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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.

August 02 2011


#MozNewsLab lectures by @Shazna from @AP_Interactive, @Mohamed from @AJEnglish & @iA from, well, @iA now online

Week three of the #MozNewsLab is all wrapped up.

I’m almost experiencing a pang of sadness that we only have a few days to go until the lab is concluded. It really has flown by too quickly.

Of course, that sadness is offset by two things:

  1. Twenty participants will be invited to the next phase of the program: a five-day event in Berlin focused on building software prototypes.

  2. Having the opportunity to get out and enjoy what’s left of this amazing summer! :) My guess is that all of the people involved in #MozNewsLab — the particpants, and the faculty — are looking forward to a few days off.

First things first…

Last week we turned the corner from a focus on technology to a focus on journalism, news, and reporting. All of the guest speakers were asked to share their experiencing of where and how technology is impacting their newsrooms, or what changes are underway at news organizations today in the context of technology.

The week was kicked off by Shazna Nessa, Director of Interactive at the Associated Press in New York. Shazna shared how the AP is changing — how they are trying to break down silos and formalize technology in the newsroom, as well as introducing new skills and pushing toward new forms of interactive news presentation.

You can watch Shazna’s lecture here.

Following Shazna was Mohamed Nanabhay, Head of Online at Al Jazeera English. Mohamed delivered a mile-a-minute lecture on the speed at which Al Jazeera English has moved into our consciousness, and what that has meant for their news delivering infrastructure. Mohamed also dived into questions about sources, fact checking, verification, and the role of user-generated content in Al Jazeera English’s reporting work.

You can watch Mohamed’s lecture here.

Closing out the week’s lecture series was Oliver Reichenstein, CEO of Information Architects. Oliver delivered a 10,000 foot view of the changes underway in news organizations from the perspective of one of the world’s leading design agencies — an agency that has been responsible for some high-profile re-designs, successful software products, and innovative thinking on the future of news.

Oliver’s talk highlighted the tension between design considerations of news sites, and the business considerations that are often in contrast. You can watch Oliver’s lecture here.

We’re in the final sprint. The assignments from last week are starting to flow in to the #MozNewsLab Planet, and many of them are heading in the direction of the final project that is due on Friday.

Yesterday, we heard from Evan Hansen; Tomorrow we hear from Jeff Jarvis.

It’s been a whirlwind month. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along.

Sponsored post

July 25 2011


#MozNewsLab week two lectures by @codepo8 @jresig & @jjg now online

The #MozNewsLab is hurtling toward the grand finale on August 5th. We’re past the half-way mark, and it feels like time is compressing each day into a New York minute.

We wrapped up week two of the lab last Friday. Here’s a quick recap:

The first lecture last week was a shot-in-the-arm of open-Web goodness: The Mozilla Foundation’s Executive Director Mark Surman talked about the broader Mozilla + Journalism initiative, touched on Why Mozilla cares about news, and introduced out guest speaker, Christian Heilmann.

From there, Heilmann — a developer ‘evangelist’ at Mozilla — took participants on a whirlwind tour of the State of the Browser in 2011. HTML5, CSS3, new APIs, WebGL — you name it, he covered it. You can find the lecture online here: recording, notes, and slides.

Next up was none other than John Resig. Resig is implicated in more successful open-source software projects that you can shake a stick at. He’s been leading the jQuery project for more than five years now, and has learned a lot about the ‘Open Source Process’: the ins-and-outs of building great software and a great community that supports it. John shared those learnings with the lab — it was an incredibly insightful voyage through the history of jQuery, and John’s tips on creating successful open-source software community.

You can find the lecture online here: recording, notes, and slides.

Jesse James Garrett — the ‘Father of AJAX’ — joined us on Friday to deliver the final lecture of the week. His talk focused on the conceptual model for thinking about successful interactive experiences, what he calls the ‘Elements of User Experience’. I must admit, I was quite excited to hear Jesse speak, as I’ve been a big fan ever since reading his book many, many years ago. Jesse expanded quite a bit on the early models of user experience that he pioneered and ofter many insightful new ideas about how to approach the experience of a software project or product.

You can find the lecture online here: recording, notes, and slides.

We’ve just kicked off week three. Hope you’re following along. There’s still time to send a ‘message in a bottle’ to the lab.

Last but not least, Mozilla’s Media, Freedom and the Web festival is really starting to come together. If you’re interested in the nexus of the open Web and media production, you may want to mark your calendar.

July 20 2011


#MozNewsLab week one lectures by @azaaza @burtherman & @amandacox now online

The participants in the #MozNewsLab are kicking-up such an amazing storm of ideas, that I’m finding it hard to concentrate long enough to put my own thoughts to keyboard this week.

So, in lieu of some suitably witty update, here’s a quick re-cap of the first week’s lectures:

The week kicked off with a lecture by the renowned interface designer, Aza Raskin. Aza recently held the position of Creative Lead for Firefox, he’s now working on a start-up called Massive Health.

Aza’s lecture focused on designing in the open and rapid prototyping. You can find the slides here, or watch the recorded lecture (with synced slides) here. The #MozNewsLab participants also took great notes here.

On Wednesday, the lab heard from journalism-entrepreneur Burt Herman. Burt shared his life experiences — from his time as journalist with the Associated Press, to his current adventures as co-founder of the award-winning journalism tech start-up, Storify.com

These two lectures dovetailed perfectly together: both focused on the strategy of rapidly iterating software product ideas, being willing to kill early ideas if necessary, and incorporating user input into the development & design process.

You can find Burt’s slides here, and his recorded lecture here. (Notes here.)

We closed out the week on Friday with a mind-expanding, 1000 mile-per-hour, lecture by Amanda Cox. Amanda Cox is a graphics editor at the New York Times, where she creates charts and maps for the print and web versions of the paper.

Amanda’s lecture was the perfect finale for the week — it provided a whirlwind tour of how the New York Times graphics desk thinks about the data that it presents online. Slides here, lecture here, and notes here.

Week two is already off to a great start. John Resig is scheduled to present later today. It’s an exciting week in the #MozNewsLab.

July 15 2011


Hey Newsrooms! Get your voices heard: Send a 'message-in-a-bottle' to the #MozNewsLab.

Message in the bottle by funtik.cat on FlickrCreative commons photo courtesy of funtik.cat on Flickr)

So, we’re five days into the #MozNewsLab experiment and things are exploding (in a good way, of course).

