The blurry line of developer and journalists in the new journalism of the open web

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"We're at an inflection point of the way journalism treats the web," Dan Singer said in the "Open Web, Open News: Reporters & Developers Remix" at SXSWi. "We're no longer simply putting things into channels." He and the panel discussed the difference between between being "on the web," which is how traditional journalism first approached technology, and being "of the web," which is what they'd prefer to see. For journalism to become "of the web," there's a significant need for new journalists who are willing to collaborate. And those new journalists aren't necessarily within the traditional definition of the word.

Andrew Leimdorfer, product manager for BBC News Specials, is thinking about the changes in how we go about finding news. Things we now consider basic Internet functionality, like metadata and search engines, are changing the way editorial teams work because people are curating their news for themselves. He's also interested in changing formats and the how technology has changed the investigative process.

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, noted (as many have) that the publishing industry made some fundamental miscalculations about their transition to the web. Being "of the web" means being a part of the real-time social web, which is so much more than the approach much of traditional journalism has taken. She's interested in what makes journalism accessible and how people will participate in and share journalism.

The people of the Arab revolution

"Previously when we looked at journalism, there was an end point--a story, a video," said Mohamed Nanabhay, head of online at Al Jazeera English. "We've moved away from that. Our journalism is constantly updated." The audience must change from being a recipient of an end point to being a part of the journalism process. For journalism to become "of the web," it will have to embrace openness to a broader meaning of "communication."

After the initial uprising of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, Al Jazeera's online department analyzed all of the video, citizen and professional, that came out of it. On January 24, 2011, nobody was covering the protests. It wasn't a revolution yet, and protests aren't uncommon. It simply wasn't news. But the people who were there recognized what was happening, and to them it was very much news. Thus most of the video in the early days was citizen-produced and being distributed solely on platforms like YouTube and Facebook. It was only after three days that big media went into Cairo and started shifting the source of information.

Which one of the seven billion are you?

In October 2011, the UN Population Fund estimated that the seven billionth person had been born. The BBC wanted to do some coverage of this milestone and decided to create an app that would estimate where your number fit in along that road to seven billion. The natural next step was to make a way for people to share that information, which drove the traffic back to the BBC's coverage. That type of approach to journalism looks simple to the end user but requires a lot more collaboration than traditional journalism. You need developers, UX designers, the web team--and of course, the journalist.

Unfortunately, along the way, the value of the individual participants has become lost for a different focus in some newsrooms. "Part of the restructuring we've seen wasn't drive by 'let's be of the web'!" Nanabhay said. It was about doing things cheaper--hire one person to write stories, take pictures, and put them online. "That shouldn't be mistaken for being of the web."

"If we think of journalism not as reporting but as the delivery of information to an audience, how is the UX person not doing journalism? How is the developer not doing journalism?" Sinker asked. These collaborators aren't reporters, but they're essential to the creation of web-made journalism.

Bell spoke of the tension between journalists and developers over what works right now versus what will work over the long-term. Both need to be pushed toward the middle of the spectrum, Bell said. She added that when a story continues, you have to continue covering it--but now not in the same way, rather in whatever way people are consuming it. In today's version of journalism, "people commit to a stream of content, and you hope that there's enough between tweets and video and story that gives them a full picture," Nanabhay said.

The open source news room we're headed for

"News publishing on the web has moved at a significantly slower pace than the rest of publishing on the web," Bell said. "In order to catch up, you had to have either a resource base so unbelievably large, or you had to recruit people who were interested in your problems," She pointed to open structures as the way into the latter, by which you could offer bits of content as leverage to participation. In addition to the participation in development, it creates trust through transparency, which increases the credibility of journalism as well as leads to outcomes rather than just reporting.

News organizations can collaborate with one another as well. Leimdorfer advocated multiple organizations contributing development efforts to one open source platform, which dilutes none of their content or offerings, but benefits them all.

Beyond platforms, Al Jazeera has gone open with content by taking advantage of Creative Commons license. "With Creative Commons, we had to convince executives to give our stuff away. That's not an easy task," Nanabhay said. The selling point was better distribution--why produce high-quality journalism if nobody sees it? By giving it away, it pushes the content to further networks than it otherwise would have reached, and some of those people will recognize the quality and return to the source for more. It's a boon for small newspapers that don't have resources to send people to another content. They can access hours of video for reuse in their own coverage.

"The reason we became journalists--the reason we exist--is to inform the public," Nanabhay said. Opening journalism makes reaching that goal easier.


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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.


By giving it away, it pushes the content to further networks than it otherwise WOULDN'T have reached, and some of those people will recognize the quality and return to the source for more. It's a boon for small newspapers that don't have resources to send people to another CONTINENT. They can access hours of video for reuse in their own coverage.

Sorry, no. Either "...than it otherwise WOULD have reached..." or "...THAT it otherwise WOULDN'T have reached..."

I do take issue with the switch in tense, though. Why go from present to past in the same sentence? Why not, "By giving it away, it pushes the content to further networks than it would reach through a pay channel, and some of those consumers will recognize the quality and return to the source for more."?

Before wondering about tech means of spreading the word, wouldn't it be worth wondering if such talks by such improvised journalists make sense? I was horrified, the other day, reading freelance so-called "journalists" on French "Les Echos", supposedly a serious newspaper (at least the "paper" edition).
So many articles using accumulations of pentasyllabic words in sentences with neither a subject nor a verb, flawed syntax and so on. No, you cannot do that in French either, it just makes no sense, only a nice roaring sound, it looks pretty "educated" with these cryptic words, you would even feel some kind of indignation, but... the articles are at the image of their authors: just clueless.
Do you really want to facilitate expression to people who are obviously unable to make their point clear, even to themselves?

Is this a joke?

The idea of free speech is nice, giving the means to express oneself is definitely based on sane grounds, but is it really "essential to the creation of web-made journalism" to include ANY blogger's fuzzy statement, ANY poor content reporting situations their author is even not able to state clearly, digressions, meaningless opinions...?

I guess I'll go back to the paper stuff if the Net goes on in such a deceiving way, I don't give an eff with open-ness if what I get in the end just makes sense, instead of getting that flood of crap and heap of dung.

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