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Nov. 8, 2012, 12:30 p.m.

Luring developers into the newsroom: A new class of Knight-Mozilla fellows tries to bridge a cultural divide

The laws of supply and demand are working very differently in two different parts of major newsrooms.

In the United States, at least, there’s a surplus of people who want to make phone calls, ask questions, and write stories. There are more reporters than jobs for reporters, and each new j-school graduating class tips the balance a bit further.

But when it comes to news developers — technologists who build journalistic products through code — the scales tip in the other direction. Newsrooms hunt hard to find candidates who have the digital skills and the journalistic instincts to build interactives, open up databases, and innovate in digital presentation. Newsrooms aren’t often on developers’ radars, and great jobs go unfilled.

“If a person just wants to make a ton of money, they’re not going to pursue journalism,” Dan Sinker told me. “That’s true if you’re a good writer or a good designer or a good developer. So why do people engage in journalism as a career? It’s because they truly care about the world learning more about itself, because they want to empower people to make better choices and make a better world. That’s why we care.”

Sinker leads a big bet on that argument — that you can activate some hackers’ civic orientation to bring them into newsrooms, where they can reach a broad audience and help, in some small way, pull journalistic institutions closer to a digital orientation. He runs Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, home to the Knight-Mozilla Fellowships. A new class of fellows was just announced moments ago in London, at the Mozilla Festival. (The full list and bios of the new fellows are below.)

Knight-Mozilla takes coders — many of whom have never worked directly in journalism before — and embeds them in some of the world’s great newsrooms for 10 months. Last year’s fellows worked at the BBC, The Guardian, Zeit Online, Al Jazeera English, and The Boston Globe; this year, The New York Times, La Nacíon (Argentina), Spiegel Online, and ProPublica will each have their first fellows.

Making the appeal

So what’s Knight-Mozilla strategy to attract the interest of developers? “You have to reach out to them and engage them in ways they want to be engaged,” Sinker says. Post a job on or Poynter and coders might never see it; you have to meet the candidates where they are. That’s meant taking money originally planned for more traditional communications efforts and redirecting it toward sponsoring hack days in cities around the world; by year’s end, OpenNews will have sponsored more than 20 of them.

“The best path to finding news devs is through hackers working with civic data,” Sinker says. The people who show up at civic-data hack days, who work with datasets from the Sunlight Foundation, the Open Knowledge Foundation — those are the sorts who can be pushed toward newsrooms.

It also means bridging newsroom and hacker culture. News organizations tend to be pretty proprietary with their information; civic coders tend to embrace open source. So OpenNews promises applicants they’ll be able to work in the open, sharing code with the thriving broader community of news devs. (On the listing of fellows on the Knight-Mozilla site, each is identified by three links: a Twitter handle, a homepage, and a Github repository.)

The appeal seems to have worked: Sinker said 165 people applied for the fellowships, of which he said about 75 “were fully qualified” for a slot. The apps were winnowed over the months that followed both by OpenNews and its news partners, who were looking for the right match for their newsrooms. (While it might be journalists who are most famous for thriving on deadline, Sinker said his coder applicants also largely waited until the last minute to apply: “The very last person to apply — he got it in about a second before midnight — was Brian Abelson, who is now going to be a fellow at The New York Times.”)

The partner news organizations are all elite outlets with their own history of digital innovation — and that’s intentional. “We’re asking people to take 10 months of their life, and the person that goes in there can’t be the first person over the wall,” Sinker says. “We can’t drop a really skilled technologist into a newsroom where they’ll be the person fixing the CMS. We need our partner to have a real track record of innovation so they can flourish and thrive.”

(A desire to reach out to smaller outlets was the inspiration behind OpenNews’ recently announced Code Sprint grants, which give smaller amounts of money to news orgs to build specific tools. The first one went to WNYC and KPCC to build election data tools that were used on November 6; the next couple of Code Sprint grantees are in process.)

Injecting coding culture into newsrooms

The new Knight-Mozilla fellows are a talented bunch, as you can tell from the bios below. When the fellows were setting up their start dates at their news organizations, one, Manuel Aristarán, said he’d be available to start once a project he was finishing up work on launched. What was the project? An actual launch — he was building the ground control systems for a satellite.

“He lives in a town 18 hours from Buenos Aires in Patagonia, and he built a data portal for that town,” Sinker said. “He’s a frickin’ rocket scientist, but he cares about civic information.”

Noah Veltman, who’ll be based at the BBC, had worked on issues like digital censorship issues and promoting open source, but not directly in journalism. “I’ve always worked at the intersection of tech and something else,” he said, and this was a chance to make journalism the something else.

He expects that the work he’ll be doing at the BBC will tackle some of its unique challenges, such as dealing with its huge, multilingual output and its wide variety of media formats. But he also wants to tackle what he sees as the weaknesses in the current boom in news dev.