But we’re not in the clear yet…

In the development of this entire Knight-Mozilla program, we received a lot of great feedback from people working in newsrooms — both news-app developers and editorial staff. Some voices were louder than other (coughDerek Williscough), but we heard those voices loud-and-clear and want to work to address as many of the concerns as possible, such as:

  • The challenge of incremental change vs. wholesale change in established news organization;

  • The idea that ‘news apps’ are not just about technology, they are pieces of journalism too (and what that means practically);

  • How does a new software product or tool make its way into a newsroom? What are the entry points?

  • Where are the opportunities to ‘Hack at the core’ of news.

I want to inject as many of these ideas into the thinking that is happening in the #MozNewsLab, but I need your help to make that happen (and it’s in your interest to help!).

So, I had an idea the other day about how to do this, and I would like to try it out on all of you, if you’re willing.

I wrote about the lab’s objectives earlier this week on PBS MediaShift Idealab — and in that post I referenced the idea of a “message in a bottle.

Well, I’d like you to give it a shot. :)

The concept is simple: people working in newsrooms, or with newsrooms, or who have worked in newsrooms (you get the point), send a short video message into our learning lab. Once received, Alex and I will assign it as “homework.”

These video messages should try to communicate:

  • The realities of working in a busy news environment, i.e., the hurdles that fellows might face when they arrive at Al Jazeera English, BBC, Boston.com, Guardian, or Zeit Online this year (and perhaps your news organization next year);

  • The challenges that reporters are facing today, i.e., tools they really wish they had to report or present news;

  • The challenges that news users are facing today, i.e., how news could be better delivered to people who read, use, and re-mix it;

  • The failed state of corporate IT, and corporate CMSs, in many large newsrooms, and how to route around that;

… And so on.

Basically, these would be a reality check from those people “in the know” — like you.

So, your mission — should you choose to accept it — would be to:

  1. Create a short (~3 minute) web-cam video that boils down your experience into one clear call-to-action for our lab participants, e.g.: “If you’re going to know one thing about trying to work with reporters, and editors, and technology it’s ….” and one clear question for participants, e.g.: “So, given what I’ve just told you, how will you work around that?

  2. Upload that video to YouTube and tag it with #MozNewsLab (or upload it anywhere and send me a link; YouTube just saves me a step or two.)

  3. Keep you eye on your Twitter @ replies, and — as time permits — engage with the participants that respond.

This is your chance to get your idea, experience, and opinion in front of sixty-three smart people that are hurtling toward the opportunity to spend one year building software in a newsroom.

Let’s not let the #MozNewsLab particiapnts go in blind! :)

July 07 2011


Learning lab schedule: week-by-week. Plus: new lecture by @iA CEO Oliver Reichenstein

Oliver Reichenstein, CEO of iA Inc

First the great news, then the good news. (FYI: There is no bad news in MoJo-ville.)

I’m excited to let you know that we’ve confirmed that Oliver Reichenstein, CEO of iA Inc, will deliver a lecture for the lab in July.

For those who are not familiar with iA (Information Architects, Inc.), let me just say this: very few organizations have had as much impact when it comes to modern-day information design. Not only is iA “one of the best-known design agencies in the world,” but it is also an organization that is not afraid to take some risks by developing its own products — from the ubiquitous iA³ Template for WordPress, to ultra-minimalist writing software iA Writer for the Mac and iPad.

I should also note that iA worked with our news parter Zeit Online to produce the innovative HTML5, tablet-friendly, version of zeit.de — if you have a tablet (or know how to change your User Agent settings), you should take a moment to check it out.

Welcome aboard, Oliver.

Learning lab schedule

Now the good news. After months of hard work — planning, organizing, and cajoling — I’m happy to be able to unveil the (almost final) schedule for the learning lab (all times are listed in Pacific Time):

Week 1 - Design thinking and product development

July 11 - 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Speaker: Aza Raskin is a renowned interface designer who recently held the position of Creative Lead for Firefox.

July 13 - 9:00 to 10:30 a.m.

Speaker: Burt Herman is an entrepreneurial journalist. He is the CEO of Storify and a co-founder of Hacks/Hackers.

July 15 - 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

Special guest: To be announced. Topic: Data visualization.

Week 2 - New capabilities in the browser and new ways of building community

July 18 - 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

Speaker: Chris Heilmann is a geek and hacker by heart. In a previous life, he was responsible for delivering Yahoo Maps Europe and Yahoo Answers. He’s currently a Mozilla Developer Evangelist, focusing on all things open web, HTML5, and working open.

July 20 - 10:00 to 11:30 a.m.

Speaker: John Resig is a programmer and entrepreneur. He’s the creator and lead developer of the jQuery JavaScript library, and has had his hands in more interesting open source projects that you can shake a stick at. Until recently, John was the JavaScript Evangelist at Mozilla. He’s currently the Dean of Open Source and head of JavaScript development at Khan Academy.

July 22 - 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

Special guest: Jesse James Garrett, co-founder and president of Adaptive Path, is one of the world’s most widely recognized technology product designers. Topic: Focusing on the users.

Week 3 - Technology meets news production: new challenges in the newsroom

July 25 - 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

Speaker: To be announced.

July 27 - 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

Speaker: Mohamed Nanabhay, is Head of Online at Al Jazeera Egnlish based in Doha, Qatar.

July 29 - 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

Special guest: Oliver Reichenstein, CEO Information Architects Inc.

Week 4 - The future of journalism

August 1 - 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

Speaker: Evan Hansen is the Editor In Chief of Wired.com.

August 3 - 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

Speaker: Jeff Jarvis is the author of What Would Google Do? He blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. He is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

August 5 - Time TBD

Speaker: You! Participants will present their final projects.

There you have it, in all it’s shining glory. Let me know if you have any questions about the speakers, the format, or the topics to be covered.

June 27 2011


Learning lab update: invitations to go out tomorrow. @jjg & @mohamed confirmed to lecture.

Yes, you heard that right: I was able to corner both user-experience pioneer Jesse James Garrett and Mohamed Nanabhay, Head of Online for Al Jazeera English, at the Civic Media conference last week, and both have agreed to deliver a lecture for the first Knight-Mozilla learning lab.

Who’s working hard for you? :)

Okay, now that I’ve got your attention, here’s a quick update on our progress toward concluding the challenge phase of the program, and moving into the learning lab phase:

  • Roughly 300 submissions were received during the challenge. It was a bit more than we were expecting. The quality of many of the submissions was quite high. Generally speaking, we wanted to ensure that each submission was reviewed thoroughly, and that each entry was seen by two pairs of eyes.

