Dan Sinker: ‘Journalism’s future is on the open web’
New media is pushing the boundaries of journalism by introducing new technologies. But the question is how newsrooms and journalists can innovate without having to dive into the programming world themselves. This is where the Knight-Mozilla Fellows come in.
The Knight Foundation has long supported quality journalism and journalistic innovation. In 2012, they teamed up with the Mozilla Foundation, which actively promotes an open internet and open source software. The two created the OpenNews partnership with the idea of bringing journalism and technology together.
In 2013, Knight-Mozilla Fellows are hacking newsrooms at the prestigious media organizations such as the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, Zeit Online, Spiegel Online, the Boston Globe, ProPublica and La Nacion.
DW Akademie’s Steffen Leidel met with the head of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project, Dan Sinker. They talked about why hackers are interested in working with journalists in the first place, how journalists can tap into the world-wide community of hackers and a revolutionary new piece of software for data scraping.
What is the Knight Mozilla OpenNews about?
We are dedicated to building and strengthening the community that is helping to rebuild and rethink journalism for the web. A lot of what we do is help support technologists who are interested in the journalism space and help them move towards making tools for journalism. The core of what we are doing is a fellowship program where we embed developers in newsrooms around the world for ten month stints. This is so the developers can really understand journalistic problems whilst doing experiments and open source development on projects and ideas that they have during this time. We also do some small funding of journalism codes bases, something we call Code Sprints grants. We also run a website called Source which is really the hub of this community and helps document what is happening in code and journalism. We also sponsor journalistic-themed hack days around the world as well to really bring developers in to spend some time hacking on journalistic problem sets.
Why is it important for developers to work together with journalists?
I don’t think that anyone would argue that journalism’s future is on the open web. We are now at a point that it is not simply about taking content that existed in some other medium and putting it on the web. We really need to build content that is of the web. In order to do that we need to engage a lot more people to make things for journalism on the web. Right now, there are not a lot of programs that are thinking about that and who are able to really speak to developers in the language that they are used to speaking and getting them to engage in ways that they want to engage. That is really what we are trying to do – build the community of people that are able to build the journalism on the web.
Many journalists don’t seem to be so interested in the digital possibilities of journalism. Why aren’t they embracing technology?
Historically, folks that are attracted to journalism are storytellers and investigators and people like that. Expecting them to suddenly become high-end developers is an impossible expectation. We are talking about a completely different skill sets and completely different areas of expertise. What we need to do is to get those journalists to really think about how do they collaborate with developers. Traditionally, it has been quite alienating for developers to have journalists simply say, “I need you to build me this”. It’s like, “Wait! What you want is not actually that interesting. If we were collaborating, I could really help you think about what this could potentially be instead of you telling me what it should be”. So we need to get journalists to think about collaboration and we need to get developers to really think about the fact that journalist problem sets are very interesting problem sets for developers right now.
Which kinds of problems are you talking about?
We are talking about a number of things. Some of them are pure data questions. You have developers who are very interested in open access to information. Being able to liberate data sets, being able to dive into that data and get information out of it, is a really compelling thing for a lot of people. Journalism is an excellent outlet for that. You are also talking about some of the fundamentally engaging development questions on the web. How do we present information on the web? How do we build frameworks that are agile and adaptive and able to do x on this day, and y on another day? Those are problems of journalism that actually help push the whole web forward.
One of the things I find very interesting is if you look at the building blocks of the web we have today, especially in the area of frameworks. Two of the leading frameworks that people develop on the web on are Django and Backbone. They came out of newsrooms and there is a reason for that. There is a reason why Jfree which is a visualization library has also come out of newsrooms. Because these things are widely used beyond the newsroom itself. If we can get developers interested in journalism, no only does journalism move forward but the whole web moves forward.
You are talking about a community of developers. How do journalists find them?
One thing that has changed fundamentally in the last decade and has really accelerated in the past five years or so is the ability of developers and hackers and engineers to self-organize around code. A lot of that is thanks to the maturing of the open-source community. But it is also thanks to the introduction of tools such as GitHub which have really made it incredibly easy for communities to form around code bases. I think that is a key part of engaging in developer communities. These folks are already organized. And so you need to go to where they are organizing and say, “look at this awesome stuff you are doing. We want to help with that. And we also want you to help us with this”.
