Chatted this morning with Dan Sinker, who had the misfortune of having to sit near to me like ten thousand times at the recent London Mozilla Festival.  Yet for some reason, he was still willing to take my call this morning, which I think tells you a lot about Dan — he’s either a man of fortitude, or he’s a little slow.

On what Dan is up to

  • Project lead for the Knight Mozilla News Technology Partnership (MoJo)
  • Take skilled developers, and bring them into the journalism space so they can engage, create code, etc.
  • Previously, spent 3 years teaching tech skills to journalism students
    • They need the skills not because they’re going to program (usually), but so they can speak to the developers
    • Need to understand: what is difficult? what is easy?
    • Eg: Roger Ebert tweeted “I speak restaurant HTML” (reference to “restaurant spanish”: speak the language of the people who are crucial to what you’re doing)  [Note: I now love this phrase!]

On what journalists should know about tech

  • Disagrees that every journalist has to become a programmer.
    • How deep is “programmer”?  People who claim this probably don’t know
  • They need to understand at a conceptual level how the web is built, understand HTML, understand CSS
    • Point and say “oh, that’s HTML”
  • Understand conceptually JS and how it works.  Get beyond “it’s magic!”
  • Understand where to go from there.
  • Understand database manipulation: statistics, data visualization.
    • Any story beyond human interest stories requires working with data sets.
    • Do they have access to analyst experts?  No, but probably some “go to” people in the newsroom who are good at it.
  • On journalism and web security, applicable to investigative journalists
    • Journalism views self as doing much more investigative journalism than it does.
    • Means most journalists would believe they need this stuff, but much fewer do.

On MoJo and “make”ing

  • In 2011, program was centered around idea generation.
    • Propose ideas, good ones move on, eventually turn into hackfest.
    • Problem was not all groups had skillsets to make because it selected for good idea generators.
  • Reorient 2012 around making.
    • Distributed, many hackfests.  20-25 smaller making things.
    • Hackfests’ goals are to get folks excited about problem space of journalism.
    • Learning labs around interesting problem spaces. (Visualization, big data, real time feeds, etc.)
    • Problem space of journalism in the last 5 years has become much more fun for developers
  • At an institutional level, change is hard
    • Eg: most coders don’t work in the newsroom.  They were hired for production, so put in a diff building (sometimes a different city).
      • Reinforces lack of collaboration.
      • Reinforces “magic”.
    • Look at a newspaper: why is political, sports, entertainment all together?  Efficient distribution mechanism.  Org still built that way as a result of obsolete system.

On “success”: indications that journalists are web literate

  • More journalism that you can’t see how it would be printed/broadcast.
  • More stories where links are a key understanding component
  • More integration / acknowledgement of the fact that things can be iterative.
    • Stories are built over time, and the web is a key building block where it can happen.
  • Knows people who have made the transition: it often starts with links, then embedding some code, then grows from there.  “Oh, I can add a map.  Can I customize it?  How would I make it do this other thing?”

Final wise thoughts from Dan: “The web is a made thing.  Once you realize that, the magic starts.  Once you realize that, you can take part in the making.