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Nov. 16, 2011, noon

Lessons from #Mozfest: How the Knight and Mozilla Foundations are thinking about open source

The foundations see a future that fuses journalism and tool-building, storytelling and code.

Editor’s note: Nikki Usher and Seth Lewis are academic researchers studying the intersection of journalists and technologists, or, as that group is often nicknamed, “hacks and hackers.” The latest part of their work included interviews and observation at the Mozilla Festival in London earlier this month.

This month’s Mozilla Festival in London was a serenade of hackers in service of the hack. The theme, “media, freedom, and the Web,” meant that #Mozfest was equally home to a Boston Globe hack challenge as it was to a Ushahidi one — and the event also was the capstone for the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership (MoJo) as it announced its 2011-12 slate of newsroom fellows.

While at Mozfest, we were struck by how much the Knight and Mozilla Foundations have in common. Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, began the event’s first “opening circle” by noting that people should be “media makers, not media consumers.” Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president for journalism and media innovation, offered a similar logic for change, telling potential MoJo participants at an informal chat, “One of the things we have seen is that people are more passionate about storytelling and content rather than design.”

In other words, there’s a need for people who can construct frameworks for improving the work of journalism, fusing the best of what developers do (tool-building through code) and journalists do (storytelling through content). And there’s a need for these technologists and journalists to work together, in traditional and non-traditional settings alike.

Because Mozfest drew so heavily from the developer community, thanks to Mozilla’s involvement and promotion, it provided a window for seeing how hackers think about news and information. One challenge called on a broad range of hackers — from “data wranglers” to user interface specialists — to work with Al Jazeera and the Guardian on the problems of “flow media” and interactives in real-time reporting: “The workflow for keeping up with the firehose while maintaining context and accuracy is in desperate need of a refresh.” Another challenge asked for journalists — such as The New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer and The Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer — to help “assemble a utility belt for data-driven journalists.” Their product was a collaboratively written handbook (see version 0.1) that unpacks what data journalism actually means and how it works.

Because of the open source nature of the whole event, the festival’s schedule was intended to be determined on-site, unconference-like, allowing participants to organize on-the-fly panels around topics of interest. Though the theme of these hackfests consistently is “more hack, less yak” — or “more hammering, less yammering” — we found people who wanted to “yak,” and along the way actually pitched our own panel on Hacker Journalism (more on that in an upcoming post).

We sat down with both Surman and Maness to get their take on a few things we’ve been noodling — in particular, why Mozilla and Knight, why journalism, and why open source.

From Surman, we learned that this MoJo thing is more than a tad evangelistic. He put it this way: “Mozilla got involved in journalism as part of a kind of broader instinct: about how we influence what the web is; how we find new opportunities to build software that embeds the values that we have about the web; [and the way to do this] is to go out there and work with people who make stuff on the web.”

Mozilla, according to Surman, has traditionally been more comfortable in the amateur space. But he’s seeking a wider cultural change, and notes, “I don’t think anybody who we work with thinks about the traditional newsroom as the primary or even the most important part of this.”

In fact, for him, when pressed to define journalism, journalism is way more than Zeit Online or The Boston Globe (two of the homes for MoJo fellows). Rather, to Surman — and by extension, to Mozilla — journalism means “some sense of a civic function, of people know[ing] what’s happened. So that doesn’t necessarily mean an unbiased reportage, but there’s a reason I’m transmitting some information about what I think happened.”

And we thought Surman made a key point — which was that just as journalists push out content, it’s the developers who are building the infrastructure that houses that content. So it’s important to have both parties understand what the web can do in each context.

In trying to understand Knight’s perspective, we wanted to know a few things, such as why Knight has decided to venture back into traditional newsrooms after going so far into the world of citizen journalism, and why open source is portrayed as being so crucially important to building the future of news.

Notably, Maness didn’t explicitly use the word “news” (or even “journalism,” much) — instead, he focused on “content” during our conversation. Traditional journalism, he said, is “a very specific path, and there’s a lot of that support, editing, filtration, curation — all those things are key. But what I think you’re seeing now is people’s ability to produce their own stories, and media filtering that and amplifying that in an interesting way to make it journalism.”

Knight went back to traditional news organizations because news organizations need support as much as the startups that Knight funds, Maness said. And, notably, “there’s not a better organizational space to throw these people in.” Legacy institutions, he noted, offer both a particular culture and a particular organization around the work of information production.

Open source, though, represents a real opportunity to bring together content and code, Maness said. The focus Knight has taken, both in the Knight News Challenge and in MoJo, comes from this perspective:

If you just say “open source,” it’s not two magic words that make everything democratized, because you want things to iterate and move…. So the shift [from] people owning broadcast towers and printing presses, the fact that you don’t have to have those million-dollar investments anymore, means that everyone hopefully has access to those things. And so open source is just another way to make sure that we’re not creating new systems that don’t allow freedom of speech. Because when it’s a closed thing, it’s proprietary.

How this open source ethic translates back into newsrooms will be interesting to watch — and something we’ll be following. But as Mozilla’s Dan Sinker explained to us, no one’s expecting to transform any of these newsrooms overnight; any small change toward open source is a win, which, over time, will add up to a major cultural change.

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that wandering around Mozfest were the newly anointed MoJo fellows, who survived the first iteration of the $3 million partnership. The fellows were selected through an international winnowing process that included some 285+ entries to future-of-news design challenges; a monthlong learning lab for 60 people chosen for their entries; and a weeklong hackathon for 20 finalists in Berlin.

In the end, five people emerged standing and ready to be embedded in newsrooms that Surman described as representing his “peers” — newsrooms chosen because “we intentionally sought out people who already were infused in the culture of the web”: Zeit Online, The Boston Globe, the BBC, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera.

The fellows are Mark Boas (Al Jazeera), an audio specialist and a co-founder of Happyworm, maker of the jPlayer media framework; Cole Gillespie (Zeit Online), a JavaScript developer who worked for CNN, National Geographic, and IBM; Laurian Gridinoc (BBC), a computational linguistics and semantic navigation expert; Nicola Hughes (the Guardian), who mixes a journalism background (starting at CNN in London) with coding skills — not to mention knowledge of physics, zoology, and anthropology — and has been working on the ScraperWiki project; and Dan Schultz (Boston Globe), a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab studying in the Information Ecology group, and a 2007 Knight News Challenge winner.

Image of MozFest’s main room by Doug Belshaw used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 16, 2011, noon
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