Are any countries where you are especially engaged?
We are involved with global news. One of the first ways we approach the community is if someone there wants to organize a hack event around some kind of journalistic theme. We’ll give them some sponsorship money so they can get food or rent a space or whatever it is they need to make that happen. One of the places that has been working amazingly is Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires. We have really found an incredible community of developers who are really engaged – especially in open information and open data. They want to build tools and want to work with journalists and want to get information out there by any means necessary.
My theory is Argentina has a very vibrant startup tech culture. But also most of the people driving that came of age during the past financial crisis there. They, at a fundamental level, know that data is power. Being able to liberate that data, being able to give anyone access to that data, is a really powerful motivating factor. To me, it is the only explanation that makes sense. To me, that is why you see it in Argentina and not in Europe or the United States.
Can you give us an example of where a hacker is working successfully in a newsroom.
We have a fellow who is actually working at La Nacion in Buenos Aires this year, Manuel Aristarán. Prior to working with us, he was working on a satellite project. He has always been interested in open data and he was even interested enough to start an open data portal for his town. He was the lead programmer for La Nacion on building a census portal for Argentina, with census data, maps and that kind of thing. But in his spare time he has built a tool for pulling data out of PDFs. Which is an incredibly hard problem and is a big bump in the road towards open governmental data is that a lot of that data is inside PDFs and not in tabular data that you would want to be able work with. Getting the data out of that has been a problem for ever. And he developed a system for pulling that out that is simple as can possibly be. Once he was at La Nacion, he was able to spend more time developing it, and we were also able to pair him with our fellow who is working at ProPublica with a team of people to get it done and now it is in alpha. It is an application called tabular and it is revolutionary.
What lessons have you learned in the two years since Open News started up?
We are seeing that we have an incredible potential for being a conduit for collaborative newsrooms across borders by having these fellows in newsrooms and also by being this third party that is interested in solving shared problems. Newsroom organization are in their nature not collaborative entities. Because we are an external party, we are able to be a collaboration broker between folks who are not naturally inclined to collaborate. This is interesting because the open source software world is all about collaboration. So especially as you have newsrooms that are beginning to build sophisticated software teams, New York Times, ProPublica, The Guardian, La Nacion, you actually begin to see internally a want to collaborate because they understand that sharing code bases are natural to a developer. And to horde that information is anti-ethical to a hacker. So for us, being able to help those kinds of collaborations have been a great lesson.
Are you targeting media organizations in developing countries as well?
The first year, we were working exclusively with big news organizations in the United States, England and Germany as well as Al Jazeera English. In our second year, we included La Nacion. We are hoping to be able to continue to expand to other developing countries. The trick is to have partners that don’t just see us as a free developer. Our developers are not staff members: they are internal/external entities. They are as much researchers as they are anything else. What they are researching is the culture of the newsrooms so that research can influence the developments and the experiments and the kinds of things that they want to do.
Many of the tools are in English. Is language then a problem in some developing countries?
Historically, it has been a problem but it is rapidly fixing itself. As more and more developers and their own cultures begin to build up in these countries, they begin to translate the tools and they begin get the information out. In South America, the Data Journalism Handbook has been translated into Spanish and not just translated but also localized. So they are beginning to address the fact that this was mainly written by US and European data journalists and different problems apply in South America.
Does this mean journalists need to learn programming?
I don’t believe journalists need to transform to a highly functional developer. There are some that will traverse that path but it is a long path. What journalists need to be able to do, and they need to be able to do it quite desperately at this point, is to understand how to talk to developers, how to engage them and understand how to collaborate with them. This is really about having a shared knowledge base. It’s not about, “I know how to program as well as you”. You don’t expect a programmer to write a story as completely as a journalist. But you need to be able to collaborate and that means being able to converse in a way that is conscious of each other’s cultures.
DW Akademie’s interview with Dan Sinker took place during the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, where he was taking part in several panel discussions.