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March 10, 2011, 2 p.m.

Why the Knight-Mozilla Technology Partnership is betting on open source and distributed innovation

How exactly do we Firefox the news?

It’s a question to ask now that the Knight Foundation has partnered with Mozilla to create news technology fellowships to help spur innovation in newsrooms. The way it works (at least at this early stage): Fellows, a mix of technologists, designers and developers, will be embedded in newsrooms to fix problems and act as catalysts for creating new tools for the benefit of journalism.

If we consider that, for a large majority of newsrooms, there is no R&D lab for new apps and tools, creating an open-source community for the development of journalism tech makes a lot of sense. Even more sense-making is the idea of bringing in Mozilla, which can help by tapping its expansive community.

Ideally, in the not-too-distant future (three years, the duration of the fellowship), these fellows will have helped create a new field of free (and thoroughly documented) applications for news that can be used by everyone from The New York Times to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. The question is: How do we get there? How do we meld the ethos of Mozilla — one of openness, experimentation and risk — with the pragmatic realities of newspapers?

Nathaniel James, the news technology program manager for Mozilla, told me the key is bringing in outsiders who can acknowledge an institution’s history and practices, but are not necessarily bound by it.

“They’re a cohort of fifteen people who come in from the outside, but as they’re embedded, take on the values and understand the rhythms of business in those institutions,” James said.

The idea is not simply to have a digital handyman, an add-on to the IT staff or web team, but someone who can solve problems with new technologies and build new, adaptive tools for the future. “There are big, big challenges in the reporting space that news organizations don’t have the time, people or resources,” James said.

Philip Smith, who is working for Mozilla as an emissary of sorts to newspapers, said it’s not an issue of whether innovation — the kind being practiced at The New York Times or ProPublica — is taking place across media companies. The problem is that that work isn’t possible at all news organizations, he said. And the fellows should help to accelerate it.

For the fellows, who will be introduced to news organizations in stages beginning this fall, what they build could be as important as what they can teach about testing and launching products, calculating risk, and developing a tolerance for failure.

But as important as that outsider perspective may be, James said the fellows will need to have an interest in journalism and the ways information is shared. “We don’t want to come off as making a fetish of new blood and new people,” he said.

Well, yes and no. Mozilla’s Drumbeat project, which could act as something of a feeder to the fellowship program, is all about new people. Drumbeat is aimed at trying to harness a crowd of innovators to address broader needs on the web. On Drumbeat you’ll find people of all stripes pitching projects as well as finding ways to contribute to existing projects.

It sounds like distributed innovation, an idea not foreign to the Knight Foundation. (Take, for example, the Knight News Challenge and its mandate that entries be open-source.)

“We live in our field,” said Knight’s Jose Zamora. “Journalists are constantly trying to innovate and look for solutions.” But “because we’re in that space, we might not see things from a different perspective.” Working with Mozilla, he pointed out, is a way of building a pipeline to people outside the world of journalism, but also of bringing journalism into the world of open web standards.

I had to ask Zamora why, if the main aim of the project is innovation within newsrooms, the pilot organizations they are working with (The Boston Globe, The BBC, The Guardian) are all, well, already capable of developing web tools. Zamora told me the initiative needed a group of newsrooms that had established a capacity for web development and could create projects that could scale.

But James is encouraged. He thinks once the first round of fellows are in place, the next wave could spread out to newsrooms of all sizes. In fact, he’s already laid out some criteria for the types of newsrooms the fellowship hopes to expand to in later rounds.

“The time is right,” James said. “News industry leaders are turning around from an older sense that the web is betraying them.”

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]

POSTED     March 10, 2011, 2 p.m.
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