Phillip Smith

MoJo goes to NewsCamp, Part II: How newsroom developers are reinventing the Web

Here's the 30-second summary of this post:

  • Some forward-thinking newsrooms are employing software developers, and these developers are influencing the direction of their news organizations from the inside.
  • At the same time, these "news application developers" often face a number of common challenges. For example, long-standing conservative approaches to information technology in print-first news organizations, and the intensely deadline-driven news cycle.
  • Partly due to these challenges, they have limited time to A) work on long-term projects, or B) invest in thinking about how technology will have shaped news in a few years time.

This is another opportunity for the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership. Specifically:

  1. To highlight the amazing work that is already being done -- work that is producing tangible demonstrations of what happens when the Open Web is mixed with journalism, reporting, and news production;
  2. To help with some of the common challenges, which -- in turn -- could help to catalyze field-changing innovations.

If you have a few more minutes, you should check out the three-minute video report back from #NICAR11 that inspired this post. (There's also an earlier video report back from the same event here). Read on for the longer post...

(Featured in this video are Derek Willis, Andy Boyle, and Michael Corey.)

The great thing about working on this initiative is that so many news organization are already rich with "Maker Culture". For example, a growing number of newsrooms are investing in what is quickly becoming know as the field of "news application development" or "news apps" (a term that covers almost anything from interactive time-lines to searchable online databases), and others go further by putting software developers inside the sausage factory to work along side reporters and editors on new forms of online storytelling.

These teams have produced award-winning, information-rich, stories, powerful data-driven narratives, and they have also been known to produce useful open source software along the way. That open source code, on occasion, finds its way into other amazing open-source software projects, and that is exactly the type of exponential innovation that we're hoping for with MoJo too.

However, the challenges facing news innovation are not insignificant. Starting with rather mundane problems like the limitations of archaic, inflexible, corporate content-management systems or servers that are secured to the point of not being experimentation friendly, and extending all the way to the ever-present question of return on investment -- news app developers are both at the vanguard and staring over a cliff. (For more on this, read Steve Myers' excellent piece [Update: you should also read Matt Waite's excellent piece that explore many of the same themes from the viewpoint of a news app developer.])

But there's another story here too: faced with these challenges, these "of the Web" teams -- like the Internet itself -- route around the problems to get their products into news users' hands, using agile development approaches, open-source frameworks, and cloud-based hosting. More importantly, they demonstrate how to take an idea from napkin sketch to prototype, from prototype to launch, from launch to Web scale, all with limited time and resources. The "learning labs" that we're developing for MoJo will be specifically focusing on helping our participants develop these types of skills.

I hope that the MoJo community can start to think about what resources we have to collectively address some of the types of challenges that Andy and Michael talk about in the video above from the NICAR "Hack Night", challenges like finding examples of prior art, or having a rich enough set of general solutions that can address broad categories of day-to-day newsroom requirements.

Let's start experimenting with how to make exponential innovation in the news-technology space more likely. I hope you'll stick around, or -- better yet -- join in.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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