoJo ethos has been about using open technologies to help reboot the news — rather than the reverse.

But as the 60 learning lab participants hone their final projects this week, in hopes of being one of the 15 who will win a next-stage invite to a hackathon in Berlin, they have been encouraged to collaborate with each other to fill out their skill set — by, say, a hack partnering with a hacker, and so forth. From those collaborations may come ideas not only for reinventing online journalism, but also for contributing to the iteration of open-source work as a whole.

So keep an eye out: Those final projects are due on Friday.

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