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Oct. 17, 2013, 9 a.m.
Reporting & Production

More code, more coders: Knight invests $4 million to expand Knight-Mozilla partnership

The program will add staff and expand by adding a conference and collaborative code-building events for journalism technologists.


The Knight Foundation is reinvesting in Knight-Mozilla OpenNews to help grow the community of journalism-centered hackers and find ways to better integrate them into media companies. This morning, Knight announced it was awarding $4 million in new funding to the program it jointly supports with Mozilla, best known for its Firefox browser.

The funding, over three years, means OpenNews can continue to seed developers throughout media organizations with the Knight-Mozilla Fellowships, which has placed 13 technologists into nine different newsrooms over the past two years. A new class of fellows will be announced at the Mozilla Festival in London later this month, and they’ll be adding new news organizations to the roster, including The Texas Tribune and Ushahidi.

The new funding is nearly double Knight’s initial commitment to the program in 2011. (Full disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.) More money means a broader scope for OpenNews, which will increase its outreach through a new conference, hack days, and collaborative coding projects. It also means OpenNews will bring on additional staff and expand Source, the site that is part code library, part education module, and part clubhouse for the news developer community.

“It feels really validating,” said Dan Sinker, head of OpenNews. “What feels validating is a lot of the new grant is built around the things that we introduced while the ball was already kind of in motion.”

Specifically, Knight wants to help OpenNews expand its work beyond the original fellowship program to help reach a broader community of coders and technologists outside of the host newsrooms. In a press release, Knight’s Michael Manness said: “In its next phase it will work to build stronger bridges between the developer world and everyday newsrooms, while establishing itself as a source for continuous media innovation.”

The way Sinker sees it, the new funding will help amplify the work OpenNews is doing, to reach developers working alone, people in the tech community, and working journalists. “It’s a community play,” Sinker said. “It’s very much about community organizing as it is about technology or placing fellows in newsrooms.”

OpenNews logoOne way of reaching out is through a new Source conference (SRC CON is a working title, Sinker says) starting in 2014. The two-day event is meant to bring together the growing family of journalists and technologists working on similar projects. The concept of SRC CON was borne out of the journalism track that OpenNews has developed at the Mozilla Festival as well as experiences at the NICAR conference. Sinker sees it as an open-ended event, an unconference where people can come talk about the concepts and projects they don’t get to focus on during their day job. The idea, Sinker says, is to “have conversations around ideas on day one, and then sit down with a bunch of great people and start hacking on them on day two.”

While SourceCon might indulge developer’s curiosity and part-time projects, OpenNews also wants to help coders do their 9-to-5 jobs more efficiently. In 2014, they’ll start a series of what Sinker calls “code convenings,” a series of events where news developers come together to collaborate on data sets and other projects that would benefit multiple newsrooms.

“There’s a lot of things — code bases and tools — that these news apps teams and others in this space keep building over and over again,” Sinker says. “There’s got to be a way to pull together a dozen people or more to say, ‘here’s where a codebase would be useful and helpful if it was built and shared,’ instead of everyone building the wheel over and over again.” (It’s thinking similar to OpenNews’ Code Sprint Grants.)

Sinker said convenings could be called to help build more secure communication systems for reporters, for example, or better presentation and design tools for storytelling. But the events would also be a way of creating the kinds of enduring datasets that newsrooms need on regular basis: election data, campaign finance numbers, census statistics, and so on.

The recent government shutdown has been a signal to developers that they need to create systems for retrieving reliable data even when agencies’ data feeds dry up. “Open government is great and the open data the government has is great,” Sinker said. “But we’re reliant on APIs coming from the government. And if the government shuts down, so does your API.”

Making a “distributed fellowship” work

As originally designed, the heart of OpenNews was the fellowship program, meant to pull talented developers into the world of journalism and see what they could achieve while embedded in news organizations. The benefit would be a two-way hack: The developers would play the role of missionary and spread the good word about creating software, and they would be exposed to the virtues of journalism.

While the 13 developers who have participated in the program have indeed influenced their host organizations, Sinker said the problem wasn’t that newsrooms were bereft of developing talent or failed to see the need to integrate new technologies into storytelling. It’s not that most newsrooms don’t have developers, but that the staff they have may be small or over stretched. The real value of Knight-Mozilla Fellows has been to act as researchers, hackers, and catalysts in their newsrooms, Sinker said.

The Knight-Mozilla Fellowship is somewhat different from other fellowship programs since each class spends most of its time apart, operating independently from one another. (The Nieman Fellowships, to mention one noteworthy example, brings everyone here to Cambridge for a year.) Because it’s a distributed fellowship, Sinker said they decided to schedule times before and throughout the year to bring fellows together to meet and bounce ideas off each other. Sinker said that’s helped fellows find ways to collaborate with each other, and create a stronger network for when they need assistance with their individual projects. Since OpenNews was launched, fellows have worked on more than 50 software projects.

Manuel Aristarán, stationed at La Nación, and Mike Tigas at ProPublica developed Tabula, a system that lets anyone extract data from PDFs, which is terribly handy when dealing with government documents. Brian Abelson, based at The New York Times, and Sonya Song at The Boston Globe have both spent time looking at how news is shared, social analytics, and how to measure impact. Abelson’s also worked with Noah Veltman, based at the BBC, in investigating the numerology of BuzzFeed.

The fellowship is largely self-driven by the developer. Veltman, for example, has started a series of lunchtime seminars at the BBC to talk about issues around technology and journalism.

With three more years of funding, Sinker expects the fellowship, along with the rest of the OpenNews program, will continue to grow further past the outer edges of journalism. “We’ve been able to engage a lot of people that haven’t been traditionally thinking of themselves as journalism-oriented,” he said. “Suddenly there’s people applying to the fellowship program — people doing civic data stuff, or information-access stuff.”

Photo of the current class of fellows (with Sinker at right) via OpenNews.

POSTED     Oct. 17, 2013, 9 a.m.
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