  • We expanded the review team and extended the review period by several days to ensure that each reviewer had enough time to read and comment on each entry. (Not a small amount of work, I assure you.)

  • That work is now complete. Ben and Jacob are going to send out invitations to the learning lab this week. I’m hoping the invitations go out tomorrow morning — fingers crossed! — but there are some remaining technical hurdles to get past before they can go out.

  • If you don’t receive an invitation tomorrow — fear not — you’ll be automatically added to a waiting list. We’ll be inviting people from the waiting list as we hear back from the first group of invitees. We’re aiming to have the process completed by Friday, July 1st.

I’ll post further updates on the invitation process and progress here throughout week.

Now, on to the learning lab itself. You may be asking: What should I expect if I’m a learning lab participant? Well, here’s a preview.

  • Just a reminder, the Knight-Mozilla learning lab will run from July 11th - August 5th, 2011. Those that receive an invitation will be expected to commit at least 10 hours a week to the lab.

  • The lab will focus on four key themes, one each week, which will be roughly: How to work open: the secret sauce of Mozilla’s software and community; How to take and idea from concept to product; Challenges that newsrooms and news users face today; and Journalism is evolving: What journalism might look like tomorrow.

  • To explore those themes, each week will include two mandatory lectures — Monday and Wednesday at roughly 8AM Pacific Time, 11AM Eastern Time, 4PM British Standard Time, and 5PM Central European Summer Time — and one optional lecture the same time on Friday. Each lecture will be approximately 30 minutes, with 30 minutes for Q&A.

  • The optional lectures will be just as amazing as the mandatory lectures, but will focus a bit more on practical skills and understanding vs. the big picture of the mandatory lectures. For example, if you arrive at the lab as a programmer with lots of product development experience, but little or no understanding of what a journalist actually does, we’ll have a lecture for you. And vice-versa: if you arrive as a tech-savvy journalist but with little experience building software, we’ll have a lecture for you too.

  • Each week participants will be asked to complete an assignment that builds on the information from the lectures. Participants will submit assignments by publishing it on their own blog. So, if you don’t have one yet, get moving. ;)

  • Last but not least will be your lab project. The lab project is the ‘big idea’ that you’re working on — perhaps your challenge submission; perhaps something new — throughout the four week lab. You’ll present your lab project for review at the conclusion of the lab.

The lab will be delivered entirely online. We’ll be using the Peer-to-Peer University platform for course material, assignments, and discussions. The lectures will be delivered synchronously (and attendance will be taken!) using the rather awesome Big Blue Button platform.

Your ship’s crew for the lab will be Alex and yours truly, and four excellent course shepherds that I’ll be introducing over the coming days.

I’ll be posting updates as we confirm the remaining lecture spots, and as we make progress with getting the invitations out. Stay tuned and let me know if you have any questions.

June 14 2011


Bringing out the big guns: @emilybell @richgor @reporterslab to advise on @KnightMozilla learning lab curriculum.

Rich Gordon, Sarah Cohen, and Emily Bell For the last couple of months, I’ve been quietly whittling away at the master plan for the first “learning lab” of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership.

Without a doubt, this is the most personally exciting aspect of my involvement with the project: starting in July, I will lead a group of sixty smart individuals through an intense four-week online learning experience.

During the lab we will unleash a fire hose of thinking about the collision of technology and journalism, about working open, and the process of taking software from idea to product.

We have big ambitions for these learning labs, obviously. So, to ensure that the curriculum meets those ambitions and tangible learning objectives, I reached out for help from some of the smartest people I know who are already teaching at the nexus of technology, journalism, and news.

Incredibly, they said yes!

So, I’m very excited to announce that Emily Bell, Sarah Cohen, and Rich Gordon have agreed to make some personal time available to help out as curriculum advisers:

  • Emily Bell: Emily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously worked for the Observer and then the Guardian for 18 years, setting up MediaGuardian.co.uk in 2000 and becoming editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited in 2001. In September 2006, she was promoted to director of digital content for Guardian News & Media.

  • Sarah Cohen: Sarah Cohen directs the newly-launched ReportersLab.org and is the Knight Professor of the Practice at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. She was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post for more than 10 years, working for investigative teams and projects across departments. Her journalism awards include most major national prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

  • Rich Gordon: Rich Gordon is a professor and director of digital innovation at Medill School Northwestern University. At Medill, he launched the school’s graduate program in new media journalism. He has spent most of his career exploring the areas where journalism and technology intersect. At The Miami Herald, he was among the first generation of journalists to lead online publishing efforts at newspapers.

Next week we start the hard work of determining what homework to assign. Yes, that’s right, there will be homework … and required reading … and mandatory lectures.

Just because it’s online, doesn’t mean it’s not going to kick your ass, and blow your mind.

P.S. We’ve been lining up some incredible lectures, and I’ll be announcing some new additions in the coming days. Stay tuned! :)

May 30 2011


Six @KnightMozilla lightning pitches from Chicago-area #HacksHackers

After peeking inside the Chicago Tribune’s news apps team last week, I descended deep, deep into the Tribune’s basement. Once home to printing presses, the lower levels of the Tribune tower were about to host a conversation about the future of news, courtesy of Hacks/Hackers Chicago and the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership.

Fueled only by pizza and sugary sodas, and a mercilessly-short presentation, these brave hacks and hackers put pen to paper and brainstormed how to improve news experiences on the open Web.

A mere thirty minutes later, they were asked to present those ideas back to the group. Here they are:

I’m excited about what the MoJo team has been able to do via these ‘design jam’ events with the Hacks/Hackers community and our news partners. It’s more than just getting the word out about the innovation challenges: we’re helping to build community and conversations around the field of news innovation that will have impact for years to come.

A big thanks is due to Trib staffers Joe Germuska and Chris Groskopf, and Medill’s Rich Gordon for organizing this event. And to the following folks who made the event possible by showing up and really participating:

Thanks again, folks. If I missed your name, please let me know.

May 25 2011


A peek inside the @TribApps Team at the Chicago Tribune.

Open-Web innovation appears to be the name of the game in the Chicago Tribune’s News Applications department. I had a chance to sit down with Joe Germuska, Christopher Groskopf, and Brian Boyer from the @TribApps team yesterday in Chicago, and I had a few questions on my mind:

  • What is the scope of their work? What do they work on day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-over-month?
  • How does the news apps team interface with the editorial and other departments?
  • What is the experience of being an island inside a ‘traditional’ or ‘legacy’ news organization?

