So I’m trying to work it out in my head : How many months have I been a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellow and how many months have I got left? It’s a ten month gig and I started in February … and damn I’m over half-way already! Oh well, I guess it’s one of those glass-half-empty situations which I need to view as nearly half-full but it’s so hard when the contents are so deliciously intoxicating.
I’m talking about that cocktail of news and technology. It’s a mix alright and although I enjoyed both separately, it wasn’t until I started mixing that I realised how amazing it was.
I have various people to thank for getting me started on what I feel already will be a life long addiction. I’m not going to name them all but let’s just say that both the Knight Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation are two amazing organisations to work for and I feel privileged.
So what’s so special about the intersection of news and technology, specifically in my case on-line news and web-technology? What’s the big attraction?
I’ve been lucky enough to be assigned to Al Jazeera English – but I assume this is broadly true of any of the news organisations taking part in the OpenNews initiative – and in my experience journalists are very interesting people. Their mission is to tell stories and they have some very interesting stories, not all of which have been published. Get to know them though and they will weave you a good yarn. One of my Al Jazeera colleagues told me how he met his future wife on Twitter in Palestine trying to figure out where close-by shells he heard were landing. It’s fascinating to talk to people that know so much about what is actually going on the world. It’s an education. Really.
But it doesn’t stop there. I love this idea of a fellowship, you’re not alone on this journey, there are other fellows doing the same sort of thing as you. Fellows seem more than just colleagues – they are co-conspirators and already we’ve become very close. Recently my fellow fellows visited me in Florence – well actually they came to attend a couple of hack-days on the Tor project. They ended up AirBnBing a cool flat right next to Piazza del Duomo and this became the centre of operations for a few days. We hacked on code, we talked (a lot), we ate together. Later on in the week I invited them to my home town and they met my family and told stories to my kids. It was all very relaxed and very very cool. In the end I feel I will end up learning as much from them as the news organisations.
There is great opportunity to innovate and see your experiments incarnate on websites that get very many eye-balls and of course get all that lovely feedback. And when I say lovely I don’t mean complimentary I just mean that all feedback is lovely even when it is negative and the more you get – the better. In fact, I think one of the most important things you can do when publishing to a site like AlJazeera.com is measure the usage in as much detail as possible. Certainly for me it’s not often that I will be able to collect so many stats on things that I have had a hand in making.
The unpredictable and somewhat transient nature of current affairs also presents tremendous opportunities. One of the projects I’m working on is an interactive slide-show that displays a series of slowly zoomed images to a YouTube soundtrack. I had just got a rough proof of concept together when my colleague mentioned they had some fresh photos and an audio soundtrack from Syria and that they wanted to create an audio-slide show from it to go live the next day. Frantic hacking of code and content ensued but we got it out in time. I wrote in my last post that situations like these are an opportunity to hone your shipping skills and a good exercise in delivering the minimum viable product.
I hadn’t anticipated that we would be encouraged to travel so much and take part in so many different events. On every single trip I met amazing people, people that were not only technologists, journalists — or some hybrid of the two — but also filmmakers, writers and artists. Believe me when I tell you that attending a technology conference after one of these events feels distinctly one dimensional. Technology to me is something that works best when applied and the more I mix with people outside my technological comfort-zone the more applications I discover.
A Unique Position
Being an OpenNews fellow means you are free to experiment and disrupt and generally cause a little controversy without fear of too much reprisal. It’s a temporary job and you’re being sponsored - what’s the worst that could happen? Actually I think newsrooms need and welcome a bit of disruptive thinking.
I feel I have the freedom to suggest or criticise anything – which is a beautiful freedom to have. More recently I’ve also found myself becoming something of an honest broker as I try and foster collaboration between Al Jazeera and third-parties, be it the Internet Archive or Universal Subtitles (now Amara). I didn’t expect to play matchmaker but it’s a role I thoroughly enjoy.
The biggest coup that I think all the fellows are working towards is to get all the OpenNews news partners working together in some mutually beneficial way. Honestly, I think we have a very good shot at it. We’re trusted by our newsrooms to be given a company email address, they evidently trust us to do what is in their best interests.
The Big Question
So, open, what is open in this context? The big question : What does ‘Open News’ mean – or at least what do I think it means?
I don’t remember ever being told and although we’ve touched upon it in conversation we’ve never really discussed it in great detail, although we may have done one of the times Laurian brought a bottle of whisky to a meet-up. It’s almost as if this is something we were meant to discover along the way and I suspect we all have slightly different interpretations of it. To me it’s many things – yes it’s bringing open source and the open source mentality into the newsroom, it’s also using and sharing open data, it’s opening up discussion, it’s also open license-free content, it’s working in the open, it’s even about being open about what you are doing but more, for me, it’s about opening up journalistic channels to everyone.
Living in Italy I am all too aware of the power that the media can hold and how that power can be abused when wielded by too few people, conversely I followed Al Jazeera and how they opened up and integrated the new channels of social communication during the Arab Spring. I’ve seen the results of both approaches and I’m not saying things are black and white here, but I’m definitely leaning towards the latter.
So here I am, trying to concentrate on the fullness of the glass, but reflecting on the bit that is already in me. What I love about all this, what I really love, is that as part of this whole process you are expected to take the initiative, find your own way, that’s some responsibility, yet as part of OpenNews and the fellowship and the people - above all the people – you know you will always find friendship and support along the way.
The good news — for other people — is that these are rotating positions, which means that if you’re a developer, technologist, engineer or programmer you can apply to be an OpenNews fellow too.