Basile Simon (blog) Data, hackery, stories

On 'hacking the newsroom'

Earlier this month, I joined a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, titled “Hacking the Newsroom.” “Exploring the ways hackers and journalists are working together, and how hacker-journalists are spreading into newsrooms,” said the brochure summary.

Here is my report on the session, put together by Philip Di Salvo and gathering former OpenNews fellow at the Guardian Linda Sandvik, SRF Editor and Journalismfund Chair Sylke Gruhnwald, security researcher Claudio Guarnieri, and myself.

At BBC News Labs we like to think we are pretty good at what we do. We create and build stuff by brainstorming, by staying open and creative, by testing our assumptions, refining, and iterating on prototypes.

But those principles depend on having a cracking team, and I emphasized this during my time at the mike. So much of what we do is down to the people we’ve got and how (much) we work together.

That’s because we’ve all got different backgrounds and roles: developers, journalists, software engineers, data-scientists, bioinformaticians…

We’ve all got different employment statuses: some are permanent staff, others are freelancers, on attachment, on secondment, contracting, on a short term placement. Thus we pollinate through the BBC - and further afield - moving in and out of News Labs, creating a constantly growing, extended family of friends, colleagues, and advocates.

But we’re not unicorns - they don’t exist, but we do. We’re real people, we just work together.

Collaboration, that’s the secret.

Collaboration is at the heart of everything we do. Not just with each other - drawing on our different specialties, backgrounds and knowledge. But also collaborating with other departments within the BBC - whether with the World Service trying to reach new audiences, Visual Journalism and their data-driven journalism projects or with Connected Studio reaching out to the wider industry…

And third, it’s also collaborating with the industry itself. We’re all in this together, and as Linda rightly said: “We should be competing on the stories, not on the tech.”

Now, the BBC still differentiates quite a lot between a dev, a journo, and a designer - and by “differentiate,” I mean that these jobs are specialised, not silo-ed.

For example, Visual Journalism - the BBC team responsible for our data-journalism and graphics output - is a clever mix of journalists, developers, designers and product managers. The result, after a while, is that you’ve got tech-literate journos and journalism-minded techies working together.

Specialties, though, persist. Because we need experts.

A team of collaborating experts is much more valuable than one of your dream unicorns. Together, they’ll check each other’s work, advance their respective fields, and learn from each other.

However, a perfectly collaborating team - like a unicorn - can be a fabled beast: much talked about, but never seen.

Multi-disciplinary teams have to face the challenge of literacy. Not that they can’t read, but that they can’t read each other. And this is where so-called unicorns outperform your team of experts.

Making these folks talk to each other, understand their different languages and assumptions AND interact with other newsroom staff while navigating their way through your organisation is hard. People skills are so often neglected when putting together a team, but they are just as important as specialist knowledge.

So let’s assume you’ve decided you can afford the time and money involved in building this bridge between the hackers/engineers/developers and the journos.

Now you have a host of other questions to answer: “Where do they sit? Who do they report to? How do we structure the department to foster this collaboration? How can we assess whether they’ve been a success?”

At Journocoders, for example, we explain and teach technology and/or tools to journos. The environment we created is a mix of hacks and hackers working together through a tutorial.

And that leads to the key point: literacy and people skills aside, there’s at least one thing all your staff must have in common, that they all need to share: journalistic principles.

That’s an appetite for the story, curiosity, accuracy, balance and fairness. It’s the heart of what we all do.