Journalism in the Open: Hard-Coding Community

[This is the second in a series of five blog posts this week dedicated to thinking out loud about the opportunities for the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership in 2012. It will culminate in Friday’s post announcing the 2011/12 Knight-Mozilla Fellows. Yesterday’s post dealt with the growing momentum around open-source in journalism.]

Journalism is big on community: There are 84 different US-based Journalism organizations listed on the website of the American Journalism Review. From the Association of Food Journalists to the US Basketball Writer’s Association, if you’ve got a specialized role, niche, or interest, there’s probably a community for you.

But how do we build community around the code that journalism is producing? Because community also plays an role in open-source software—in fact, it plays the key role: without it, you’re just some person writing code alone. And so throughout the open-source world, you see communities grow around code. For some of the fundamental open source projects, those communities are enormous: Mozilla, for instance, tries to keep a thanks list of their contributors—it’s quite long.

Successful open source projects do far more than simply stick code up on a publicly-accessible repository—the projects that gain momentum are the ones that foster a community around their code by documenting their work, engaging users, trumpeting successes outside of their own, and much more. Like tending a garden, tending your code and the community around it takes both patience and effort.

There are a lot of great examples of this kind of community engagement happening in news development teams. The very best of the teams have active and engaged blogs talking about what they’re up to, how to implement concepts, and ways they’re engaging the community. The New York Times and the Guardian both host developer events in-house to help developers implement their code and advocate for their methods. The Hacks/Hackers organization hosts meetups around the globe that pair journalists and developers in discussion. The NICAR mailing list (thats the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting) is an active info-sharing list for journalists and news developers. This is an incomplete list, and is all awesome stuff.

So there is a growing community and there is a growing momentum, and what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how we harness that to benefit the code that’s being produced. Because I think the code we’re making in journalism is amazing, and I think that’s only going to continue. But the real adoption from the larger development community—adoption that means the pool of contributors grows and, as a result, the community around that code grows—is pretty small. Sure, there are exceptions to that rule (as I pointed out yesterday, the DocumentCloud project has been successful in getting adoption around some of its code, and the Tribune team has had success with CSVkit, among others). But by and large, we’re all still working on our code alone.

I think that there’s real work to be done in advocating for, shining a spotlight on, and helping to generate community around the code that’s being written in journalism. Because the more community that can be built, the better the code is and the better off journalism is because of it. Kick-ass news code leads to kick-ass news.

So how do we do it? I have my ideas—but I’d love to hear yours.

Tomorrow: the potential in peer-to-peer learning.