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August 03 2011

14:00

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.

September 20 2010

17:30

In a hamster-wheel world, is there room for journalistic creativity? Evidence from The New York Times

The essential question facing newsrooms today is this one: Does more speed and more content come at the cost of creativity? Does the “hamster wheel,” as described by Dean Starkman in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review cover story, reduce journalists’ capacity to move stories forward instead of playing catch-up online? And does the demand for speed and the hunger for clicks come at the cost of thoughtful editing and crafting of stories?

This question is at the core of my (almost written) dissertation — when news is made in an online newsroom, what happens to the invention process? But it is my contention, after having the privilege to spend five months, day-in and day-out at Business Day at The New York Times, is that even though many journalists there often feel like wire reporters, many also feel that writing a story five times actually makes their work better.

But that division in sentiment is not the heart of the argument. My sense so far is that there are five factors that encourage creativity in newsrooms even at a time when journalists are producing more with less.

— Newsrooms, recognizing that news is everywhere, need to differentiate their content.

What makes a story in The New York Times business section — even if it the third time it is written by a staffer — different from the same story in The Wall Street Journal? The hope and aspirations by editors, at least, and the goal expressed to me by the close to 50 journalists I interviewed on the business desk, was that the intention of every story was to provide “added value” — something that other newsrooms wouldn’t have.

Most journalists referred to the news that everyone else has as “commodity news” — the news that you can get anywhere. But if newsrooms are to survive, newsrooms as they produce multiple iterations of the same story throughout the day must provide something different than their competitors. This challenges the journalist further to provide a different take, and the most successful journalists will be able to distinguish their content. Those who win that battle will also win the click battle, eventually.

— Newsrooms that still have a print cycle have to pause and think about the day ahead.

If print newsrooms are to remain competitive, there is necessarily a point at which journalists must think about what’s going to be in the paper. If a developing news story has been up on the web all day for readers, newspapers won’t maximize their return by just plopping that story into the next day’s paper. At The Times, the story in the print paper was viewed much more as a “second-day story” — even if the event had taken place the same day the story was written. A few staffers said that The Times in print was become more like a daily news magazine than a daily paper, giving people a step back from the daily hubbub of the news to provide a deeper and richer story.

Take, for instance, a Goldman Sachs earnings report. In the morning, it might be a routine earnings story with the numbers. Over the course of the day, a reporter might differentiate that story with different questions asked to bigwigs at Goldman, different snippets of life from the trading floor, and perhaps proprietary reporting gleaned from sources, or even takes on the earnings from academics. At a certain point in the day, the rewriting of the story stops and it becomes time to look for the big picture — there has to be enough that people who haven’t been following the story all day have enough to understand the story, but there will be a larger tale, perhaps about the broader significance of the numbers, or what larger trends at the bank might mean, or other take-outs that make the story different from competitors.

And don’t forget: This final print story is the final story that ends up online.

— Speed only applies to certain kinds of stories.

Only certain stories lend themselves to the kind of developing coverage that would require multiple rewrites. Hearings on Capitol Hill might lend themselves to something like the attention of a live-blogger plus the attention of a reporter tasked with covering the take-out stories as they develop, from pre-written statements to the actual question and answer period. On the day Apple’s iPad was introduced, I saw multiple stories being written as the story developed — and the attention of everything from a live-blog to all-hands on deck with Twitter and The Times’ Bits blog. These stories require constant updates because something new is happening as the day develops. There is more to add to the story. And determining which updates are worth including is the careful task of editors and reporters who must again decide where added value comes in.

But it is my thinking that newsrooms, even those with increasingly limited resources, also understand the importance of pacing and managing staff. A newsroom that has everyone devoted to playing catch-up will not have the substantive stories that will distinguish their news from all the other products out there. Thus some reporters have to be taken off the breaking news bandwagon — this may be for particular days, or it may be that some reporters simply do not have to do regular breaking news. This is one way to keep coverage fresh and inventive. A newsroom that can figure out how to allocate resources will be a newsroom that continues to remain creative and one that ultimately will keep readers coming back.

— The audience does want more, now more than ever. And journalists can listen, too.

Presuming a developing story will go through multiple iterations, it is reasonable to suspect that audiences will be checking back. Or that since the audience is fragmented, there are different audiences checking in at different points of the day. Shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to follow the story over the course of the day? And shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to read just once, say at 3 p.m., instead of the moment that the news is breaking? My thinking is that the audience wants more from journalists because journalists can provide more; the voracious news consumer (and ultimately the news consumer who will be most valuable when news organizations switch to paywalls or meter models) will be checking the site frequently. And for those drop-in audiences, people who maybe check once in the morning and once in the evening, don’t they also deserve something new?

