OpenNews, one week in: a first taste of the world of online news

That was quick. My first week as an OpenNews fellow at Spiegel Online is already coming to an end today. I’ve spent these first days exploring different aspects of the organization, inevitably failing to give a succinct explanation of what kind of a creature I am and what sort of trouble I plan.

What I’ve been trying to convey is that I am a technologist who is excited about news. When I applied to join the Knight-Mozilla programme last year, it was because of the many intriguing discussions I’ve had as an open data advocate with journalists from around the world. But my interest in this goes beyond data as a means for storytelling. News technology is information architecture for the public sphere, and the web means we’ll have to completely re-think it.

Of course, there’s been little space for such lofty talk as I’ve been on a marathon to meet as many of the different teams at Spiegel as I could this week. During this, I’ve tremendously enjoyed joining some of the editorial meetings and getting a first-hand impression of the sort of debate that goes into framing the news of the day. Spiegel’s famous fact-checkers also keep amazing me, they are the folks I’m hoping to learn about data journalism from.

At the same time, I’m beginning to think about the different projects that I will work on over the coming months. That, of course, is a problem of abundance: there are tons of things I wanted to try before I arrived in Hamburg, and everyone I’ve met since has also been full of ideas they’ve wanted to share and cooperate on. The kanban board I’ve started so that I can keep track already starts looking a bit packed, but this also means that there are also some themes starting to emerge.

  • Create stories. I’ve decided that the most direct way I can find out what tools are useful for digital journalism is to actually get my feet wet. Thankfully, Nicola, my primary contact at SpOn, is an editor in the science department. She has provided me with plenty of leads, so I’ll aim to dig up some data and see what I can learn from it.

    Further down the road, Germany’s September federal elections will be the topical focus of my fellowship: I want to experiment not just with methods to cover the election, but focus on ways in which the contested issues and the key differences in the party platforms can be explained interactively.

  • Break articles. Journalism should focus on stories, and articles are just a paper world hack to that end. Still, it seems to me that the ways in which we’re delivered developing stories (is there any other kind?) have hardly changed.

    Spiegel, with its vast archive of neatly contextualized information, is in an amazing place to tell stories that develop not just for a few hours, but across weeks, years and even decades.

    I’ve already started some work around entity extraction based on a scrape of SpOn, and I hope to catch up soon with Stijn, my fellow fellow at the Guardian, and Annabel, at Zeit Online, about other ways in which he intends to liberate stories from their dead tree shackles.

  • Make robots. Technology should make life simpler and help us to stay on top of things. With databases becoming a source of news, that has to mean that we need tools that help us to find stories based on any heuristic we can imagine.

    The notion of human assisted reporting seems extremely powerful to me, and January’s OpenNews onboarding allowed a team of fellows to develop some ideas on how we could make it work. Again, the secret motive here is that I may get to collaborate not just with the awesome team of fellows, but also with my friends at OKFN.

At the same time, I want to stay open and learn much, much more about how news is produced here, and what could be done to make that process more effective. Maybe I’ll end up doing something completely different. This freedom to tinker with news technology over the next year is what I am most amazed by.