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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

What newsrooms can learn from open-source and maker culture

…and why they could be the keys to innovating both the business and the system of journalism.

“Newsosaur” blogger and media consultant Alan Mutter some time ago suggested that journalism has to become a lot more like Silicon Valley. Newspapers are too risk-averse, he said, and so they “need some fresh DNA that will make them think and act more like techies and less like, well, newspaper people.”

When Seth was at the Hacks/Hackers hack day at ONA11 last month, as part of his larger project studying Hacks/Hackers, he mentioned this idea to Phillip Smith, a digital publishing consultant who has been instrumental in the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership (the same collective we wrote about in August).

Maker culture is a way of thinking — a DIY aesthetic of tinkering, playing around, and rebuilding, all without fear of failure.

While Smith generally agreed with Mutter’s premise — of course Silicon Valley could bring a little dynamism to newspapers and journalism — he offered a caveat: The technology sector that Smith knew a decade ago was more about hacking-in-the-open and building cool stuff for others to enjoy, with a secondary emphasis on making money. Now the inverse is true: Silicon Valley is much less about the ideals of the open web, and much more about (as another observer has put it) short-sighted technology for the sake of “big exits and big profits.”

So it’s a bit of a mistake, we think, to go down the route of saying that journalism needs to become like Silicon Valley, in part because Silicon Valley is not simply a world of innovation, but also a highly competitive, secretive, and unstable metaphor. (Think: Groupon IPO, or even The Social Network.)

Instead, open source might be what people are hoping for when they think about remaking journalism — both in terms of innovating the business/system of news, and in terms of making it more transparent and participatory.

In a widely circulated recent post, Jonathan Stray suggested that the news industry could draw on “maker culture” to create a new kind of journalism — one that plumbs the institutional and technical complexities of major issues (like global finance) in a way that invites bright, curious “makers” to hack the system for the good of society. “This is a theory of civic participation based on empowering the people who like to get their hands dirty tinkering with the future,” Stray wrote. Josh Stearns built on this line of reasoning, arguing that “maker culture is the willingness to become experts of a system, and then use that expertise to change the system.”

Silicon Valley is not just a world of innovation, but also a highly competitive, secretive, and unstable metaphor.

Their approach to “maker culture,” we believe, can have a direct and practical implementation in journalism through a focus on integrating open source into the newsroom. As both Stray and Stearns point out: Maker culture is a way of thinking — a DIY aesthetic of tinkering, playing around, and rebuilding, all without fear of failure. Just the kind of thing journalism needs.

Maker culture is bound up in the technology and ethos of hacker culture, as James Losey of the New America Foundation has helpfully showed us. Losey (and colleague Sascha Meinrath) think this kind of “internet craftsmanship” is instrumental to sustaining the very architecture of the web itself: having the freedom and control and playful curiosity to shape networking technologies to meet one’s needs. Gutenberg, as Losey and Meinrath argue, was the first hacker, fundamentally rethinking technology. And it’s from this hacker mindset that we can take cues for rebooting the tools, practices, and frameworks of journalism.

So: Add maker/hacker culture, mix in a bit of theorist Richard Sennett, who believes in the capacity of individuals to reshape and innovate new media, and sprinkle some open-source juice into journalism, and you get the following:

1. New tools, stage one
We see this already. At ONA11, Knight-Mozilla’s Dan Sinker led a panel on open source in the newsroom that featured representatives from several major players: ProPublica (Al Shaw), The New York Times (Jacqui Cox), and the Chicago Tribune’s News Apps Team (Brian Boyer). Meanwhile, folks at The Seattle Times are using fairly simple tools like Tableau Public to visualize census data. In short: Already there are people inside newsrooms building cool and creative things.

2. New tools, stage two
This stage means going beyond the existing crop of databases, visualizations, and crowdsourcing applications (amazing as they are!) to look a bit more holistically at the system of news and the incorporation of open source in truly opening up the newsroom. In other words, can news organizations build open-source platforms for refining whole content management systems, or for building entirely new distribution systems?

Gutenberg was the first hacker, fundamentally rethinking technology.

Reflecting on Knight-Mozilla’s “hacking and making” week in Berlin — a gathering (dubbed, despite the month, “Hacktoberfest“) that featured journalists, designers, developers, and several news organization partners — Sinker made an interesting observation about open-source tools for newsrooms. Some of the news partners worried that “open-souce code would reveal too much,” but then it dawned on them that coordination among them would actually be facilitated by “working in the open.” They realized that “it meant far more than just code — it meant a new way of working, of embracing collaboration, and of blazing a real way forward.”

Beyond the benefits to collaboration, it’s important to remember that “open source” doesn’t necessarily mean “non-commercial.” If newsrooms develop open-source tools that make newswork (or knowledge management generally) easier, they can find revenue opportunities in selling services around that open code.

