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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.

October 05 2011

12:05

3 Key Reflections From Knight-Mozilla's Hacktoberfest in Berlin

Last week, the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership invited 20 developers, designers, and journalists to take part in a week of hacking and making in Berlin. I forget at what point in the planning one of the participants jokingly called it "Hacktoberfest," but the name stuck. And so now that the jet lag has worn off for the most part, I thought I'd reflect on three of my standout moments of Hacktoberfest and how they're influencing my thinking moving forward on the Knight-Mozilla project.

Working in the open

Sitting in a meeting with our news partners, I got to witness a great moment. At the start of that meeting, a discussion cropped up around the Partnership's core belief that code produced by Knight-Mozilla fellows should be open-sourced. There was hesitation on the part of some partners, worried that open-source code would reveal too much. An hour or so later, there was a discussion about possible collaborations among partners' newsrooms, but it wasn't making much headway, as collaboration with possible competitors is not the normal order of business.

But then it dawned on everyone: Open source made that a non-issue. By working in the open, fellows won't simply be producing things for their host organizations, but for any news organization that wants to use the code. You could see people linking back to the earlier conversation about open source and realizing 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.

Quit yakking and start hacking

Sitting in the back of our main hackspace at Betahaus, watching team after team get up and present their work, it dawned on me how awesome it was to spend four days seeing people with disparate skill sets truly collaborate around building something.

Too often we orient getting people together around having a drink or listening to a speaker. "Quit yakking and start hacking" was the order of the day, and it worked. Multiple projects went from just an idea to a functioning demo in a matter of days. It's gratifying to me that there is a GitHub repo full of code from the week. Even more so that it was built through open collaboration among so many different types of people.

hacktoberfest.jpg

A new community

After dinner one evening, we took both the Hacktoberfest participants and representatives from our news partners to Cbase, a storied (and slightly ramshackle) hacker space in Berlin. Standing at the bar next to a guy with a huge beard and a leather kilt, I looked out over the main room and was genuinely moved as I watched many from our group moving a table strewn with their laptops over to join in with a table full of German hackers. My eyes adjusted to the blacklight, and I saw hackers, journalists, developers and news partners all sitting around together, socializing and drinking and making. It was awesome -- a real lasting image of a new community built in Berlin.

So what does all this mean for the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership moving forward? Well, in the short term, Hacktoberfest was the last step in a lengthy process to arrive at our 2011 fellows -- expect an announcement in a few weeks. But longer term, I think there are some real lessons to be learned from the event in Berlin, and some real ways those lessons will help to shape the Partnership in 2012:

  • I think the news partners really enjoyed feeling a part of the process, of meeting people and being engaged in the ideas being bandied about. Definitely getting the news partners to be partners throughout the year, instead of simply hosts for fellows at the end is a key step.
  • Additionally great: More opportunities to make code. The paths blazed by the Partnership in 2011 centered around design challenges and learning labs, which I think were both successful and should be replicated, but there wasn't anywhere near enough hacking going on, so more code in 2012 I think is a great goal.
  • Finally, building community is important. It's easy to get focused on process and look inwardly for community, but figuring out ways to intersect with the community around news innovation and making, as well as with the many other developer, design and open gov communities and others that very much intersect with journalism, is crucial.

Three moments, three lessons learned. Let's hear it for a successful Hacktoberfest!

A version of this story first appeared here.

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