But there’s another element here: Developing stories also are also the ones, I’ve observed, to be most likely to be open to comments. Though not all journalists have gotten the hang of reading comments or monitoring Twitter, they are definitely reading reader email as it comes in. And this audience feedback provides journalists with new opportunities for direction for stories, and a sense of how their stories are being received in a way that they never could have had before. This sense of instant feedback on a story’s progression has the opportunity to shape reporting. This is still early in its development, and at this point most likely to affect reporters who can monitor Twitter and check comments as part of their regular routine. But I see great opportunity for audience feedback shaping developing news in the future.

— Speed also means more attention has to be devoted to more than just the text of the story.

If a story is going to be big enough to merit multiple rewrites — if it is a developing story all over the web — you better hope that the story isn’t just text. The room for creativity does depend on the capacity of newsrooms. At The Times, the newsroom is privileged to have an amazing staff of web producers, graphics folks, photo staff, and videographers who can create a multimedia package to go along with a developing story to make that story stand out. But the lesson is true for newsrooms that do not have the same depth of resources as The Times (which, it must be said, often can’t do everything it wants, either).

There are other ways for stories to become more than just stories. Without multimedia, reporters even as they go about collecting their moment-by-moment updates, can also be engaged with conversations on social media platforms. This is an adjustment for reporters, and it certainly adds another layer to the concern about speed and burnout, but it inspires, as I noted before, creativity — and it adds further interest to the story. I have seen reporters working on intense deadline pressure on competitive stories use social media to enhance their work — extending the story beyond text. For those looking for some inspiration, check out what Michael de la Merced, Brian Stelter, and Micki Maynard (who has since left the paper) have been able to do on big stories.

So am I setting up an unfair example?

Certainly you could argue that a place like The Times is an outlier and an unfair place to start talking about creativity under pressure. But I don’t think that The Times is doing anything that other newsrooms aren’t, except for perhaps the amazing multimedia opportunities. The Times is still in fierce competition to distinguish coverage, reporters are still writing multiple times during a day on developing stories, and the challenges on journalists to do ever more are common to all newsrooms. But I see incredible opportunities for the hamster wheel to produce even better journalism — it just might take some time to figure out.

March 16 2010

16:00

Jeff Israely: Transatlantic nightblogging, the hunt for a partner, and other startup lessons

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first installment here. —Josh]

I am running late. My prototype should have been live and locked on its URL by now. March was supposed to be the month I began meeting with potential partners and investors, refining the project’s design and business model, and going public with the name and exact nature of the website. But the past four weeks have decidedly not brought me from my planned Point A to Point B. It has also been an incredibly busy and potentially very fruitful phase for my project. Credit and blame can both be pinned on that rock’n'roll tech startup concept: iteration.

I don’t think I’d ever said out the I-word out loud in my life before six months ago, though any hack worth his salt and barstool is used to iterating on a regular basis. It happens when you’re just about to wrap your daily story, and a big break in the news suddenly arrives; or when your month-long in-depth piece is just coming together, and the big interview you’d long since given up on finally comes through. In such a moment, a major reset is in order on something that had been going perfectly well, thank you very much. And so you curse through the hard work of integrating/revamping the best of the old with the fresher (better) material. In the end, however, the kick-ass hack is always thankful because she knows her article will necessarily be much richer in its new, updated form. And responding to events is, after all, a big part of what this nutty job is about.

As a first-time (would-be?) entrepreneur, iterating doesn’t come quite so naturally. That create-destroy-repeat ethos suddenly feels radical, a well-executed pivot being always harder to pull off when you’re still getting your bearings. With that said, you’d have to be more than a bit dim not to see that the lightning pace of change in media and technology right now means that the only straight line from Point A to Point B is where B is failure.

The iterating for me lately has mostly been around the question of audience, both how to identify it and how to grow it. Let’s start with the latter.

Building an audience and the birth of a one-man news bundler

I’m still finding my tweetin’ voice, but we MSM folk are starting to grasp what the real-time feed may mean for the news business. Based in Europe, and with most of my followed-and-followers in the U.S., I’d started to see how my geography and language skills position me to get some breaking news into the Twitter stream ahead of the crowd. Still, I’d been content to treat it like an ongoing mini-exercise in improving my speed and range and eye for news that would be useful when launch time arrived.

Yet, there I was one morning last month about to retweet some bit of French burqua-ban news when another interesting story popped up from Germany, and I thought: Hmmm? Let me try to squeeze these two world news items together into one tweet. But with 140 characters to work with…well, good luck. So I put the two links aside into a Word document. And then it hit me: Why not expand the two links into five…and bundle them into a “Top Headlines From Jeff” post? I could post it on my blog, and link to it once a day. But then it hit me again: If timing is everything, that’s doubly true on the real-time web, which is bound to create new niches in the ways and whens of how we consume information. With my time-zone advantage and news biz experience, I could bundle and deliver a story list early, like at 7 a.m. Eastern, composed solely of news that has broken since 11 p.m. Like Slatest, but more time-specific, and aimed specifically at helping to sort through the endless stream of news flashes coming across your Facebook and Twitter feeds. I would take the established practice of aggregating from everywhere, and combine it with what seemed the novelty of a bundled selection of the news that has broken since Americans logged off last night. Exactly three weeks old, this has become whileUslept.

