Going over my notes from the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, the panel that was definitely the most valuable to my work on the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership was Hacking the News: Applying Computer Science to Journalism.
What we're doing
The Knight-Mozilla Partnership will be embedding 15 techie fellows within news organizations for a year of news hacking. We want to build really useful new open web technologies for the whole field of journalism. We'll recognize success when journalists at newsrooms all over the world use the stuff we build.
While we're getting a wonderful response to the partnership, we often hear some doubt -- pushing technological change in news organizations is a non-trivial proposition. In addition to writing awesome code, our fellows need to inspire journalists to use the products we produce.
What I learned at SXSWi
At the "Hacking the News" panel, my ears perked up when the speakers began to address this very issue.
"It's not the technology, it's the people," said Jenny 8 Lee of obstacles to adoption.
I jumped right up at Q&A time and asked for more: What are some best practices you've seen for getting over this "people problem?" And the panel really delivered.
1. No surprises. Involve the newsroom from the beginning.
2. Constant communication. Use chat tools like Campfire to keep the conversation going across working groups.
3. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Get software versions into the hands of journalists for testing, and then make the changes they suggest to the best of your ability. When you're ready to launch, journalists will be using tools that they themselves helped to design.
4. Credibility. Successful implementation will flow from high-level editorial buy-in. Early experiments in social media were often driven by marketing teams and saw mixed results; don't repeat or mimic this formula from the tech team!
5. Risk-friendliness matters. Traditionally, news organizations follow a "perfect, then release" model, whereas technology is teaching us to fail early and often, as long as you learn and change.
One overarching principle
I recognize that the last piece is huge. How do we help the organizational cultures of the news industry evolve? How do we do that without losing some important value in the traditional publishing process? How about a sixth principle?
6. It's really hard. To paraphrase Trei, the question of news industry innovation is not yet solved. With that in mind, I won't make any promises that the Knight-Mozilla Partnership will fix this problem in any final way, but I will commit to making some progress and doing as much learning-in-public as possible, in hopes that others can adopt what we do when we win and learn when we lose.
Making a battle plan
I made a little more progress later in the conference over lunch with Giles Anderton and Jemima Kiss of the Guardian. It was a really perfect conversation, actually. He's a developer, she a tech-savvy journalist.
They pointed out that there is something truly amazing about how a newsroom works. When news breaks, everyone knows their role and whose lead to follow.
This echoed a comment made at the panel by Jenny. She compared newsrooms to the command-and-control structure of militaries and hospitals. That makes sense. Newsrooms are rapid-response operations.
Jemima reminded me that good newspapers are essentially producing a book-sized publication with very high production values every single day of the year. With all that news to report and copy to file and edit, it's obvious that we can't have developers and journalists sitting side-by-side every day, all the time -- there's just not time.
So, in order to prepare our fellows with specific guidelines for working with newsrooms, we started to flesh out a workflow for our a fellows: a Scrum for the innovative newsroom, if you will. With input from interested people, we'll produce it over the summer and have it ready for our first fellows, who start in the fall. We will use the five -- make that six -- principles above for inspiration.
One last note: We'll be announcing the details of our first Innovation challenge within a few days. To get a sense of the questions we'll be asking, check out this developing blog series by our news innovation specialist, Phillip Smith.