The scope of this team’s work is nothing short of awe-inspiring. They’re responsible for a wide range of projects: from classic ‘news apps’ like the 2010 Illinois School Report Cards to the unlikely job of deploying a massive number of Wordpress sites to power the TribLocal.com network.

Nonetheless, they still have the time and opportunity to work on forward-thinking initiatives like the Chicago Breaking News Live Web app, and to release tools like the The Newsapps Boundary Service for other newsrooms to build on.

Through all of these varying demands, open-web thinking seems to permeate everything they do. For example:

  • Chris shares his experiences building news apps with big data for other organizations to learn from;
  • Joe is collaborating with other newsrooms and news apps developers to build tools that will make it easier for reporters to explore and make sense of census data (Joe, do you have a link for me?)
  • The whole team is focused on releasing re-usable code and building a body of knowledge about how to handle the unique needs of a newsroom.

As for the advantages of working in a nimble team like this, Brian put it succinctly when he said “we can roll a new rig every day to improve how we do our development.” Translation: even in the real-world environment of a newsroom, with deadlines and deliverables looming, and despite the challenges of a their IT department, this team is able to rapidly experiment and test new ideas.

Interestingly — and even though the team was started by individuals with a journalism-first background — new team members have come to the job with more technology and computer science experience, than traditional journalism chops.

I was curious about this from the perspective of the Knight-Mozilla fellows that will be heading into newsrooms this fall, and how they might have similar backgrounds.

If the @TribApps team is any indication, I think our fellows will have a fighting chance at survival.

May 24 2011


Defining journalism on the open Web: Six ideas.

Here’s a mental exercise: Let’s brainstorm a list of the changes that define what journalism will look like tomorrow, or — better yet — let’s answer the question ‘what is journalism on the open Web?’

Below are six ideas to start the exercise with. None are original or entirely new. Many are stolen from people much smarter than I am about such things. Each idea speaks to a shift that is underway already, or about to begin, in most professional news organizations.

Maybe you’re experiencing one of these shifts? Perhaps you have your own to share? I hope that you’ll add to the list, or the conversation in some way: maybe we can build a comprehensive definition of ‘journalism on the open Web’ and share it with the world.

Journalism today            -->  Journalism tomorrow
Publishing is the end       -->  Publishing is the beginning
Reporter talks to sources   -->  Sources go direct
Markets are conversations   -->  Journalism is a conversation
Curate the Web              -->  Re-mix the Web
The perfect CMS             -->  The Web *is* the CMS
Thinking about the Web      -->  Web thinking

Publishing is the beginning: On the open Web, the act of publishing something is the beginning of the conversation. It’s the first step toward creating a community, engaging with ideas in the open, and providing a platform for others to build on top of. It isn’t a simple act of Rinse. Wash. Repeat. on a never-ending 24-hour cycle that starts and stops when the words go to print.

Sources go direct: This is a phrase coined by the ‘irascible gadfly’ Dave Winer to document the disintermediation of journalists and news organizations in the conversation between those with information and those who want the information. This disintermediation is made possible by the open Web and the open-source software that powers it, and it’s a trend that is only going to continue.

Journalism is a conversation: More than ten years ago, David Weinberger wrote that “markets are conversations” in the Cluetrain Manifesto, a statement which predicted that walls would be torn down between the people inside of organizations, and those outside. Perhaps it has taken longer for the message to penetrate the thick walls of the Daily Bugle, but the day has come to accept that journalism is also a conversation and those walls will come down too.

Re-mix the Web: Today it is possible for those with limited technical skills to curate the Web. Curation is just starting to be seen as something that journalism professionals need to learn how to do. Tomorrow, however, it will be possible to re-mix the Web: to create entirely new experiences from the component parts. That is what the Hackasaurus project is teaching kids today. Today’s kids are tomorrow’s news users — be ready.

The Web is the CMS: NPR’s Middle East uprising super-star journalist Andy Carvin doesn’t need a better content-management system to make better journalism. On the contrary, the Web is his content-management system. Re-tooling the back-office IT in news organizations is the wrong problem to focus on — those systems were not designed for rapid change — a complete re-boot is necessary, and the new ‘back office’ will use the open Web as the kernel, operating system, and publishing tool.

Web thinking: Emily Bell calls it “being of the Web, not just on the Web,” but — taking a phrase from the ten-year-old Web of Change community — I like to call it Web Thinking. This isn’t just about being ‘digital first.’ It’s about looking outside the newsroom, relinquishing some control, playing some new roles — like convener and connector — and moving at Internet speed. There’s so much more, but that’s a whole post of its own.

Those are the six changes that are on my mind today. How about you: What changes and shifts are you experiencing?

May 19 2011


Meet the new CMS/Same as the old CMS

“Workflow and how that is coded into the CMS is a huge issue for newspapers.” — Suw Charman-Anderson

For the past few months, I’ve been hearing a consistent message from some folks working in so-called ‘legacy’ news organization: “our corporate content-management systems and our corporate culture are the main barrier to innovation.”

But I’m starting to wonder if that fenced-in technical reality is leading to fenced-in thinking from those that are in the best position to push for change?

I’ve been around long enough to see some news organizations change their content-management system three or four times. You know what? It didn’t change the way they think about news at all.

From Atex to Movable Type, from NewsGate to Wordpress, from Interwoven to Bricolage: I’ve experienced them all over the last fifteen years. If there’s anything consistent to any CMS, it’s that they all suck. It’s just a matter of which one sucks less in your specific situation.

IMHO, the problem isn’t that news is stuck in the wrong CMS, it’s that new thinking is stuck in something much harder to get out of: the belief that change isn’t possible (or already happening).

Change is happening, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. ;)

There are ‘traditional’ media organizations with wonderful, journalist-friendly enterprise content-management systems out there — just have a look inside of MSNBC or Le Monde. Does it change their thinking dramatically? I’m not convinced.

Innovation can come from anywhere; you just have to be willing to look for it.

Tags: cms mojo

May 18 2011


You must be the conversation you want to see in the world

“A great community isn’t something that you just set up and periodically patch. Running a great community is a full-time job, not a weekend hack project.” — Alex Payne

The last week was a valuable learning moment. The launch of the Beyond Comment Threads challenge stirred up a lot of conversation around the Web: on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, and also on the MoJo community list.

