Inside the box

At All Things D, the Wall Street Journal's online coverage of digital technologies and their implications, Eric Johnson covered NewsHack Day, a San Francisco event that took place last weekend.

The event billed itself as an opportunity for journalists, developers and designers to gather and work together "for creative news coding and data reporting." According to Johnson, eight teams worked for a bit more than a day to develop "practical web sites and tools for journalists".

The winning team created a tool, Bird-Dog, that tracks Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They will get to further develop the idea at Mother Jones magazine, a bit of a FOIA factory, I'd guess.

Other teams created tools that annotated data visualizations (helping readers understand them) and automatically transcribed reporters' interviews. Johnson's team (he was both a participant and a reporter) built a tool to easily scrape data from any table on the internet.

As Johnson points out, the one thing none of these tools did was "save" journalism:

"But what we blatantly didn’t have, what no team had, was an easy answer to the big question: What’s next?  At the official start of NewsHack on Saturday morning, [NewsHack organizer Michael] Coren emphasized job losses in the media and the 'crumbling' of old business models, without new ones to take their place."

In reporting NewsHack Day, Johnson tried to draw a comparison between the forward-looking tone of the collaborative weekend and what he felt was the "stuck in the past" tone of the debut episode of "The Newsroom", a new HBO series written by Aaron Sorkin.

In practice, I think the two have more in common than Johnson lets on. Both try to refine the model that already exists, and both featured debates about whether the battle is winnable at the level of the work performed.

To be fair, developing tools that make journalism work better is good work. It's okay to think inside the box to address what can be improved now. That's as true on HBO as it is within the confines of a rewarding and productive volunteer weekend.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.