Unfortunately, coming up with an idea — half or fully baked — is no more than one-third of the battle in building an audience. You gotta get it to them, spread the word, go viral…and keep it going. I began posting the daily link on my own personal accounts, and in the last few days set up While U Slept pages of their own on Twitter and Facebook. It definitely did not catch on like wildfire. After two weeks, I had exactly three email subscribers, and a best-day grand total of a whopping 56 pageviews. (The daily average was 23.) Still, the webbiness of the web means that you are potentially always just one Link or Recommendation or Follow away from exponential growth. A private boost from one new-media guru, and then a retweet from another with the word “useful,” and my daily hit count suddenly spiked to 400-plus. Then a couple days later, it topped 600 after a link from a former colleague who has since transformed himself into the epitome of the 2.0 one-man news brand.

At such peaks, you sit there watching the views come in and start to dream that you too can build an audience all by yer lonesome? But the numbers that really count are still a long ways off from major mojo: 38 Twitter followers, 109 Facebook fans, 16 email subscribers. Perhaps I will need to hop on the shoulders of a major website? Iterate the iteration, making whileUslept richer and/or feed it at multiple points in the day. It will have to grow (and sustain) exponentially if I want to reach the kind of audience that actually helps me both pitch and execute the bigger project I am aiming for. Still, what started as an exercise on Twitter to prep myself for the big launch has actually become the beginning of the soft launch itself.

Perhaps just as important is the fact that some new ideas are flowing into my old media brain. This one I will dub the Baby Moses approach to aggregate realtime news: bundle the best content and drop it in the moving river of information at the right time and place.

The crowd and the core audience

The immediate collateral damage of this mini-project are the brakes it’s put on short-term progress of the Big Project. While I have essentially begun the “link to the rest” half of the famous Jarvis formula, I’m no closer than I was a month ago to actually establishing the “what you do best” part. And what will I do? Here too there is iteration to report. Without going into details — both because I still prefer to speak here in general terms about the product, and because the details of the new feature simply don’t yet exist — I will just describe it as crowd-source related. Though I do not plan on changing the entire product around this idea, as this very smart fellow startup dude vigorously suggested, I still think there is much room to integrate it in a way that could give the project some extra watts of glow in the eyes of potential investors. Crowdsourcing addresses two key questions that arise at different stages of the startup: identifying our core audience at launch, and giving the enterprise a vision of how to scale it up.

But before that, all this iterating risks sapping some of the vital big ‘mo from the Big Project. On the prototype (which I keep saying is just a week or two away), we are now rejiggering all the current pages and adding a brand new page or two. Meanwhile, the business plan will have to be overhauled. Completely. Again. Blessed be the iterationists, I and I: In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.

Looking for Mr. Right

All of this upheaval is further reminder that what I am missing most right now: more than audience, more than money: a partner. He or she would have the tech and business background that I lack, while having a natural interest in the news business. Last week, through a mutual friend in Paris, I set up a rendezvous with Mister X, whose resume features all what I am missing and more. But looking for a partner truly is like dating: “On paper” means nothing. We met at the Mabillon Metro stop in the Latin Quarter and found a nice café to chat over a beer. Though it was a relaxed conversation, a back and forth, I was also effectively pitching him my project as best I could. Talking to a potential partner is different than pitching other people. It starts out much more casually. But you are all too aware that if it goes well, really well, the project becomes his as much as mine. So in some ways, you must actually tread a bit more lightly on your first encounter. He needs to like me as much as my project.

As with the search for a life partner, timing is key. In this case, I am single, and looking, but I couldn’t know for sure what his status was. A couple of times in the past few months, I’d met people who might have fit the partner profile, who had the right skill set, and even interest in the project, but simply were not at a place in their life/work to commit to me. Though Mister X seemed to react positively to the project, and explained that he was finishing up a master’s degree this spring, he wasn’t giving any indication of his plans for the future. And then, about 40 minutes in, I finally said: “I don’t know if you might be interested…??”

He paused about two seconds, and said: “Hey, so long as I can be running a business, I’m open to anything.” My heart skipped a beat. Later, as we walked toward the metro, and I told him I’d send him all the working docs, we even talked for a moment about what the first steps together might actually look like. Then we shook hands, and said we’d be in touch when he got back from a long planned two-week hiking trip to Morocco. Perhaps for my next update here, I will have something (good) to report from our second date…

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