Around the same time, I was busy kicking the hornets nest again with a post over on the PBS MediaShift Idealab (related Hacker News thread).

It was an incredible opportunity to see the potential of online discussion, comments, and debate applied to the very challenges that have been presented:

  • Re-think the relationship between news users and producers;
  • Demonstrate new forms of user interaction with news;
  • Push beyond the ways we currently think about comments and online debate.

Meanwhile, I’ve been speaking with a number of publishers about the tension between their aspirations for discussion in the context of news, and the realities that one must face when the comment switch is flipped to the on position.

I’ve tried to distill some key themes below, but I’m hoping that you can also weigh in with your own experiences.

  1. The “Eyes on the Street” theory still holds online: Most publishers now agree that it’s critical for them, their staff, and the authors of the content to play a role in the community that they are convening at the end of their articles. Without visibility and natural surveillance, comments threads can quickly become a no-mans land.

  2. There is no free content: CP Scott may have said that “Comment is free,” but convening the specific type of online discussion & debate that many publishers aspire to have on their sites comes with a cost. The cost of having moderators, community policing tools, and — in many cases — the liability insurance quickly starts to add up. For many sites with active comment threads, just reviewing the comments that are reported as ‘offensive’ can take up significant time, let alone reading through to look for comments that are insightful, informative, or contain new information.

  3. Publishers & authors are still ‘on top’: No matter how you slice it, the pristine words of the bourgeoisies & intellectuals still sit high above the comments of the unwashed masses, the rabble, the proletariat (how these filthy ‘wage slaves’ have time to comment all day continues to defy all explanation). In all seriousness, this visual presentation can work to re-create the classic divides in society, with both groups feeling inaccurately reflected or simply not respected.

  4. Comments become the culture of a site: If a publisher is lucky enough to become the flash point for lively conversations — especially conversations that happen between commenters, and not just ‘up’ toward the original article — it often becomes evident that a specific culture starts to emerge. It is that emergent culture that becomes the environment that other passers-by (and, um, potential advertisers) use to assess and evaluate the community. Is it a ghetto full of broken windows? Or is it a bohemian coffee house brimming with spirited debate? It is this culture that is both the risk and reward for publishers.

To keep up with expectations and aspirations, publishers appear to have two choices:

  1. Create better systems: This is the focus of the current Knight-Mozilla innovation challenge, and is often a controversial option. There rarely is a one-size-fits-all solution, and interventions that work incredibly well in one context can easily fail in others. What looks visually uncomplicated to one, may appear like an inaccessible mess to another. Most worryingly, I fear that publishers looking for silver bullet will turn to “real names” as the only answer and that the open web will lose the identity battle, while commenters lose the choice to be anonymous.

  2. Create better commenters: It is this idea that intrigues me the most today. What does it mean to create better commenters? Is it simply the badges and reward systems that sites like Huffington Post are experimenting with? Is it an extension of the kinds of ideas that the Sacremento Press is working on where contributors earn virtual accreditation by attending workshops? Or is it something else entirely, where those who comment have to pay or earn their spot on the virtual podium? Or perhaps a system where one can endorse another, similar to sites like LinkedIn?

What are your experiences?

May 13 2011


Comments are dead. Long live comments!

Cross-posted from PBS MediaShift Idea Lab

Let’s face it — technically speaking, comments are broken. With few exceptions, they don’t deliver on their potential to be a force for good.

Web-based discussion threads have been part of the Internet experience since the late 1990s. However, the form of user commentary has stayed fairly static, and — more importantly — few solutions have been presented that address the complaints of publishers, commenters, or those of us who actually read comments.

beyond comment threads.jpg

Publishers, for the most part, want software that will stamp out trolls and outsource the policing to the community itself (or, failing that, to Winnipeg). Commenters, on the other hand, want a functional mini-soapbox from which to have their say — preferably something that is easy to log into and has as few limitations as possible (including moderation). The rest of us are left to deal with the overly complicated switches, flashing lights, and rotary knobs that we’re expected to know how to use to dial in to the conversation so it’s just right for our individual liking, not too hot and not too cold.

Thankfully, there is an opportunity today to really innovate. New capabilities in the browser, and emerging standards provide an opportunity to completely rethink the relationship between news users and producers — between those who comment and those who are commented upon — and to demonstrate new forms of user interaction that are atomic, aggregated, augmented, or just plain awesome.

That’s why our next Knight-Mozilla Challenge is for you to come up with a more dynamic space for online discussions. You can submit your idea here, and you could win a trip to Berlin to compete with other innovators — or even win a year-long fellowship in a newsroom.

Publishers’ dirty little secret

The truth is, many news publishers don’t actually think comments are a good thing. Or if publishers won’t go so far as to admit that, they’ll usually agree that the so-called return on investment when enabling comments, discussion and debate on their site is not entirely clear.

Therein lies the biggest tension in the “beyond comment threads” challenge: At the end of the day, those who comment on stories, and those who have their articles commented upon, often have very different views on the topic.

Ask publishers about the purpose of comments and they’ll often speak to the very aspirations of independent journalism and a free press: democratic debate, informed citizens, and free speech. Ask them about the reality of comment threads on their site, and a very different picture is likely to emerge.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who comment. No doubt, for some, it’s their very comment — or comments, in the case of those who actively comment — that creates the value on a given page, not the editorial. For others, the value is in the conversation that coalesces or unfolds in the context of a given story — but, to ease the minds of publishers, always at a safe distance from the “real content,” usually at the end of a story, or well below the fold.

In between are the rest of us, the people who benefit from the tension between publishers and commenters. We rely on the individuals who choose to comment to add context and clarifications, do extra fact-checking (a skill that’s often a casualty of newsroom cutbacks), and, ultimately, to hold the publisher accountable — publicly — and using the publishers’ own soapbox to do so. At the same time, we rely on publishers and reporters to start the conversation and keep it civil.

No wonder publishers are still asking questions about the value of comments: It takes a lot of work to build a successful online community, and the outcome is not guaranteed to work in their favor.

The Slashdot Era

Sometime in late 1997 or 1998, a bunch of hackers who agreed that commenting was broken (or — at that time — just simply missing) on most news sites decided to take matters into their own hands. Enter the era of Slashdot, an early example of the kind of sites that would begin to separate church from state by disconnecting the discussion from the content being discussed. These sites — with lots of comment and little content in the editorial sense — threw some powerful ideas into the mix: community, identity and karma (or incentives).