3. New thinking: A maker mindset + open source
What does it mean to incorporate the tinkering and playing and reshaping of maker culture back into journalism? The news industry is one of the last great industrial hold-overs, akin to the car industry. Newsrooms are top-heavy, and built on a factory-based model of production that demands a specific output at the end of the day (or hour). They’re also hierarchical, and, depending on whom you ask, the skills of one journalist, are for the most part, interchangeable with those of most other journalists — in part because journalists share a common set of values, norms, and ideals about what it means to do their work.

Thus, merging elements of maker culture and journalism culture might not be easy. Challenging the status quo is hard. The expectations of producing content, of “feeding the beast,” might get in the way of thinking about and tinkering with the software of news, maker-style. It can’t just be the newsroom technologists hacking the news system; it has to be journalists, all of them, reflecting on what it means to do news differently. We have to make time for journalists to rethink and reshape journalism like a hacker would retool a piece of code.

4. New frameworks: The story as code
While observing the Knight-Mozilla digital learning lab, some of the coolest things we saw were the final projects designed to reimagine journalism. (See all of the projects here and here.) What made these pitches so interesting? Many of them tried to bring a fundamental rethink to problems journalism is struggling to resolve — for instance, how to make information accessible, verifiable, and shareable.

So if we think about the story as code, what happens? It might seem radical, but try to imagine it: Journalists writing code as the building blocks for the story. And while they write this code, it can be commented on, shared, fact-checked, or augmented with additional information such as photos, tweets, and the like. This doesn’t have to mean that a journalist loses control over the story. But it opens up the story, and puts it on a platform where all kinds of communities can actively participating as co-makers.

We have to make time for journalists to rethink and reshape journalism like a hacker would retool a piece of code.

In this way, it’s a bit like the “networked journalism” envisioned by Jeff Jarvis and Charlie Beckett — although this code-tweaking and collaboration can come after the point of initial publication. So, your investigative pieces are safe — they aren’t open-sourced — until they become the source code for even more digging from the public.

In all of this thinking of the ways open source is changing journalism, there are some clear caveats:

1. For open-source projects to succeed, they require lots of people, a truly robust network of regular contributors. Given the amount of time that people might be willing to spend with any one article, or with news in general, who knows whether the real public affairs journalism that might benefit the most from open source would, in fact, get the kind of attention it needs to change the framework.

2. Open source requires some form of leadership. Either you have someone at the top making all the decisions, or you have some distributed hierarchy. As one newspaper editor told a fellow academic, Sue Robinson, in her study of participatory journalism: “Someone’s gotta be in control here.”

Image by tiana_pb used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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Justin Ellis    April 15, 2014
Chalkbeat, Southern California Public Radio, InvestigateWest and others are awarded over $236,000 in micro-grants to support events programming, collaborative reporting, and a “native underwriting” pilot program.
  • http://twitter.com/jonathanstray jonathanstray

    Really interesting piece. I focussed on journalism for “makers” in the audience, while here you’ve focussed on newsroom culture itself. Perhaps the two are related.

  • http://tarletongillespie.org Tarleton Gillespie

    One thing I find interesting, and this might be a point of conversation, is where “professional imaginaries” matter, and where “professional realities” (for lack of a better term) matter. So I had to thoughts while I read your post. First, I like the idea of “maker culture,” and one thing I like is that it gets away from the term “hacker”. As much as the term has been rejuvenated in professional environments in the last few years, it has old baggage (see Nissenbaum on this, if you haven’t already) and its also been taken more recently in anarcho-political directions, by Anonymous among others. So part of what has to / can happen here is to articulate a positive and engage-able professional identity for people who are reporting the news but doing so in a way that involves code, visualizations, and other tools. (I know you want to push farther, get the news production process itself to be open, collaborative, etc — not dismissing that, just getting an earlier thought off my chest.) So that’s an “imaginaries” thing to me, how people conceive of themselves and their own work how others perceive these roles and responsibilities, and how one can valorize (or dismiss) roles in ways that shape practices.

    But the second thought was: how does one get good at these things – the news tool design, for one, and even more so, the more organically interconnected process you’re calling for? How does one get good enough to make the kind of visualizations and participation tools you pointed to at The New York Times, without having to have a professional trajectory, a training as a software designer / computer scientist / engineer. If that is the case (you have to get good, there are fundamentals, NYT has to feel confident they’re hiring the best, etc etc) how does one avoid the problem that these people are likely trained to be developers and *not* journalists? This is what I mean by professional reality, where these people actually come to do what they do in certain ways, paths that facilitate the development of expertise and the good work it might produce, but also harden in ways that make them hard to intertwine.

    The “incubator” model of the Knight competition seems like one way, where you create reward for people who can bridge the skills; seems like one way these would take hold is that NYT would hire some of these people, kind of a Sundance film festival / studio relationship. Another might be some tool coming out of left field and surprising all the existing industry (haven’t seen a powerful example in journalism, maybe you have, but obvious examples abound in the music industry). But can these changes happen from within, and if so, what makes the change possible? Is it changing the professional imaginary, i.e. calling into being a new role like “newshackers”? Is it by changing the professional realities, i.e. teaching design in j-schools? Is it just external pressure that will motivate more radical moves than usual, i.e. “newspapers are dying!”?