I got 99 problems, and I just need you to fix one of them

How our Australian news hackathon was won.

A journalism professor once taught me to boil down every story into one declarative sentence. Then report more and repeat. Solving the media’s many big fat problems is similar. As Jonny Richards, Google Creative team lead, advised at the start of our hackathon:

“Be a knife.”

That’s not a knife — but it’s a good start. We tell people to start not by brainstorming projects, but by kvetching. Kate Golden/Walkley Foundation

That is, don’t be a spork. It’s one of his 10 koans for the Walkley Editors Lab, which we at the Walkley Foundation ran last week with the Global Editors Network as part of GEN’s global Editors Lab series. The point is not to find the next big thing that will change our lives. It’s to learn to solve fixable problems — one at a time.

We picked the theme of audience engagement, despite its horrid buzzwordiness, because it’s at the heart of some of the media’s biggest failings: how we connect with people and make the news meaningful. Here’s a sampling of the problems identified by our 13 hackathon teams from newsrooms across Australia:

Too much bad news makes me avoid the news.
I might chime in, but not if I’m going to get trolled by assholes.
I’ve got share sensitive information with a journalist, but I’m afraid you’ll be found out.
I want to know what’s happening around me but I don’t speak English very well.
A story is breaking and I can’t find the most useful Twitter users in the area fast enough.

As organisers, we have various hacks of our own to get participants to boil things down. They’re one part inspiration from experts, one part forcing teams to talk. Day 1, Richards gives his hack-the-hackathon workshop that could be applied to much of life itself. Via Hangout from Chicago, audience engagement guru Jennifer Brandel talks us through how she created Hearken — a platform that helps publishers ask their audience what they should report on and then report on that. The basic concept is listening to people. Stuart Fagg, general manager of digital at The Australian newspaper, chats with Nic Hopkins at Google about prioritising the revolution: Don’t be taken in by shiny things. Pay attention to what’s really working for your audience, Fagg says.

We give the teams a few hours to brainstorm things they’d like to fix about the news, and then we put them in a scary circle to pitch an idea in one minute. Constructive feedback takes us well into happy hour.

Day 2 is the big coding sprint, quiet but for the fingers tapping keyboards. The homestretch begins around noon, and I start making videos of each team presenting a one-sentence version of the problem they’re tackling. It is ostensibly for social media, but secretly a good exercise in clarity. (Also torture, for some.) In the evening each team has four minutes to pitch the jury.

The projects span a huge range within the audience engagement theme. Some focus on the communication blocks between journalists and the public, like Storyful’s tool to identify high-value social media accounts, or The Conversation’s way to let readers give instant feedback on a particular paragraph in a story. Some looked at how we deliver stories, like SMH’s NewsFeel, a Messenger bot you could tell to give you happier stories, or The Vocal’s “foldies”, where you could choose how deep to go with a story. The SBS team presented something entirely different: a tool helping their audience of migrants learn English by displaying English and translated stories side by side.

“Be a knife” is essential for triaging time and effort in situations where none of us have enough resources and where the problems are big. It is essential for anyone who needs to sell their idea succinctly, whether to a hackathon judge, an editor or a venture capitalist.

But sporks do have their use. Or rather, if you want to fight me on that point, there are other paths to discovery, as Alexis Devoreix of News Corp pointed out on a coffee break, summoning a vision of Ben Franklin.

Franklin didn’t foresee all the problems we’d eventually solve with electricity, Devoreix said. He was just playing with lightning, wondering what would happen if he did this crazy thing with the kite. A lot of good ideas start that way, he said: with the people who say, “Oh, there’s an API for that data? I wonder what I could make with it.”

The News Corp Australia project in fact was more of a what-if project — and an impressive one. With it, you could overlay multimedia on the vast, underused imagery of Google Street View and embed that story on your site. You could make a blow-by-blow about a car chase and let readers submit their own videos, for instance. It would be great for walking tours, like a Jack the Ripper tour of London, and who knows what else. As a Street View maniac, I’d be delighted for this to become a real thing.

The winning project was more from the knife drawer, as it happened. The ABC News team’s Initiate dealt with this problem: Sources with sensitive information may put themselves at risk when first contacting journalists, yet encryption is hard to use and most people are no Edward Snowden. The design was beautiful. They had consulted security experts. They had put a lot of thought into how to explain who should use the tool and from which computers. It’s a solution that helps a pretty narrow set of people — which is not a bad thing. Try it out.

ABC’s Colin Gourlay, Simon Elvery and Ben Spraggon, from left. Riley Wilson/Global Editors Network

Most of these projects will die, and that’s normal. Any that live will likely be rebuilt completely. Last year, Nick Evershed of Guardian Australia submitted his team’s Editors Lab idea for a Walkley Innovation Grant and landed $15,000 to make it real. (It’s now called Reportermate and in progress.)

But beyond the projects themselves, we hope our hackathon sparked a few new relationships between hacks and the hackers who are so often on different floors, or between people at different organisations. We hope they’re a little bit inspired about how much they can do in a short time. And we hope that journalists, especially, learn how to be knives.

Here’s a summary of the projects — check them all out on the GEN Community site.

Junkee Media (Osman Faruqi, Dejan Husakovic, Esteban Aguilar): SpeakUp, a tool for readers to send feedback from a news story’s page to a newsroom’s Slack channel.

The Conversation Media Group (Lucinda Beaman, Mark Cipolla, Emil Jeyaratnam): HearMe, a way for readers to send inline feedback on stories to news organisations.

Alternative Hacks (Taylor Denny, Aishwarya Sahu, Kate Paterson) — onCite, a comment system that encourages people to substantiate their statements.

Storyful (Kevin Nguyen, Jacob Sturges, Ula Adamcyzk): Pinpoint, a tool that finds the most influential Twitter users in a geographical area so journalists can contact them easily on deadline.

Newsroom.ly (Nadia von Cohen, Ryan Bradley, Leon Bombotas): Topic GPS, a visualisation of topics that helps editors see what’s engaging readers most.

Australian Associated Press (Andrew Leeson, Sean Fitzpatrick, Miguel D’Souza): Merit, a online court calendar showing editors who’s assigned and what’s important.

News Corp Australia (Justin Lees, Alex Lytvynenko, Alexis Devoreix): Main Street, a way to tell immersive multimedia stories inside Google Street View, and allow readers to annotate it.

The Age (Craig Butt, Andy Ball, Soren Frederiksen): Reframe, a way to allow readers to annotate and shift the framing of 360 images.

The Daily Telegraph (Tony Salerno, Aloysius Chan, Cody Phanekham): Resultify, an easy-to-read summary of school and student data, sent via email newsletter.

The Vocal (Sheree Joseph, Isabel Brison, Vincent Vergara): Unfolding Stories, a dynamic way to package stories (as “foldies”) so they reveal more information as readers swipe.

ABC News (Simon Elvery, Colin Gourlay, Ben Spraggon): initiate, a tool allowing sources to send an encrypted message from a web page to a specific journalist.

SBS (Jackson Gothe-Snape, Ken Macleod, John Grist): Tandem, a tool using side-by-side translations and translation aids to help non-English speakers learn English and understand stories.

Sydney Morning Herald (Inga Ting, Richard Lama, Mallory Brangan): SMH NewsFeel, a Facebook Messenger app that recommends stories based on reader feedback about what emotion they’re seeking.


Inspired?

Aussies with project ideas, apply for a Walkley Media Innovation and Incubator Program grant of $5,000 to $35,000 by April 6, 2017. Or apply for a Walkley Coding Scholarship and learn programming at the Coder Factory Academy, same deadline.