Thumbnail image for slashdot.jpg

Fast-forward to today, more than 10 years later, and not much has changed.

Newer sites, like Hacker News and Reddit, continue in the Slashdot tradition, but don’t break much new ground, nor attempt to innovate on how online discussion is done. At the same time, publishers — realizing the conversation was increasingly happening elsewhere — have improved or re-tooled their commenting systems in the hope of keeping the discussion on their sites. But instead of innovating, they’ve simply imitated, and little real progress has been made.

In an era where Huffington Post is the “state-of-the-art” for online discussion, I ask myself: What went wrong?

Enter the innovators’ dilemma

Meanwhile, as the events above unfolded, the rest of the web went on innovating. As publishers and comment-driven communities lamented their situation and pondered how to improve it, the conversation left those sites entirely. The people formerly known as the audience were suddenly empowered to have their say almost anywhere, via micro-blogs, status updates, and social networks.

It was the classic innovators’ dilemma at work. While focusing on how to make commenting systems better, many people didn’t see the real innovation happening: Everyone on the Internet was given their own, personal commenting system. Services like Twitter and Identi.ca solved the most pressing issue for commenters: autonomy. Services such as Facebook and LinkedIn addressed another problem: identity.

Unfortunately, not all innovation is good. Local improvements do not always equal systemwide benefits. That is the situation we are left with today: Comments, discussion and identity are scattered all over the web. Even worse, the majority of what we as individuals have to say online is locked in competing, often commercial, prisons — or “corporate blogging silos” — and is completely disconnected from our online identity.

The Sixth Estate

The opportunity in the beyond comment threads challenge is to radically re-imagine how we, the users, relate to the people producing news, and to each other. It’s time to get out of a 10-year-old box and completely rethink the current social and technical aspects of online discussion and debate. It’s time to stop thinking about faster horses, and start thinking about cars (or jetpacks!).

To get specific, let’s start with a list of great experiences that are made possible with comments:

  • Providing value to the publisher: Think about the times that comments have revealed new facts, uncovered sources, or pointed out easily correctable errors. This exemplifies the opportunity for a community to provide value back to a publisher, and helps answer the return-on-investment question. Recently, during the uprising in the Middle East and the earthquake in Japan — when several news organizations introduced real-time streams that mixed editorial content with user-submitted comments — we witnessed a glimmer of something new. What does it look like to push those ideas to their extremes?

  • Publishers and users working together: Sites like Stack Overflow (and the other sites in that network) introduced a new standard for directed conversations. More than just question-and-answer forums, these sites attempted to leverage the sense of community on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, but also direct that energy toward a socially useful outcome, such as collective wisdom. If the Press is a “key social institution that helps us understand what’s going on in the world around us,” then we are all responsible for making it better — reporters, publishers and news readers. So what does that collaboration and the goal of collectively assembled wisdom (other than Wikipedia, of course) look like?

  • Holding publishers, or authors, accountable: If the publishers’ aim is to stamp out trolls, the commenters’ equivalent goal is to squelch bad reporting. Many readers expect news stories to be factually accurate, fair and balanced, and free of hidden agendas or unstated personal opinions. Comments were the first opportunity to quickly point out shortcomings in a story (versus a letter to the editor that may or may not be printed some days or weeks later). Think of that span — an immediate retort versus an edited response published well after the fact — and project it into the future, and then ask yourself, “How far could an idea like MediaBugz go?”

The last example on my list has to do with providing value to the community and learning together. How do we address the myriad concerns on both sides of the fence and come out the other end with something that isn’t broken? How can the historical tension between the need for anonymity and the perceived advantages of a real identity be overcome using our knowledge and the tools of the open web? In what way can the visual language of online discussion be taken beyond “thumbs up” or “thumbs down?” And what does it look like to enable commenting on the HTML5 web, which is increasingly driven by video, audio, animations and interactivity?

In those rare inspirational moments — when two sides of a conversation come together and actually listen — there is the nucleus of the idea that inspired the world to embrace comments in the first place. How do we weave that idea into the web of tomorrow? How do we turn up the volume on everything we love about comments, discussion and debate online, without losing what we love in the process?

That, if you accept it, is your mission.

Cross-posted from PBS MediaShift Idea Lab. Feel free to comment here, or on the original.

May 05 2011


How to create an 'explosion of awesome' in your home town

“Journalism and data collide into an awesome explosion” — BCNI Philly

The Knight-Mozilla News Technology challenges officially kicked off last week. The first challenge — Unlocking Video — has seen more than forty submissions with three days still to go until the challenge closes. (If you were going to submit an entry to this challenge, time to get a move on!)

By far, we’ve found that the most effective way to do outreach is face-to-face. To facilitate as much of that as possible, we’re working with Hacks/Hackers and other organizations to encourage local events that bring people together to brainstorm challenge entries.

So far, there have been outreach events in:

There are currently events planned for:

  • Managua, May 8
  • San Salvador, May 11
  • Guatemala City, May 13
  • Dundee May 27 (tentative)
  • London, May 28 (tentative)
  • Birmingham, UK, May 31
  • Seattle, TBA
  • Berlin, TBA

Don’t see your city listed? What a perfect opportunity to pick-up the gauntlet and organize one. Michelle Thorne has been kind enough to pull together a bunch of resources to help you organize your own local event — it’s easy, it’s fun, and a great excuse to get your local ‘hacks’ and hackers together.

(I especially like the new Bingo cards that Jenny 8. Lee suggested. Great ice breaker.)

Most recently, I headed down to Philadelphia to do a (super-productive, if I say so myself) MoJo session at BarCamp News Innovation. As usual, I managed to corner a bunch of interesting people, point a video camera at them, and then asked them what they were doing there:

Many thanks to the following folks for subjecting themselves the camera:

If you’d like help creating an ‘explosion of awesome’ in your city, or at your next event, drop us a line.

May 02 2011


Win a Newsroom Fellowship by Rethinking Video Storytelling

Recently, we've seen a huge change in video online. The advent of web native video makes it possible to mash up moving images with social media, tie clips to data from across the web or, more simply, create simple transcript-based interfaces for navigating long pieces of video. Yet, despite these capabilities, we've seen almost nothing in the way of new kinds of storytelling. Telling stories with video online today looks pretty much the same as it did when I used to shoot local TV news 20 years ago.

This is something we hope to change with the first Knight Mozilla news innovation challenge topic. We're inviting hacks and hackers from around the world to answer the question: How can new web video tools transform news storytelling? People with the best ideas will get to bring them to life with a full-year paid fellowship in a world-leading newsroom.