“People are doing a lot of cool things, but people are also doing a lot of stupid things,” he said. “There’s a lot of lazy data journalism out there — things that are more eye candy than substance, people who just throw data out there for a user to explore without adding a layer of context or analysis on top. It’s like a reporter just posting the contents of his steno pad online and saying, ‘You decide where the story is.’ It’s laying down on the job, I think.”

He also wants to work on one problematic side effect caused by all those hack days — the huge number of projects started and then left behind. “There’s a big graveyard of abandoned projects,” he said.

Dan Schultz, a member of the first class of fellows and still at The Boston Globe, said that, while he’d been interested in news and media, “I wasn’t necessarily planning on working in a newsroom” before the fellowship opportunity came along. “I would say it’s been eye-opening. I’ve learned a lot about how the, quote, real world works.” He’s spent the early part of his fellowship working more on infrastructural issues and is now moving toward more work with GlobeLab and new projects.

How will Knight-Mozilla know if these fellowships are successful? “Something like this is really a long play,” Veltman said. “It’s about planting these seeds.” For Sinker, success means the fellows staying in the news space, whether at their host news organizations, at startups, or elsewhere.

“The big problem I want to solve is not ‘Journalism needs to care more about the Internet and being native on the web.’ Yes, that’s a problem, but journalism’s doing a pretty good job on that. The main problem now is that there are way more openings for these kinds of jobs than there are people who know they want to fill them. So we have to bring more people into the fold.”

Knight-Mozilla OpenNews was funded primarily by $2.5 million from Knight Foundation. This second class of fellows will be the last covered by the original Knight grant, but Sinker said conversations are underway with Knight “on how we move from here.”

Brian Abelson (The New York Times) is a statistician, journalist, and hacker. He lives in New York and works as a data scientist at the Harmony Institute. He recently graduated with a MA in Applied Statistics from Columbia University where he focused on quantitative and computational approaches to social science. On the side, he edited a book for a prominent political scientist, won a hackathon, and worked on investigative news stories. In previous lives, Brian managed development projects in sub-Saharan Africa, reached number one on Hype Machine, and shared a stage with Spoon and Bob Dylan.

Manuel Aristarán (La Nacíon) is a coder-slash-musician. He’s worked on big websites, recommendation engines, logistics and provisioning systems, public data tools and satellite ground station software…all while still trying to play bass and get good music gigs. In 2010, he independently developed, a tool to browse, visualize, and open the expenditure data published by the municipality of Bahía Blanca, Argentina, his hometown.

Annabel Church (Zeit) is a web developer who has worked in a variety of digital media agencies around London, before falling in love with news organisations from the inside out. She is currently working at the Guardian developing tools to aid and abet journalism through live blogging. Particularly, she is passionate about how information and news is represented and presented and what tools can be created to aid journalism. Originating from far away in New Zealand, she enjoys traveling and spends many weekends experiencing the good and the bad of European cuisine.

Stijn Debrouwere (The Guardian) is a technologist trying to figure out how we can innovate our way out of the news industry’s crisis. In his work as a freelancer and media consultant, he thinks about how information gets created and stored, how it travels around, and how to meaningfully present all that information to users. His work fits somewhere in between UX design, software architecture, taxonomy, and process management. He writes a blog about the future of news at

Friedrich Lindenberg (Spiegel Online) is a media scientist turned coder working on open government and transparency initiatives. As a developer and evangelist for the Open Knowledge Foundation, he works on OpenSpending, a platform that aims to make government finance more accessible to citizens around the world. He has also been involved in training journalists to use data and advocating for open government data. Before joining the OKF, Friedrich worked on Adhocracy, a collaborative policy drafting software, now used by a commission of the German parliament and several political organizations.

Sonya Song (The Boston Globe) is a doctoral student in Media and Information Studies at Michigan State University. She has worked in both media and IT, taking various roles in newsrooms and Internet start-ups, including reporter, graphic designer, programmer, and product manager. Currently she concentrates on studying social sciences using computational approaches. Particularly, she is curious about Internet censorship and her research on China’s censorship of online news was awarded a Google Policy Fellowship in 2012. Sonya possesses a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science from Tsinghua University in Beijing and master of philosophy in journalism from The University of Hong Kong. Sonya is also an avid photographer and devotee of literature and films.

Mike Tigas (ProPublica) is a web developer who currently works at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, WA. His work runs the gamut of everything web-related, from CMS features to interactive data visualizations to assisting with computer-assisted reporting. On the side, he works on Onion Browser, an open source, privacy-enhancing iOS web browser which uses the Tor onion router network. He passes what little spare time he has dabbling in photography, following baseball and college football, and drinking good beer.

Noah Veltman (BBC) created his first website when he was 12 years old; it had an animated background, a MIDI soundtrack, and lots of <blink> tags. He’s been creating visualizations, tools, and games for the web ever since, with a focus on making sense out of complex data. He has worked as a web developer, UI designer, and product manager for a variety of Silicon Valley startups, and previously worked with leading tech policy organizations on issues such as online privacy, free speech, and net neutrality.

Disclaimer: Knight Foundation is also a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Nov. 8, 2012, 12:30 p.m.
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