Last August, I was reading the ProPublica Nerd Blog and came across a post about the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellowship, which sends developers to leading newsrooms around the world to help build the future of journalism. As a lifelong news nerd and web tinkerer, it seemed like a perfect fit. Digging into data, looking for stories, and building visualizations has been something I mess around with on rainy weekends and late at night when I have a project idea I can’t let go of. This would be a chance to spend all day doing what I already do for fun. Applying was a no-brainer.
Long story short, in October I got an email from the Godfather, Dan Sinker, naming me the 2013 OpenNews Fellow at the BBC in London. I’ll be starting later this month, and I couldn’t be more excited.
In November I had the chance to attend MozFest and meet some of the best news developers in the business. I was genuinely blown away by what I saw. Back in my native Silicon Valley, people love to talk a big talk about the tech “community.” Sometimes they won’t shut up about it. But at MozFest I saw a real professional community in action, a group of people with a profound admiration and respect for each other’s work who love to share knowledge and push boundaries together. I just couldn’t get over the sheer brainpower and positive energy on display.
The atmosphere on the 9th floor at MozFest also reminded me of some of the reasons I love news development more generally:
- There’s no playbook. The limit of what’s possible is constantly being redefined by clever, creative people. Every single day I see something new and amazing.
- Everything is a team effort. So many people in the news developer community have taken the show your work mantra to heart. I love that when everyone hits a wall, the first person to make it over sticks out a hand and pulls the rest of us over and then it’s on to the next wall. Even the smartest people in the room are constantly learning from their peers.
- Things move fast. In the newsroom you’re expected to do great work on short notice and tight deadlines. You have to learn to sketch out an idea, build it, test it, and ship it in a matter of hours. Mark Surman talked about the “fuck it, ship it” mentality at MozFest, but personally I like the Lorne Michaels version best: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, it goes on because it’s 11:30.”
Along with all the excitement, the news developer universe has plenty of challenges to deal with, and a big part of my fellowship year will be trying to more deeply understand those challenges and how we can meet them, things like:
- The cultural divide. How do we ensure a fruitful marriage between the culture of the newsroom and the norms of software development? How do we get developers excited about journalism and journalists excited about code?
- Knowledge-sharing. How do we effectively synthesize the lessons learned from the hundreds of experiments being run in parallel to figure out what works (Source is a good start)? How do we gather best practices and avoid this:
As I get ready to start on what I’m sure will be an amazing experience, I wanted to sketch out some goals I have in mind for the year ahead:
- Write something. I used to know how to write a sentence, but that muscle has atrophied in recent years. Now I can’t stare at a blank page without breaking into a cold sweat. But since I’ll be spending a lot of 2013 trying to make sense of the news development landscape, I might as well be thinking out loud. I hope to use this blog to talk through my questions, ideas, and lessons learned and to take a look under the hood of some of some news apps.
- Teach something. Before the year is done, I’d love to find a way to give back to the community by teaching aspiring news developers or proto-webmakers something useful, whether in person at events or through online tutorials.
- Understand the dynamics of a large news organization. Moving from solo late night hack sessions to being a tiny cog in a 23,000+ person organization will be a huge learning experience. A world leader like the BBC offers unique resources and opportunities, but also unique constraints. I hope to figure out what that means for the OpenNews mission.
- Build something together with the rest of the 2013 fellows. My 7 co-fellows are some of the smartest and most interesting folks I know, and each one brings something totally different to the table. I hope that even though we’ll be fanning out across the globe, we can combine into a news development Megazord and build something awesome this year.
- Learn the state of the art. There’s a long list of specific software platforms, tools, and methods that I’ve been meaning to try. Hopefully this year will give me the time and opportunity to master some of them, though I also want to be careful not to place too much attention on technical specifics at the expense of the big picture.
- Give in to Twitter. I’ve been a conscientious Twitter objector for years, but it’s clearly where a lot of the conversation is happening in this world, so I’m determined to get on the bandwagon. I’ve only really been paying attention for a month or two but I’m already starting to understand why what I used to see as downsides actually make it a great medium for certain uses. That being said, if I ever tweet a photo of my dinner, please punch me in the face.
- Figure out how to explain OpenNews to my grandmother.
I can already tell that the biggest problem this year will be the number of hours in the day. There’s so much I want to sink my teeth into, and no way I’ll get to it all. Fortunately if everything goes well, 2013 is just the beginning.
Some topics I’ll try to tackle here in the coming months:
- How do people actually learn to code? And when we ask whether journalists should learn to code, or how to teach them to code, are we asking the wrong question?
- How do we stamp out code snobbery and make news development a big tent?
- What are the secrets to successful conferences and hackathons?
- Brief post-mortems on some of my past projects. What was I thinking (or not thinking)?
- Deep dives into some of my favorite news apps and infographics.
- What possibilities does code in the newsroom open up for photojournalism?