Hacking journalism: 16 cool ways of reinventing the news biz

Or how 100 developers, designers and journalists took a whack at the future of of mobile news journalism


By Matt Carroll <@MattatMIT> and Jennifer Lu

It was an audacious hackathon challenge — reinvent mobile news. More than 100 developers, designers, and journalists from Boston, New York, Washington, and London accepted the test, eager to transform the world of journalism. In a weekend.

Adrienne Debigare, Russell Goldenbrg and Andrew Ba Tran

Fast, wild, and a little loose, people pitched ideas for projects, hoping to attract help in putting a bold idea into reality. Teams formed around ideas, fell apart, came together in different configurations, disintegrated, and finally solidified, some only hours before the presentations.

Saturday started in an exuberant frenzy that turned into a focused silence by Sunday. Pizzas, pasta and bagels arrived and were devoured. Coffee and soda, like magic elixirs, boosted sagging energy levels. By Sunday afternoon, 16 projects or prototypes were ready for a curtain call at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA. A large crowd of spectators, made of friends of participants and those interested in news innovation, showed up.

Was news reinvented? Maybe not exactly. But serious — and not-so serious — attempts were made to enhance the way audiences consume the news. And maybe more importantly, connections were made between people from the worlds of programming, design, and journalism who might never have met otherwise

Spearheading the hackathon was Kawandeep Virdee, a developer at Embed.ly, who was inspired by a recent Media Hack Day in Berlin, where people who are not developers showed an intense interest in tapping into API features. He wanted to bring something similar to Boston. He teamed up with Matt Carroll, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media. The event was held June 7-8.

Virdee pointed out how a recently leaked New York Times innovation report highlighted the in-house need for conversation and collaboration between developers and journalists in order to compete effectively with aggressive new news organizations such as BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, which have been far more creative and effective at mastering new media tools.

The Times’ report called for makers, entrepreneurs, readers, advocates, and zeitgeist watchers to bring innovation to the newsroom — the same people that Virdee wanted to attract to the hackathon, stir together in different teams, and see what they could create in two days.

While he admitted it would be cool if the hackathon’s spontaneous incubator environment hatches a hot new app, Virdee’s larger goal is that “three months down the line, people are still keeping the connections they’ve made here.”

Teams created a number of projects that perhaps provided hints where news might be headed:

“News Bingo,” by three Boston Globe journalists, engaged readers in a fun news game of photo bingo, by encouraging them to submit pictures that fit the category in a bingo square.

“Newstrition” helped give people an idea of how nutritious their media consumption is, through a Google Chrome extension that generates visualizations of the types of “serious” or “junk” news they consume.

“Datacle” was a creative use of data to personalize and make news stories more relevant. For instance it can drop in a sentence about how your local rep voted in a story about legislation.

“Main Street Journal” was a clear crowd favorite. The app aids people in bypassing the paywall at the Wall Street Journal.

— “Collater,” an organizational field tool for journalists, helps them put all their notes, pictures and video in one place.

All the projects: http://hackingjournalism.challengepost.com/submissions

The event attracted a broad range of people. Media companies expressed keen interest as well. Representatives from The Guardian in London, Conde Nast, the Boston Globe, and Bloomberg attended.

It was quickly apparent that group dynamics played as large a role in the success of a project as the idea itself.

Hackers busy the MIT Med Lab.

In a three-person group, science writer Diana Crow worked on the presentation as John Huynh and Hao Huang programmed the front and back end of their entry, “InLine,” a hack that allows users to “crowdsource the context” by curating in-line comments.

As the lone non-programmer of the group, Crow admitted she wondered at times what she could do beyond name things when Huynh interrupted without looking up from his screen, “Maybe you can help me…”

Other teams experienced more drama. Web developer George Nishimura arrived the second day only to find his group had “disbanded out of dispiritedness.” Nonplussed, he and journalist Kristin Majcher joined the “Collater” team, which was desperately seeking members, especially coders.

Aleszu Bajak, a science journalist and self-described “light coder”, and designer Will Millar waited at the foosball table for their developer, who had texted them minutes ago to say he was coding from home. The trio had originally bonded over a “grandiose way to change the way news is digested,” only to realize the project had gotten away from them.

They had learned that getting a group to agree on a direction is difficult.

“The biggest factor is how willing people are to go back on their decisions,” says Millar. “You see the best and worst of people at hackathons.”

Bajak wondered if there journalists could be put to better use.

Millar was happy to attend, though, because it’s a great way to meet like-minded people. “It’s really hard to meet people who are equally passionate about these things,” he said. “I mean who’s willing to develop for fun on a weekend?” He and Bajak plan to keep in touch.

Sponsors included Embed.ly, the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, Wistia, Parse.ly, and Hacks/Hackers Boston.

A number of other organizations contributed data, an API, or in some other way: Embed.ly, Bloomberg, MuckRock, The Guardian, Twitter, Muck Rack, Enigma, Online News Association, Parse.ly, and Knight-Mozilla OpenNews.

Matt Carroll runs the Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab. He can be followed @MattatMIT. His other blog posts can be found here.

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