Open source, closed mind: News technology as cultural Trojan


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

jQuery. Khan Academy


Dilbert: Another journalism major enters the workforce. Hired journalism major to walk around flapping arms to keep motion-controlled lgihts on.

What developers and engineers think of journalists .

A common theme has emerged among the Knight-Mozilla Lab lecturers: Culture, its dynamics and how we approach it will be our hardest task.

Every lecture has focused on or mentioned culture and related issues as a key point. Among them: John Resig on open source project development, management, community, and lessons from developing jQuery.

As he talked about the challenges, I couldn’t help but reflect on how starkly the open source development approach contrasts with news 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.


Sketch: News is a reductive process

News is traditionally a reductive process that sheds people.


Although news organizations are starting to collaborate in a more open manner, even large ones may take a token approach, asking people to submit photos 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.


Sketch: Software prototype development

Open source code and prototyping add people in process.



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 should be easy to migrate that behaviour to bug reports, documentation, feature requests, etc., per Resig.

Other points 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 its 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 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.

News culture vs. sketch culture: On Aza Raskin on prototyping


The hardest part of software

— and design in general —

is neither design nor software.

It’s culture.

Aza Raskin



Aza Raskin | MozNewsLab Lecture - Prototyping and influenceAza Raskin: Prototyping and influence.


What Aza was talking about was change.

The hardest part of change is culture.

That’s what we’re trying to do: Change culture.

Why is it so hard? We’re creatures of habit.

For journalists, the rote, ritualized, status quo culture emerged because there can be serious, costly — even dire — consequences when one deviates.

It infiltrated my approach, which I didn’t realize until Aza’s talk.


Prototype culture vs. news culture


Aza Raskin | MozNewsLab Lecture - Prototyping principles

Aza Raskin on prototyping principles.


1. You are going to get it wrong the first time.

In journalism, it’s the reason a process and culture of verification emerged in news gathering, production and delivery. But there’s a premium on getting it right the first time.


2. Finish  the artifact in a day.

Journalists do this daily: We make multiple products (stories) combined into another (newspaper, broadcast, site, etc).


3. Iterate fast. Dogfood much.

News narrows vs. branching. It typically goes through many drafts until we think it’s right. We stake our careers on it.


4. It’s a sketch, don’t fill in all the lines.

This is where traditional journalism culture breaks down. Sketch culture, prototype culture and their processes are somewhat antithetical to journalism. Or, they were.

Now, a new ethic has emerged: Process journalism is an analogue to sketching. News is reported as it happens, before the full story is clear. It’s corrected and adjusted in process.


5. You will change the problems you are trying to solve.

In journalism, we answer a question: “What is the story?” It rarely changes.


6. Plan to throw it away.

This happens every day in news but not ideally. So it did in my process.


7. Steal it [visual design].

The journalistic equivalent is plagiarism. Forbidden. Career-killer.


My approach: Aza and me

After Aza’s lecture, I realized my approach was too rooted in journalistic tradition.

One of my first "sketches": Hyper detailed wireframe.

Doing it wrong: Hyper-detailed wireframe as a first "sketch."


1. I took my news challenge submissions as the answers before moving beyond ideas.

2. I hadn’t made an artifact for want of process and technical skill.

3. I hadn’t iterated beyond my original thinking. This ruled out dogfooding.

4. My sketching was more like layering: High-fidelity sketches rather than basic ones to test ideas.


MozNewsLab: Doing it wrong 2: Hyper-detailed sketch.

Doing it wrong 2: Hyper-detailed sketch for MozNewsLab


5. Instead of changing the problem I was trying to solve, I was driving toward solving the problem I convinced myself I’d defined.

6. Although I was conceptually prepared to throw everything away, in practice, I did the opposite: I kept everything as though I was constructing something defined.

7. I didn’t reach the (journalistically heretical) point of using another’s visual design, but it’s helpful to know it’s not only acceptable but encouraged.



Based on Aza Raskin’s lecture and the resultant observations on my own process, I decided that to get the most out of the lab, I should start a new project that applies the principles, lessons — and culture — gained along the way.

So, here I go:

Sketchbook and pens:  "You have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness." Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson.

"You have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness." — Johnny Mnemonic /William Gibson


What has gone before will have to wait

A brief administrative note: If things are looking a little sparse around here, there’s a good reason for it.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that things rarely go as planned. So, when I dutifully clicked to automatically update this WordPress installation to the latest version, I really shouldn’t have been surprised when all I got were internal server errors.

After backing up everything, creating a new MySQL database and reinstalling WordPress three times, older content (except, somewhat inexplicably, the first post to this blog) will be inaccessible for the time being. It’ll come back along with the old (or maybe new) template and plugins when I get a chunk of time to identify and repair whatever has gone wrong.

In the meantime, the new posts will have to do.