The Next 'Montage Moment'

What do I mean by transform storytelling? Just that: taking today's online video tools beyond the mechanical and obvious, bringing people, ideas and events to life in ways we haven't seen before. To get your imagination going, think back to how visual storytelling emerged in the world of cinema.

The Lumiere brothers made some of the world's first films: "Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory," "Arrival of a Train at the Station," etc. The Lumieres' fixed frame wasn't much to write home about in terms of story. But seeing moving photographs was hugely impressive to most people at the time. It was a technical wonder.

It took 25 years for Sergei Eisenstein to grab hold of this technical wonder and then say: Wow, I bet we could tell a more powerful story if we varied the shots a bit and then edited them together. With "The Battleship Potemkin," he invented the visual language we still use to tell stories today: montage.

The fundamental technology didn't change in those 25 years. The Lumieres knew how to splice film and move the camera around. Eisenstein's breakthrough was to use basic film technology to tell a story in a new and creative way -- which is very much like where we are at with web native video today: huge technological potential just waiting to be seized for creative storytelling. What we need now is a "montage moment" for the web era.

Open Video: A Huge Palette of Awesomeness

The potential of web native video truly is awesome: We can now link any frame within any video to any other part of the web. This was hard to do in the world of Flash video. The introduction of the HTML5 <video> tag over the last two years has made it easy.

Early experiments and demos hint at the potential of this new open video palette. With the recent State of the Union address, PBS used Mozilla's popcorn.js tools to synchronize its live blogging with the timecode of the president's speech:

The same tools have been used to show how transcripts can be used to search and then navigate immediately to anywhere within a long clip. This demo from Danish public radio shows how this can work with web native audio. The same thing could easily be done with video.

Of course, the big potential is in connecting video to the massive amount of media and data that already exist all across the web. Imagine if you could weave the sum of all human knowledge seamlessly into your news story or documentary. That's now possible. This book report demo shows the basics concept, with a student connecting her narration to Wikipedia articles and news reports.

Google and Arcade Fire took this idea a step further, pulling moving images from street view and Google Earth into a rock video. If you enter your ZIP code, your neighborhood becomes a character in the narrative in real time.

The Japanese-based Sour "Mirror" went even further, pulling you into the video. Enter your Facebook ID and turn on your camera, and then you become a character in the band's video -- again, in real time.

These demos make an important point: The line between what's in the frame and what's on the web is dissolving. Or, put nerdily, timecode and hypertext are fusing together. They are becoming one.

Are You the Next Eisenstein?

Despite all the niftyness, there is a problem: These demos do not yet tap the open video palette to tell stories in meaningfully new ways. Open video tools like Mozilla's Popcorn and Butter provide a starting point. But they need people with a creative flare for both web technology and storytelling to bring them to life. Which is exactly why Knight and Mozilla threw out "how can new web video tools transform news storytelling?" as our first MoJo challenge question.

We're hoping that you -- or someone you know -- is up to this challenge. If you think you are, you should enter the MoJo innovation challenge. All you need to do is draw up a napkin sketch showing how you might tell a story in a new way with open video, write a brief paragraph about it, and then submit it online. If your idea is solid, you've got a good chance at a fellowship where you could actually bring it to life at the Al Jazeera, BBC, the Guardian, Die Zeit or the Boston Globe. Who knows? Maybe you could be the Eisenstein of open video.

Find out more about Knight Mozilla News Innovation Partnership on the MoJo website. Or enter the MoJo news innovation challenge today.

May 01 2011


Students: Enter the Knight-Mozilla Challenge

This is a open invitation to students to get involved in the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership and enter our News Innovation Challenge.

At this year’s SXSW Interactive, I sat in on a News Apps panel where Aaron Pilhofer, NYT’s Interactive News Editor, noted that “this is a unique historical moment where academia can lead the [news] industry.”  The industry is looking to students, teachers and researchers to experiment, break some rules, and collectively invent the future of journalism.

We believe you can do it, and we want to help you succeed by involving J schools and computer science departments (and the combinations they are forming).

Students, recent graduates, teachers, researchers, deans and more: please follow @knightmozilla on Twitter and sign up for our community discussion list to join the conversation.

But most importantly, we want students to enter our Innovation Challenges, starting with the current challenge: Unlocking Video: How can new web video tools transform news storytelling? In the coming weeks, we’ll release 2 more challenges: one focusing on evolving commenting and debate for online news and one on developing cross-platform news apps using HTML5 and other new tools.

What you can look forward to as a challenge participant

Our news innovation specialist, Phillip Smith, recently summarized the incentives we have put together for participants, including the chance to get a great job.  But we have even more opportunities lined up for participants. By entering the challenge, you can:
  • Take your news-technology idea from napkin sketch to specification to working prototype, with Mozilla’s help.  For students, we hope this means actualizing classroom work.  60 people will move on from this year’s challenge to our online Learning Lab, where they’ll get exposure to tech and journalism leaders, including  Christian Heilmann, Burt Herman, Aza Raskin, John Resig.
  • Put your best ideas in front of the people shaping online journalism’s future. Our stellar challenge review panel and dozens of news organanizations are looking to the Knight-Mozilla Innovation challenge to identify talented people and put them to work in the news industry.  Entering the challenge is a great way for students to make contact with this folks.
  • Get flown to Berlin for a face-to-face prototype-building event. 15 Learning Lab participants will earn this great experience – 3 days to make your ideas a reality in one of the most energetic hubs of open innovation in Europe.
  • The ‘big prize’: spend a year evolving your ideas in one of the  world’s most prestigious newsrooms as a paid Knight-Mozilla fellow. This is your opportunity to bring your ideas to market with our news partners, Al Jazeera, the BBC, Boston.com, The Guardian, and Zeit Online.

Enter the challenge today and contact me with any questions.


April 29 2011


Knight-Mozilla for Innovative Video Makers

By Popperipopp (Own work) [Public domain

Calling all video makers & hackers, remix masters and mashup gurus: the Knight-Mozilla News Partnership (aka “MoJo”) wants you to enter our Unlocking Video challenge.  We believe that you can help us figure out how new web video tools can transform news storytelling. Unlocking Video closes for entries in 1 week (May 6), so head on over to our challenge site to enter today.   Read on if you’d like to learn a little more before taking the plunge.

