Contributoria & the Guardian

I guess I made a decision sometime back about not blogging about my day jobs. There was probably some crazy life/work reason. But since the Guardian has just undergone some changes and a blogpost from Charles about journalism and developers I decided whatever the reasons they probably weren’t very good ones, so here’s my Contributoria post.

Or rather not about what it is but rather the why and where of how it fits in with the Guardian landscape of the last couple of years.

Open Platform & Mutualisation

But first, we must cast our minds back to the start of the Guardian API, which was part of the larger Guardian Open Platform (video) project. In turn part of the Open Data, Open Journalism, Digital First movements going on at the time.

The (rather lovely) API is live, kicking and doing well for itself. But the roots of the Open Platform have faded over time. Part of that fading is the API never getting around to receiving incoming data. While the API is used both on and off the Guardian platform to display articles, the bit that consumes news from external sources never really developed beyond an idea.

The Guardian API, serving but not receiving information.

There’s really good time/resources/priority reasons for that not happening. This post isn’t about why it didn’t happen but rather that the news-coming-in concept was core to the original Open Platform vision. It was even reflected in the graphic created for the platform…

…lots of wizzy in-out arrows going on there.

A next step for the Guardian Open Platform was releasing it so other people could run their own news networks, with the option of having them interlinked for syndication both up and down the network. There’s a couple of reasons for that.

The first was to allow people to gather & report news happening around them. The news could be published at a local level then bubble up to the country and world level. From the world level it could syndicate back down to different local hubs.

News platform hubs thingy. News flowing both up and down the network.

The second reason was to have a decentralised distribution platform for news. If one hub was shut down, then the news was mirrored in other locations. When your database or servers could be one warrant away from being seized this is desirable.

Another fork in the Guardian roadmap was mutualisation; the assumption that readers can often be more informed about specific topics than the writers and editors. Several ways were explored towards making that happen including the commenting system rewrite (instigated by Simon Willison). Having control over your own comments gives more options than outsourcing it to somewhere else.

Pairing mutalisation and openness together makes for an interesting future of news vision. However, there’s that constant problem of resources. The Guardian rather sensibly decided to focus its main efforts on global expansion making moves into the US & Australia and revamping the website. As well as making the somewhat awesome in-house analytics system, Ophan.

Spinning out start-ups

So how to solve the experimentation and innovation problem? Allowing developers to explore some of the Guardian’s core ideals in a protected space?

Well, with a “start-up” lite setup. Which is one aspect of where Contributoria fits in. Viewed as a series of stepping stone you can see it starting with n0tice. In its own words...

n0tice is a UGC publishing platform developed by Guardian Media Group. The n0tice platform offers publishers solutions for inviting audience participation, easily managing it, and turning these interactions into new revenue.
n0tice provides a simple way for your users to share photos, video, and text directly with your editorial desks.

In turn this led to the development of Guardian Witness.

Both of these project pushed the Open Platform/Mutualisation agenda forwards unencumbered from the overhead of the large parent organisation. Bringing us (finally) onto Contributoria.


Contributoria Back Issues page.

Its been described as “if Medium and Kickstarter had a baby”. The magazine like format similar to Medium and a funding model somewhat like Kickstarter.

Paying members and sponsorship put money into a large pot, writers propose articles setting their own fee. The user base then vote on the articles they want to see written for the next issue using “points”. At the end of each cycle (we have it set monthly but it could be any length of time) the points are counted and the writers who recieved enough points to match the fee they set are contacted, their fee paid out of the pot of cash once the article goes live.

There’s more to it than that, including setting themes & topics and various ways for users to get involved in the writing process, but you get the gist.

It’s been interesting building on what was learnt from setting up and operating n0tice and Guardian Witness. Getting faster and easier each time as both we and the Guardian run through getting one of these projects off the ground. While also expanding on the Open Platform vision that’s been hard to pursue from inside the organisation.

And what we’ve ended up with are amazing stories from around the world, like From brutality to beauty: Syrian children take on the international art world and They’d say: “Football is a man’s sport. You’re going to hurt yourself.” Peruana fùtbolistas, in their own words or A day in the life of a bookie, even Our streets: the early days of Occupy Wall Street.

