Being immersed in a passion, an upcoming field, a new area of exploration is of course exhilarating. But living in a bubble of code, data and journalism can lead you to adopt certain assumptions and to fall into naive paradigms. This is often geo-located. I, like most in the West, tend to look to the West for innovation and progress. Even though I am not completely Western it is easy to get enveloped in your immediate online community and not those occupying the next node on the web.
This became apparent to me on my recent trip to Argentina for HacksHackers Buenos Aires. Not only is the journalism-coding community thriving in this bustling South American city but the hub of activity is something every newsroom developer and webmaker journalist in the West should be envious of. They organized a star-studded lineup of new media composers for talks and workshops. A three day media party with over 700 attendees. If that wasn’t impressive enough, they had live translators so that both Spanish and English speakers could attend.
I was included in the keynote and workshop run my the members of the Interactive Team. What I said was as follows:
Journalists used to work with information in print. Now we work with data in the digital age. Now “we” means not just the journalist with pen, camera and microphone but anyone with a phone and access to the internet. Now we all aggregate, curate and cultivate in the age of big data in the hope that not one person can dictate.
Now philanthropical bodies like Knight and campaigning foundations like Mozilla are enabling news organisations to openly embrace data driven investigative journalism by funding projects, training and education centres. Even giving headstrong idealists the opportunity to work with the new multi-skilled teams being fostered in newsrooms around the globe.
Because what newsrooms typically have no longer works. It does not work for collaboration, for visualisation, or for big data. To be digital, news organisations have to now move at the speed of web. And with the advantages of legacy come the disadvantages of rigidity.
So how do we engage with data? How do we move forward in our understanding of the typical news story? How do we pitch a story without a headline until the majority of the work has been done? How do we decide how to tell the story before we have it? How come it is already happening all over the world simultaneously?
How do we strive for data integrity when the structure we know is the sentence and the paragraph? How can we ensure accuracy when we only have one source, the data? How can we interrogate data on a scale that cannot be consumed by a human being? And how can we find stories in data whilst upholding the cornerstones of impartiality, accuracy and fairness?
I don’t know the answers but I do know that to do all of this we need tools. We all need to collectively and openly share ideas, data and code. We are no longer news-makers on the web, we are news-makers of the web. And I have had the great fortune of seeing The Guardian team and indeed the news industry tackle these challenges.
This went down well with the crowd but what I failed to communicate was how impressed I was with them. Before the media party kicked off I had the great fortune of meeting up with the data team at La Nacion. Not only were they present and active participants but they brought along an entire university class whose students are taught on campus and in the newsroom. What a brilliant idea!
Another inspiring concept incubated by the data team is that of the digital journalist notebook. The government of Argentina publish reports of spending, expenses, contract awards, etc in paper bulletins which are available online as PDFs. Each region has it’s own take on the general layout. The team scrape all these PDFs and have a search for the contents of the documents.
In this way they have made all government reports into a digital library where, using their journalistic hat, they can connect who is who and who gets what. Hard-hitting investigative stories have already emerged. With data “more open” in the West, newsrooms there shold be taking a leaf from their digital notebook.