I talked with Brett Gaylor of Rip: A Remix Manifesto and Popcorn.js fame today about recruiting a wide range of creative video makers in the challenge.  Here are some key points for people in that community to consider:

  • You don’t have be an expert in journalism per se to enter the challenge. In fact, we believe that bringing together an interdisciplinary community will make the MoJo partnership a successful hub of innovation for journalism.
  • We’re looking for ideas AND people. You have great ideas for innovating in documentary or cinematic video formats online, but maybe you haven’t considered applications for journalism.  That’s OK.  Participating in the innovation challenge is just the first step – like raising your hand – so we can get to know who you are.  Think a bit about how what you’ve learned outside of journalism might help news users engage with stories and enter the challenge.  We’ll work with you from there through our Learning Lab, Hackfests, and Fellowships to develop your ideas with the support of our growing community.
  • We’ve got to do a better job reaching out to the wild and wonderful world of web video makers. That means talking to the Web Made Movies community, and reaching out to organizations like National Film Board of Canada and the Tribeca Film Institute, and networks like Shooting People.  We can’t do it alone, so please share this post with your networks.

If you’re new to MoJo, here are some resources to get you up to speed fast:

Now that you’re read the basics, head over and enter the Unblocking Video challenge before we close it on May 6, and share this post with your web video-loving friends.


April 28 2011


Are legacy media organizations the place where news innovations go to die?

“I am passionate about both news innovation and the proliferation of openness and I want to see both concepts make significant progress.” — Geoff Samek

Hey there Geoff, I’m glad to see that we’re on the same page with regards to the outcomes that we’re both passionate about, and I’m excited about carrying on this conversation at BarCamp News Innovation Philly this weekend. (Have you got a session idea ready?)

Here are some quick responses to your latest post:

“Legacy media organizations are where brilliant news innovations go to die.”

Having recently had the opportunity to meet a whole bunch of innovators that are working inside of legacy media organizations, I just don’t believe that these people have hung up their spurs and put aside the notion of innovating inside their respective organizations.

To the contrary, I do see a fair bit of innovation happening inside of established news organization, just take Jonathan Stray (Associated Press), Andy Carvin (NPR), or Hari Sreenivasan (PBS Newshour), for example.

“What I really want to know, is how putting the very best and brightest news hackers in large media companies will proliferate the concept of the open web.”

It’s really quite simple.

Take a quick look at other fellowship programs around the world, for example the Knight fellowship at Stanford, the Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship, the Shuttleworth Fellowship, or the Massey College journalism fellowship right here in Toronto.

These fellowships are an opportunity for people like Wendy Norris, Dave Cohen, or Mozilla’s own Mark Surman to step back from the day-to-day, and to focus on big-picture questions or projects that all too often get overlooked.

Here’s a practical example: Burt Herman, an AP bureau chief with more than ten years working as a reporter, accepts a Knight fellowship at Stanford where he works at the design school to explore the future of journalism. Today, Burt is putting meaning back into the term ‘entrepreneurial journalism’ through his award-winning start-up, Storify. Tools like Storify, and Document Cloud, are changing the way people produce news, and the way that news is consumed by users, and — thus — they are changing the Web.

“The concern being that your MoJo fellows might flourish as well as a Saber-toothed tiger stuck in the LaBrae Tar Pits.”

Let me conclude with this:

We don’t see our news partners as dinosaurs. We see them as hubs of important conversations about the future of the Web, journalism, and — more broadly — civic engagement and public participation in everyday life.

Will be challenges for the fellows? No doubt. But what fun is life without a few healthy challenges to overcome?

See you this weekend!

April 21 2011


A template for successful 'Hack Days.' What are your tips?

“Always be releasing.”

I’m going to be helping with some ‘Hack Days’ later this year for the Knight-Mozilla partnership. One in Berlin in September or October, and another with the Boston Hacks/Hackers chapter during the Online News Association conference.

I’d also like to organize some here in Toronto with our local Hacks/Hackers chapter, and support from the local start-up community, and the media organizations that come out to our event, i.e.: CBC, The Globe & Mail, Postmedia, Global News, OpenFile.ca, and so on.

(Hey, while I’m thinking of it, the Toronto chapter of Hacks/Hackers is pushing toward 300 members — if you haven’t joined yet, why don’t you? It only takes a minute.)

I’ve attended more than a few hack days in my life (or hackathons, code jams, or whatever the kids are calling them now). Let me tell you, in case you don’t already know from experience, that building useful software in 1-2 days with people you don’t know is fucking hard.

That’s why I admire events that have the infrastructure figured out (and I’m not talking about pizza and Jolt cola). Specifically, I’m impressed when they’ve answered the question “how are we going to host these apps, show them off publicly, and make the code available for others to build on?”

It sounds like the recent Buttercamp in NYC did a great job, but they didn’t get 100% of the demos online at the end of the event, and that’s a missed opportunity.

That should be the target that teams strive for, and the eligibility criteria to ‘win’ at the event. Code and demos should be online and visible to the other teams and to the public. Always be releasing.

This must be a solved problem? I’m hoping that there’s a write-up somewhere out there that will be posted in the comments. But, if that’s not the case, here’s what I’m proposing:

  • The event organizers do a fair bit of prep-work in advance to make the above possible. Specifically, by setting up an event-specific Github’organization’ that participants will be added to.

  • There should be a straightforward LAMP-stack Amazon EC2 instance made available for each team, or a bare bones instance that they can set-up with their preferred stack.

  • Each of the public URLs for the instances should be listed, so that teams and organizers can check on progress. Always be releasing. (One could even have fun with a leader board type set-up, e.g., a simple HTML page with a bunch of iframes — one for each teams instance — that reloads their app every minute or so. Same goes for a tally of Github commits by team.)

  • With a bit more planning, organizers could even look into using something like DotCloud — or one of the PaaS providers — or a fancy set-up like this one for Node.js that auto-deploys to the EC2 instance with the ‘git push’ command.

For the finale at the hack day, each team should have to present their work live, via the EC2 instance URL. It should also be required that what’s running on the EC2 is a straightforward ‘git pull’ of the code in their Github repository.

Maybe that’s the suspense-building moment, where the teams — live, in front of an audience — have to run a ‘git pull’ and deploy their app, and then load it in a browser. Oh, the suspense!

That’s how I would add some exponential gnerativity to a hack day. Mark my words, it would work.

UPDATE: While I’m thinking of it, it would also be great if each team had a person willing to live blog, or status update, during the event, to expose the whole process — the challenges, the breakthroughs, and opportunities for others to check out their app.

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