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Open source, closed mind: News technology as cultural Trojan

[ This text is reposted from the original version at the Technovica Lab blog, which is offline due to a DNS-related problem. Some links that would be broken have been removed and graphical elements are not included in this repost. I hope to have it fully restored early this week.]

Few developers understand the non-technical issues that go into an open-source project.

John Resig

jQuery,  Khan Academy

A common theme has emerged among the Knight-Mozilla Lab lecturers: Culture, its dynamics and how we approach it will be the most difficult aspect of building our projects.

Every one of the lectures so far has either had culture as a key focus, or mentioned culture and issues related to it as a key point. Among the latest ones, John Resig spoke about open source project development, management, and community, and his lessons from developing jQuery.

As he talked about the challenges he and his team faced, I couldn’t help but reflect on how starkly the open source development approach contrasts with newsroom or news media culture. The former is an open, accessible framework with a bottom-up, grassroots structure. The latter is a closed, restricted framework with a top-down, hierarchical structure.

Although news organizations are now starting to collaborate with their communities in a more open manner, even large ones may take a token approach, asking people to submit a photo or to follow social media accounts.  I have little doubt that substantive collaboration and implementation  will be an issue for many — especially those who have not experienced or don’t understand news and journalist culture. I saw and experienced it where I worked. In particular, developers were the strange, mysterious wizards who made things work but journalists didn’t know how and were suspicious or indifferent to their ideas.

However, adding Resig’s principles will strengthen my project — a collaboration tool for journalists that bridges the industrialized and developing worlds — and could help it foster a more open, connected, community-driven culture by first extending the trust journalists have for professional peers.


Resig raised important points, some of which are already elements of my project:

  • Understand what your users are trying to achieve. It will help you to create a better product. I talk to journalists all the time about their needs.
  • Make sign-up as painless as possible. It would require little more than a phone or fax number, or an e-mail address.
  • Treat every user as a potential contributor. The concept behind the tool is contribution, so it would be easy to migrate that behavour to bug reports, documentation, feature requests, etc., per Resig.

Other points will require further thought:  

  • Make documentation as accessible as possible. I initially thought the tool would roll out to English-speakers first but now see that may limit uptake and introduce cultural bias into the tool’s design. Full documentation will have to be in multiple formats and languages.
  • Provide places for people to ask questions. My focus was so tight on my archetypal user, I didn’t consider all of the channels by which users might contact me. Set-up is underway. 
  • Answer questions every day. You can’t be lazy about it. Now planned: Answering support questions.
  • Have an open process. Make decisions with public input from the community. I already take community input privately. This will expand as the project unfolds.

And, hopefully, change news culture.

25 July 2011 Knight Knight-Mozilla KnightMozilla MozNewsLab Mozilla News Challenge News Technology Partnership weekly weekly2

22 July 2011 reblog: sinker MozNewsLab Knight-Mozilla KnightMozilla Mozilla News Challenge Knight News Technology Partnership Daniel Sinker