Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership: Arming Journalists with the Open Web

The Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership is a multi-year effort to drive innovation in the technologies that deliver the news. The program—and a slate of initial partners, which includes the BBC, the Guardian, and Zeit Online—was announced last week. If you’re interested in learning more as the program unfolds, join the community list. Check out the screencast here, in which project lead Nathan James and Phillip Smith introduce the ideas behind the partnership.

There’s a strong values alignment between journalists and open web hackers. Both spend a lot of time in the marketplace of ideas. Exchange, dialogue, and the flow of information form a set of common concerns. And the open web way of doing things—write once, deploy everywhere—offers both cost savings and serendipity.

Cost savings, because open source means individual newsrooms don’t need to develop their processes in a vacuum. Instead of designing a module for visualizing a particular kind of data, for example—or even licensing some expensive technology—they can tap into open communities like processing.js or Protovis. Plus, developing using open standards guarantees the biggest possible audience. As creative director with limited resources, would you rather develop individual mobile apps for iOS, Android, and Blackberry? Or write one HTML5 app and deploy it everywhere?

Serendipity, because doing things the open web way leads to unforeseen sparks and synaptic connections in the news media. The blog post I write here might be quoted, linked, tweeted, aggregated, recontextualized, or scraped. It might be consumed on a desktop, latop, tablet, or smart phone. Heck, it might even get displayed on a microwave ticker, if I publish using open conventions. This open-ended design leads to all kinds of generativity: new audiences, new ways of focusing attention, new ways of harnessing the audience.

This open web way stands in stark contrast with emerging approaches like, say, The Daily. The Daily is a brand-new Newscorp publication. There’s only one way to consume the Daily—on an iPad. There’s a hard ceiling on The Daily’s potential audience—about 10 million, or the number of iPads in circulation. You can’t copy-paste from a Daily article, so there won’t be many reaction blog posts to Daily content. Most Daily content can’t be shared. And, perhaps the biggest strike against the approach is that it’s delivered through a controlled channel. That’s not just bad for audiences—it’s terrible for publishers. Unlike publishing on the web, publishing on these platforms requires permission, and sometimes even a 15%—40% revenue cut to the platform operator. We think the open web way wins hands-down, and we’ll be strengthening that case by shining light on what our news technology Fellows will do.

The next time there’s a news event that grabs the world’s attention, we want newsrooms around the globe using people, software, and ideas that came out of this initiative. Mozilla just so happens to have a bit of experience when it comes to great ideas, great people, and great software.

That said, this Partnership is not about solving the distribution or revenue challenges faced by the news biz. It’s about making sure the open technologies are the best ones available to journalists and publishers. There’s a huge, unfulfilled need for shared processes, workflows, and standards—as Phillip says, “there’s a real opportunity here to introduce a bit of the Mozilla MakerCulture into the news-technology space.”

Mozilla is already experimenting—with stuff like processing.js, popcorn.js, and Universal Subtitles—that can have a huge impact on the way we experience news. I’ll be blogging about this in depth, and I’m looking forward to helping connect the wires between the Knight program and the interesting work that Mozilla and Mozillians are already doing.

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