How the collaborative culture of OpenNews inspires better journalism

Journalists and technologists gather at SRCCON to learn from each other.

Coders, journalists, data geeks and designers gather for SRCCON 2016 in Portland, Oregon. Photos by Erik Westra / westraco.com

Last summer, I attended my first SRCCON, a hands-on conference in Portland, Oregon, focused on the practical challenges news technology and data journalism teams encounter every day. It was not your typical journalism conference.

But then how could it be? The energizing force behind it was Dan Sinker, not your typical journalist.

Sinker is the director of OpenNews, a network that creates SRCCON each year, along with other opportunities for technologists and journalists to connect, learn from each other and collaborate on open technologies and processes within journalism. He has been involved in OpenNews since its founding in 2011 and has evolved the project into what it is today.

He’s a journalist, entrepreneur and innovator based in Chicago. He was also a 2008 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, which is how we met. His career has taken him from founding Punk Planet, a well-written magazine about the U.S. punk music and underground cultural scene, to teaching digital journalism at Columbia College Chicago and inspiring many young minds to innovate and take risks.

(And yes, he’s the same Dan Sinker who impersonated Rahm Emanuel on Twitter in 2011, attracting 40,000 followers and earning him an interview on “The Colbert Report.”)

Despite the inspiring and inventive roles he’s had over the years, it’s his work with OpenNews and SRCCON that I find most exciting. We’re gathering for the convention in Minneapolis this Thursday and Friday, and I’m expecting the same refreshingly human-focused gathering, where news nerds — coders, journalists, data geeks and designers — come together to collaborate and solve real problems facing newsrooms. It’s not just about building better code for journalism; it’s about growing a community of peers whose members tackle newsroom culture issues and take care of each other while helping journalism stay relevant.

In addition to sessions on such topics as “Funding Open Source Infrastructure” and “Covering Events Where the Data Is Horrible,” I hope there will be sessions like one of my favorites last year, “Let’s All Be Terrible at Things, Together.” That packed session brought people with varied skill sets together to honestly confront such “secret failings” as “How to talk about needing to learn something,” and “Making spaces for being bad at things, safely” and “How do you know when it’s better NOT to learn something?”

Sinker and his OpenNews team will be there, driving conversations that advance great journalism and ensuring support for the diverse identities represented in the roughly 250 people who will attend. While the conference is small by design, this year OpenNews expanded the scholarship program so that more news nerds from smaller newsrooms could attend.

“We want SRCCON to be a space where people can take time away from the day-to-day, connect as humans and bring their whole selves into this community,” said Erika Owens, OpenNews’ deputy director and a web journalist based in Philadelphia. As one example, she noted the conference’s inviting atmosphere and providing such services as child care, something unusual at a journalism or technology conference, which the JSK Fellowships is proud to sponsor.

And this will be the first SRCCON conference that OpenNews will host as an independent organization with an investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, building on the success of six years as the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project. That new funding means OpenNews will strengthen events like SRCCON and also build out new offerings, including the creation of a smaller conference focused on a single topic of importance (OpenNews just announced that we can look forward to SRCCON:WORK later this year).

“These changes couldn’t be happening at a better time,” Sinker wrote to the OpenNews community in an announcement about the change in February. “Journalism is as vital today as it ever has been and we’re excited to be supporting and assisting the people committed to making sure it stays that way.”

OpenNews began in 2011 as a partnership between the Knight Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation to support innovation in journalism by placing technically skilled fellows in news organizations to effect change. It expanded over the years to include events around the world and the Source website to feature work from the journalism-code community.

From 2011–16, OpenNews placed 33 Knight-Mozilla Fellows in 19 newsrooms in five countries. Fellows produced tools and projects that were documented on Source, alongside pieces from journalists, developers, designers, and editors from dozens of news organizations.

During this period, Mozilla helped OpenNews navigate the intersection of open source values and journalistic culture. This year, OpenNews became a project of Community Partners to continue growing as an independent organization. It remains an advocate for open source code and practice in journalism, and continues its work connecting developers, designers, journalists and editors to create stronger, more responsive journalism.

I’m proud that the JSK Fellowships is a sponsor of SRCCON and that I have joined the OpenNews Advisory Board. I’m also glad that some incoming 2018 JSK Fellows will be attending SRCCON, including Michael Grant, Andre Natta, Soo Oh and Mago Torres as well as fellows from previous years, including 2017 Fellow Heather Bryant of Project Facet.

They and people like Dan Sinker are the innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders journalism needs. At the JSK Fellowships, we believe supporting their work, and organizations such as OpenNews, is essential. It will help us uncover solutions for some of the industry’s thorniest problems, and, in the end, help journalism better serve the public, and strengthen our democracy.

Dawn Garcia is the director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University, a professional program that supports innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership in journalism worldwide. Email her at degarcia@stanford.edu and follow her on Twitter @degarciaknight.

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