And more found on the Back Issues page.

So this is pretty much where I’m at, we’re already in the enviable position of having registered 5,000 writers spread all over the globe that we can start to tap if we need to. Better still they get paid.

It’s fitting nicely into the local/global/mutualisation aims described earlier, while operated outside of the normal Guardian agile/scrum/PM workflow with the Guardian’s blessing.

But yet there’s still more too it…

On experimentation

A stack of The Long Good Read newspapers. Various algorithmically generated covers.

This is somewhat of a pattern, over the past few years while working both inside and outside of The Guardian I’ve had a chance to play and explore some interesting ideas a number of times.

One of these was The Long Good Read an experiment in printing newspapers. At first glance that seems a little odd, considering the decline of printed newspapers. But it’s less about the end project that the process. An exploration in both algorithmic curation & personalisation with a view towards the future of printed newspapers.

As newspaper circulation falls, and the output capacity of vast digital printers (like the HP digital presses) increases there comes a sweet spot where the digital printing press can replace the traditional printing press…

Print distribution goes down, printer awesomeness goes up.

…and when you have a digital printing press, each edition of the newspaper can be different. At which point all sorts of interesting things can happen. The point of the exerices wasn’t just producing the papers, but for the Guardian to toy with a possible future of digital print.

Another project #GuardianCoffee, the brainchild of Jemima Kiss was also one that could be initially confusing. Why was the Guardian now involved in running a coffee shop? An answer to which wasn’t that much to do with coffee, but rather experimenting with what it was like to operate a mini news organisation out of a separate space. It was both a social gathering space and mini studio, set right in the middle of the UK’s London tech scene.

Jemima recording at #GuardianCoffee

Like the n0tice/Contributoria stepping stones above, #GuardianCoffee could be seen as a stepping stone towards the new Guardian “Shed” (The Midland Goods Shed: welcome to the Guardian’s new space for debate, culture and curiosity).

What happens when you have a larger space outside of the newsroom to experiment with? Bundled together with the new Guardian Membership hosting events that pull back the curtain on the Guardian and allow people to get more directly involved. We can allow people to get their hands dirty with creating their own newspaper, take masterclasses, or just sit around and drinking coffee (or tea).

It also has potential as a hot-desking environment for news related start-ups both internal and external to the Guardian. Some of the most creative and innovating projects I’ve seen developed have happened where the edges of small independent teams rub up against each other.

Combining it all together and the future

Back to Contributoria and the reason for this post, I wanted to remind my future self of how Contributora fitted in with all the other strands of Guardian work I’ve been involved with up-to this moment in time.

Even more than that. While other projects have often stayed at the experiment stage, useful things in their own right with which to poke and explore the future, I’m super pleased with how Contributoria has solidified into a real and important feeling thing. I’m genuinely proud of the global reach it has attained.

That we’re paying writers. Established and new writers from all over the world, about a whole range of subjects. That we’ve built a sustainable writing ecosystem that isn’t relying on writers writing for free to place adverts around is satisfying. I know there are other experiments out there with payment models for writers and it’s nice to be part of one that’s working.

But also to see how, in the same way we and the Guardian have been building on previous projects to get here, the next things grow out of this.

From the seemingly stupid small things, like remote working and distributed teams (thanks Slack) that wasn’t quite working a few years ago. To the larger, mini-guardian-approved-spinoff experimental way of doing things. And the way those things are flowing back into the Guardian internally, with more journalist/developer lead exploration projects.

A couple of years back to me the Guardian genuinely felt like it was bogged down with almost too many choices for how to be “Digital First”. Keen to move in all directions but unable to make any progress in any particular one. It’s been painful to watch but now it feels like it’s starting to get traction, momentum, escaping that wading through treacle just to get anything done feeling.

There’s still problems but (and maybe this is because summer seems to have finally started) it feels like this is the start of a new exciting time at the Guardian. With its feet firmly established in the US and Australia, interesting things afoot in other parts of the world, projects like the “Shed”, mini start-ups and a couple of internal projects I’ve seen, it looks like the Guardian is once more going to become an exciting place to crack open the what-next for journalism and technology nut.

Now lets hope they don’t fuck it up.