Exactly how has technology changed the journalist's role?
The question has nagged me since the latest Future of News and Civic Media conference in Cambridge, hosted by MIT and the Knight Foundation. The three-day confab drew a curious hodgepodge of technologists, academics, foundation and non-profit folks, with a smattering of so-called traditional, mainstream journalists -- "refugees," they called -- many of whom have left their traditional, mainstream jobs. But what they lacked in common in terms of resumes they more than made up in what they shared: a passion for remaking the news for 21st century.
Altogether, the crowd applauded the 12 winners of the foundation's Knight News Challenge (KNC), an ambitious, generous contest (this year's grantees received a total sum of $2.74 million) that awards innovative journalism projects. It's no coincidence, perhaps, that many of the projects were not created by traditional journalists. The bios of the winners read software engineers, entrepreneurs, video game designers, documentary filmmakers, among others, and their projects push our idea of journalism. They serve as a guide for the future.
We live in an increasingly visual, data-driven world, where content easily spreads online, all meant to be shared. That's the thinking behind CityTracking, created by Eric Rodenbeck, the founder and creative director of Stamen, a mapping and data visualization studio. The aim of the project, Rodenbeck said, is "to make municipal data" -- like crime -- "easy to understand."
And digital news consumers don't want to just read data, they want to interact with it, too. Enter The Cartoonist, developed by noted video game designers and analysts Ian Bogost and Michael Mateas. Their project will develop a free tool that creates interactive, cartoon-like, current event games, "the equivalent of editorial cartoons." For years now, games have been integrated in education, the military and of course entertainment. It's time journalism gets in the mix.
The popularity and ubiquity of Wikipedia proves that, yes, anyone can be an editor, anyone can have a voice. And that's the underlying theme behind two KNC-winning projects. There's Local Wiki, created by software engineers Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov, which is an expansion of the successful DavisWiki.org, a crowd-sourcing bulletin for residents of Davis, Calif. There's also Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space that connects residents to each other. The brainchild of Vermont resident Michael Wood-Lewis, the forum covers 25 Vermont towns. That number will go up to 250 because of the KNC grant.
What's clear in reviewing the winning projects is technology's core role in redefining journalism for the digital era. KNC enters its fifth and final year of handing out these grants, which have awarded some $23 million to to 50 projects.
What hasn't been so clear, at least to me, is the role that traditional journalists themselves -- the ones still employed in newspaper, magazine, TV and radio newsrooms across the country -- must play as technologies further evolve and the reporter's toolbox deepens and broadens. It's not just about having a Twitter feed and finding sources on Facebook and YouTube. It's about fundamentally understanding how the news ecosystem has changed. You, the reporter, don't know everything. You, the reporter, are accountable to your readers, who now can publicly question your reporting and writing. You, the reporter, must think about getting the news out, reporting stories and interacting with active digital news consumers in multi-dimensional ways.
How can social media and crowd-sourcing be leveraged in political reporting, so the journalism becomes less about horse-race coverage, the simplistic GOP-said-this-and-the-Dems-said-that kind of writing, the theater of politics?
How can beat reporters covering education use mobile technology -- one of the primary ways that parents and their teenage age communicate -- in writing about local school boards?
How can local news sites take their lead from LocalWiki and Front Porch Forum, to cite just two, and start thinking of their sites as conversation and idea hubs?
At a time in which all a journalist needs is a laptop, an Internet connection and editing software to report and publish work, what's the role of a newsroom? Or layers and layers of editors to vet what reporters are writing and publishing?
I've said this before and I will keep saying it: I cannot think of a more exciting time to a be journalist, and I cannot think of better time to be good at what I do. This is a golden age for journalism, a time for experimentation, entrepreneurship and creativity. Individual journalists must take full advantage of it. After all, the future of news is inexorably linked -- married, even -- to the future of the journalist.
Redefining journalism for the digital era is both a problem and an opportunity. "This problem cannot be solved by the newsroom alone," said Jay Rosen, the noted press critic who's professor at New York University. He's been a strong proponent of citizen journalism. "But it can't be solved without newsroom people, and their intelligence."
Addeds Alberto Ibarguen, the foundation's president and CEO who was formerly the publisher of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald: "What we're talking about here is the evolution of storytelling. There was storytelling before there was writing. It's a skill, a necessity, that endures, no matter which medium is being used."
Using new technologies, the journalist must tell stories in interactive, relevant, compelling ways.
NOTE: I served as one of over 30 judges for this year's KNC contest. In the coming weeks, we'll feature blogs from past and current KNC winners, explaining the vision behind their projects and what they mean for the future of journalism -- and the journalist.
Courtesy of KNC, below is a video slideshow of this year's winners explaining the goal of their projects.
"To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250."
"To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games -- the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don't have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news."
"Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn -- and share -- their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects."
"To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and '80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the Web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms."
"Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners."
"To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid."
"As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as "real-time ads." These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change --showing the latest message or post from the advertiser's Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com."
"Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S . military operations in Afghani- stan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops and their families will be key audiences for the online journal steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U .S . foreign policy. The troops were recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and this project will also study the impact of that decision on the military."
"To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the Web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities."
"To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the "seed" of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to "geotag" the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings."
"To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful."
"To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues -- all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video -- often captured by mobile phones or webcams -- is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools."
Follow Jose Antonio Vargas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joseiswriting