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Feb. 9, 2017, 9 a.m.

With $1.1 million in funding from Knight, OpenNews is becoming an independent organization

Launched in 2011 as a joint venture between the Mozilla and Knight foundations, OpenNews is also pressing pause on its fellowship program to reevaluate.

When it was founded in 2011 as a partnership of the Mozilla Foundation and the Knight Foundation, the central focus of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews was a fellowship program that embedded developers and technologists into newsrooms to help outlets change their culture while also embracing Mozilla’s ethos of the open web.

In the years since then, OpenNews’ focus has expanded beyond the fellowship program, with efforts such as the sells-out-in-minutes SRCCON conference, Code Convenings, regular conference calls, and the website Source.

Today, almost exactly six years after , OpenNews is ready to stand on its own. It announced Thursday that it will become an independent organization with plans to rethink its fellowships and introduce a number of other programs that reflect the evolution of the program’s focus. The revamped OpenNews will be supported by a $1.1 million grant from the Knight Foundation. (Disclosure: Knight also supports Nieman Lab.)

“When what was originally called the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership started, it was really to emphasize the importance of the open web in newsrooms. It’s drifted far from that over the years,” OpenNews director Dan Sinker told me.

“A number of the things we’re heavily involved with right now — whether it’s really thinking about diversity in tech teams, or whether it’s thinking about the struggles that a solo developer in a small non-coastal newsroom might face — it takes a fair amount of walking to roll back to: ‘And then the open web is better,'” he said. “We began to realize, what if we end our sentences with, ‘And then journalism is better’? That’s really what began that process. For us, what it means is that we can really double down on the service to the community and place the community at the core of what we do and at the driving point in the decisions that we make.”

OpenNews has received $6.6 million in funding over the years. Its new round from Knight is for one year, and Sinker said there’s an expectation that the organization will diversify its funding from there. OpenNews is looking toward sponsorships (SRCCON already has sponsors, and Sinker said it received more than $100,000 in support last year — about five times higher than what it had budgeted for) and other foundations to continue to finance its work.

Knight on Thursday also published a report that examines the impact of the OpenNews fellowships. The report — assembled by research group Network Impact and featuring participant interviews, surveys, and social network data analysis — will be used to inform OpenNews’ plans moving forward.

Since 2011, there have been 33 OpenNews fellows in 19 newsrooms in five different countries. Each fellow spent 10 months in the participating newsrooms, and many of the fellows had no prior journalism experience. The report found that while the fellows succeeded individually and were able to grow their professional networks, their impact on their host newsrooms varied:

Fellows mostly achieved their individual goals for the fellowship in areas such as acquiring new skills, contributing to the production of open source tools and engaging in creative problem-solving with other journalist technologists.

However, the fellows fell short in their perceptions of how much they assisted their participating newsrooms (building tools to help journalists, helping newsrooms to tell better stories).

According to a survey question answered by 26 of the fellows who have gone through the program, 85 percent still work in journalism in some capacity. Interviews with the former fellows said they preferred to work in more innovative environments, meaning that many of them wanted to go to digital startups or larger newsrooms. “This preference may have implications for small and mid-size legacy news organizations, which may not be as attractive an option for this talent but which arguably have greater need of this type of technology support,” the report said.

The study found that the fellows were able to help connect their newsrooms to the larger journalism and tech communities, and that they also helped facilitate knowledge sharing across the industry. The study found discrepancies between how different newsrooms handled their fellows. Some said they felt distant from the rest of the newsroom and that they didn’t have enough management:

When fellows were asked about the conditions inside the newsroom that made it difficult to meet their goals, the top adverse conditions cited included a misunderstanding of a fellow’s role and the lack of adaptability of the host’s workflow or “way of doing things.”

These barriers to using technology as a core journalistic practice were also confirmed by the wider survey of technologists outside of the OpenNews network. Among the leading challenges noted by technologists regarding newsroom technology use were that the “Team is not growing fast enough to keep up with demand” (59 percent of all respondents) and that newsrooms “Don’t have enough editors who are qualified to supervise the work of technologists” (48 percent of all respondents).

OpenNews has suspended its fellowships for 2017 as it takes into account the report’s findings and looks to evolve the program. Sinker said OpenNews is planning a meeting for later this spring that will examine journalism fellowships in general and enable fellowship programs to share best practices.

“For us, the timing was really hard, and then it was like, this is actually great — let’s hit the pause button,” Sinker said. “Let’s take some time, especially at the beginning of this year, to look at what we’ve accomplished, how might we think if we were starting it now, how the impact could be different.”

In the meantime, OpenNews is focusing on other programs as well. The Knight report found that 1,100 individuals have taken part in OpenNews-affiliated programming. It’s holding its fourth annual SRCCON conference this summer in Minneapolis, and it also plans to run a smaller version of SRCCON later this year that will focus on a single topic.

OpenNews is additionally overhauling its Code Convenings, which were smaller events where teams from several different newsrooms would gather together to work on open-source projects. Some of the initiatives that came out of these gatherings included the California Civic Data Coalition, a project to make public data in the state more accessible, and Election Night API, an effort from MinnPost to help news orgs better access and show election results.

They’ll be renamed Code, Culture, and Leadership Convenings, and while some of the events will still focus on coding, others will discuss areas such as leadership and newsroom culture.

OpenNews is also introducing a redesigned Source that is focused on sharing tips, how-tos, and best practices. And it plans to continue to find other ways to expand its reach and find others beyond its current network.

Over a two-week period last summer, for instance, there were 882 Twitter accounts — 740 individual and 142 organizational accounts — that interacted with OpenNews accounts or hashtags, the Knight study found. Just 25 percent of those accounts, however, had already participated in OpenNews programming.

“Building peer cohorts — whether they’re around code, whether they’re around folks who have hit a certain level in a newsroom hierarchy and need to strategize on how to move up in that hierarchy, whether it’s folks that are leading teams and bringing them together to compare best practices — that’s a rare occurrence in this field,” Sinker said. “We are all so deadline-driven, we are all so competitive. Really having moments where you pull a few people together and say, ‘You all have a ton in common, let’s talk about that’ is hugely beneficial.”

Photo by Mike Tigas used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2017, 9 a.m.
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