What is it like to be a Knight-Mozilla Fellow in the BBC & Guardian newsrooms?

Hacks/Hackers London logoThis week’s Hacks/Hackers London meet-up was themed around the funding of investigative journalism, and featured a stellar cast including John S. Bracken of the Knight Foundation, Bobbie Johnson of Matter, and the Guardian’s legendary investigative reporter David Leigh. Also appearing were four of the fellows who had been funded by Knight-Mozilla to spend time working in newsrooms at the BBC and at the Guardian. Here are my notes from what they had to say.

Stijn Debrouwere, 2013 fellow, The Guardian

Stijn Debrouwere said it was quite hard to explain the concept of a Knight-Mozilla Fellow, because it was quite a difficult concept. The idea was to put developers into the newsroom, but news organisations already have plenty of that. The key difference is that the Knight-Mozilla Fellow is hosted by the newsroom, but should be acting as a “free agent”, rather than simply tweaking some CSS because the editor has decided it should be blue.

Rather endearingly Stijn, who recently started a stint as a fellow at the Guardian, described his career to date as a “string of failures”, whether that was working at a local newspaper or trying to build a CMS. At the Guardian he said he has mostly been doing data work, but is also investigating the question of whether “the website is ever full” — does piling on extra content aways result in extra page views, or is there a peak amount of content worth publishing?

I don’t know if this Guardian word count app is his doing or not, but the Guardian does publish an awful lot of content…

“On 20th March 2013, the Guardian published 319,262 words. The average reader would take 21 hours 17 minutes to read all the published content. That is the equivalent of reading Middlemarch (316,059).”

He also said he is working on some analytics dashboards that go beyond Chartbeat and what he described as the “random numbers” of Google Analytics, and provide specific value to a newsroom. Stijn promised that he would be blogging about his work at the Guardian in the future, and said that he hoped “people at different news organisations will recognise those questions”, part of the open Knight-Mozilla ethos.

Stijn was a very adamant advocate of blogging:

“You really need to blog about your work. Anything good that has ever happened in my professional career has been because I blogged. It organises my thoughts, and has gotten me jobs, and got me connected with this amazing community online”

Noah Veltman, 2013 fellow, BBC

Noah Veltman came up with a brilliant justification for joining the programme. He said he was really interested in web journalism, and stories that can’t easily be told with the traditional 500 words. He reckoned that “Pretty much every day someone comes up with a new way to tell a story that was previously untellable” and argued that since he was already interested in doing this kind of stuff for fun, getting Knight-Mozilla to pay him for doing it for a year seemed like a bargain.

Noah is at the BBC, and one of the problems with that, he said, is “23,000 colleagues”. He also said that the cross-platform demands at the BBC were tough — everything had to look great on the iPad and work in an internet café in Sierra Leone and on feature phones. Testing was a chore.

His key piece of advice to the audience was that “everybody is faking it”. He argued that developers are not members of some High Priesthood, and often don’t know what they are doing. Personally I don’t buy that for a second — certainly developers in news organisations might often be working at the limits of their knowledge when building new systems, but you don’t get a robust CMS and a website that scales like the BBC’s by bluffing your way through.

Laurian Gridinoc, 2012 fellow, BBC

Laurian Gridinoc talked about his career path, and how his job titles had changed over the years to the point where he is now called a “creative technologist”. He had started as a “webmaster” and mentioned using FrontPage, which sent me spiralling into nostalgia for making the web in the 1990s. Oh, it was all green fields around here then.

Laurian then cemented his place in my Hacks/Hackers hall of fame by complaining that one of the hardest things about being a fellow at the BBC had been dealing with having to support early versions of Internet Explorer. He illustrated this with the Dalek “To Victory” poster with the IE logo photoshopped onto the Dalek’s sink plunger. Absolute hero.

Nicola Hughes, 2012 fellow, the Guardian

Nicola Hughes made I thought a very significant point when she said that because of changes in the way the scheme was working, last year was probably the only chance that somebody like her, who couldn’t program, could have got in. She showed on screen the first few scrapers she’d made with ScraperWiki, and then gave the best rallying cry of the evening:

“You have no excuse not to be making things now. You don’t need funding. You don’t need to be put in the newsroom. Start with the basics, expand it, and make something fun as a prototype.”

It echoed the great recent piece by Jake Levine, “Don’t learn how to code, learn how to make things” I whole-heartedly agree. There is no point in a journalist sitting down for twenty months learning to make enterprise class Java applications. Sitting down for twenty minutes learning how to use a tool like ScraperWiki to solve a problem on the other hand, is a brilliant way to get into programming.

Nicola said that when most people look at what they get out of something like the Knight-Mozilla Fellowship, they expect it to be about building up bylines and a “body of work”. She said that misses the point. It was all about building a “body of knowledge”. She’s established for herself a whole disciplined way of working with data-journalism that has been informed by working in the newsroom.

I’ve seen Nicola talk at quite a few events now, and she always comes up with a turn of phrase that sticks in the mind. This time around it was about trying to explain to non-data journalists the power that computer-aided reporting could give them.

“Imagine,” she said, “what you could do with infinite interns.”

Next…

Next up at Hacks/Hackers London was Bobbie Johnson talking about crowd-funded journalism start-up Matter. I’ll have my notes on that next…

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