What News Organizations Can Learn From Tech Orgainzations

Now is the time to experiment. The second decade of the second millennium is all about crises. The stock market, the Arab Spring and the EU. The characters of history will be politicians for sure, but the celebrities, the cultural icon for these harsh and unsure times is the billionaire entrepreneur.

Shaking things up, moving things around and exploring new territory is how we have survived as a species for so long and this crisis will stand to prove that those who adapt will survive. Nowhere is this more evident than the tech industry. Nowhere is this easier to do than the web. The web is a new ecosystem to explore. It is the new medium not just for monetary transactions but for social internactions. So why is the move from print to web proving so difficult for the news industry?

I have been fortunate in the last two years to get a glimpse at the greener side of the road. As part of the OpenNews programme developers are put into news organizations. I, on the other hand, was in news. I trained in news and worked at Channel4, BBC and CNN International. For me, the exciting new prospect was not just to work with developers to hone my data skills but to be part of Mozilla. I didn’t realize how much a part I would be until last month where I found myself at the All-Hands (AGM) with 50 other Mozillians.

It was a real eye-opener and a real privilege to be there. It was my chance to learn more about Mozilla and the projects they are undertaking. Before I tell you about those I want to list my observations on the way Mozilla is run which I think reflects the web-based tech industry as a whole. Mozilla are:

  • Inclusive of every employee: everyone had a say, everyone could get involved and contribute to decision-making
  • Promoters of creativity: success on the web is built on ideas and ideas can come from anywhere and anyone
  • Hugely varied in their employees backgrounds and skills: from designers to teachers to musicians, there was a wide range of personalities
  • Risk-takers: they see themselves not just as making fun things for the web but as taking on the likes of Facebook and Youtube
  • Concerned about sustainability: even though the foundation has funding they are still looking at how they can support their work in perpetuity
  • Mission-driven: every project must have a purpose and this must fit into the Mozilla mission statement of an open and inclusive web
  • Moving to coherency: for their message to be loud and clear they are creating threads between all their projects

The modern newsroom is still faction-based between digital and editorial. There is still too much of a top-down approach to management. Your product is still your content, no matter what medium it is on. If that content is ripped from wire copy it is information when contained in a touch and take newspaper but has very little value on a web of social and global links. People need to touch a paper and people need to be touched by the web. There needs to be creativity (and humanity) in the creation and presentation of content. The medium is the message.

For the audience to feel a connect to the news product there needs to be a real connection in its creation. News cannot be produced in a factory and it cannot be produce in code (the aggregators will lose their audience to a truly digital news platform). There needs to be a passion for journalism, real journalism in the newsroom for a news organization to survive. In that sense, hack days should not just be for developers, they should be for journalists also; to hunt down the stories that have passed under their nose in the process of producing copy. Developers and journalists should have access to as wide a range of skills as possible to make these ideas reality.

Managers should take risks at news organizations. Now is the time to do things differently as your product has to do its job differently. Be agile and be lean, just make sure you have learning metrics so you know the results of the changes you make. Turn to your developers, turn to your journalists and turn to your supporters. You no longer have readers or an audience or even users. You have supporters. They can be supporting you financially and in other ways. Your product is not a chair, it serves no definitive function. It is ideological. Your supporters choose to support you because they want you to continue working to your ethos and principles. In that sense, you do not have a brand. You have a mission. Managers in newsrooms speak of brand far too much, and building products around said brand. No. You have a mission and you find ways for your supporters to connect with and further their support in your mission.

On the surface, I want news organizations to be more like tech organizations because I want 20% time, I want the high spec computers and great internet connection, I want the cereal bar and soft drink filled snack bar, I want the fun events and travel. But I think it goes deeper than this. I think they should adopt the ideology.

The Mozilla Festival 2012 will be in London 9-11 November. I will be running two workshops in the journalism track, Location-based Storytelling using Popcorn.js and Popcorn Maker (yet to be released but watch this video) and HTML for Journalists using Thimble. Do come and join me.

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