OpenNews: Building a Community of Fellows

Team 2013 on the streets of Cambridge

I’m still reeling from the amazingness that was the 2013 Knight-Mozilla Fellowship Onramping we held at the MIT Media Lab two weeks ago. Our fellowships are different than many because our fellows spend most of their time apart—they’re embedded in their host news organizations, working alongside reporters and newsroom developers—so we wanted to make sure that before they got swept up in the hustle of the newsroom, that they first learned more about each other and start to etch pathways of collaboration that will deepen over the course of the year.

We decided on the Media Lab because it’s a place that’s filled with the exact spirit of experimentation that we wanted to kick the year off with, and thankfully our friends at the Center for Civic Media were able to give us a great spot off the central atrium to set up camp.

Getting heads-down at the MIT media lab

In planning the week, we knew we wanted to hit a good balance gaining shared experience and knowledge and giving everyone the freedom to hack together. We had stuff we needed them to know (how to file an expense report, for instance), stuff we wanted them to learn (how to feel comfortable really diving into need finding in the newsroom), and stuff we hoped would happen (they’d realize just how valuable each one of them is to each other). And we had four days to do it.

The first two days were heavy on talking. It was “Fellowship 101” on day one, where we also had Dan Schultz and Laurian Gridinoc from our 2012 class and representatives from some of the newsrooms that hosting fellows this year on hand to be able to answer questions about the fellowships from many angles. Day two we decamped to the Boston Globe, where friends from the design firm IDEO lead sessions on the fundamentals of human-centered design. In order to start our fellows’ year off with a good grounding in how to observe need inside the newsroom, they then took what they learned and performed need-finding interviews with Globe staffers. The insights they gained through those conversations continued to resonate throughout the rest of our time together.

Annabel Church shows what she’s been up to on Saturday night

Friday and Saturday we moved from talking to making. Since a major part of the Knight-Mozilla Fellowships is for the fellows to feel free to experiment, create, and try new things, we wanted to give ample space and time for exactly that. We only had one rule for the hack weekend: No solo endeavors—the fellows had to work together on stuff. And they did, in small pairs, in larger groups, and in whole-room ideation, it was amazing to watch a group of near-strangers coalesce into a community of peers, of friends, and of collaborators.

The week ended with piles of Indian food and lots of new friends at a meet-the-Fellows get-together on the Media Lab’s fifth floor. We invite folks from the Lab, as well as from around Boston’s robust media innovation community. The fellows got to show off things they’ve been working on, and we all got to play a few robust rounds of Werewolf before heading back to our hotel rooms to collapse.

We focus a lot on community here at OpenNews—the big, sprawling, amazing community that creates the code that’s transforming journalism every day. Those four days in January at MIT was an opportunity focus on a much smaller community: the community of fellows who, over the course of the next year, will not only help journalism on the web make exciting new leaps, but will also become forever a part of each other’s lives. It was a moment to focus on the things we can build together, the ways we can change the world, and the ways we’ll change each other as well. The next year together is going to be amazing.