Eric Johnson

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It May Not Be Televised, but the (Journalism) Revolution Will Be Hacked

What a weird weekend for journalism.

On Sunday, a day once reserved for fat feature-laden newspapers, a new television show and a San Francisco hackathon brought the future of the media into the limelight in very different ways.

The TV show was HBO’s “The Newsroom,” the newest project of “The Social Network” scribe (and D10 guest) Aaron Sorkin. The hackathon was NewsHack Day, an ambitious attempt to bring self-proclaimed “hacks and hackers” — journalists and coders — together for a mad weekend of learning, brainstorming and creating.

Both were entertaining. But, one was stuck in the past.

First, consider the opening scene of “The Newsroom,” which you can watch on YouTube here. Waxing nostalgic onstage in front of cameras and hundreds of students, protagonist news-anchor Will McAvoy pines for a time when America was great “because we were informed … by great men, men who were revered.”

Then, there was the upshot of NewsHack: In the span of fewer than 30 hours, eight teams formed, built practical Web sites and tools for journalists, and demoed their work for a panel of reporters and programmers.

One team’s Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) tracker, called Bird-Dog, got the big prize: A partnership to develop the tracker inside the Mother Jones newsroom.

“I think [Bird-Dog] is going to become a pretty standard tool in newsrooms across the country,” NewsHack organizer Michael Coren said.

Back in TV-land, Sorkin’s idealistic protagonist is not wrong to let past successes inspire him to be a better journalist.

However, solely celebrating and imitating “great men” is incompatible with the present trajectory of the news media toward greater collaboration among diverse groups of journalists and non-journalists alike.

Other projects at NewsHack (which was free with sponsorships by Knight-Mozilla Open News, among others) included Contextualize, a tool to easily annotate data visualizations to give readers added context; Dial Me In, a site that would automatically upload and transcribe reporters’ phone interviews; and On the Record, which pulls direct quotes out of news articles and lays them out in an aesthetically pleasing timeline, so readers can track who said what and when.

In addition to observing NewsHack Day, I also participated, joining a team called Haystax that aimed to make scraping data from any sort of table on the Web a simple point-and-click process.

The demo of our working prototype generated “oohs” from the audience. But it wouldn’t have happened if Haystax didn’t have a team of some experienced journalists, a dogged programmer and a team leader who straddled both worlds — Tyler Dukes, the managing editor of Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab.

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, Coren emphasized job losses in the media and the “crumbling” of old business models, without new ones to take their place.

The characters in “The Newsroom” know this story, too. “You’re one pitch meeting away from doing the news in 3-D,” one staffer spits at McAvoy.

To which he correctly replies, “This isn’t non-profit theater. It’s advertiser-supported television.” It’s impossible, he gripes, to do a high-quality commercial news show.

Photo courtesy Michael Coren

At the close of the hackathon, money was far from the minds of almost all participants. Only one group described a potential business plan for their project, and many (including Haystax) moved to make their nascent projects open source and free for all online.

“Somebody asked me today, ‘Did you save journalism?'” Coren said. “I’m not sure hackathons are really about fixing the business model.”

So, in the absence of clear business applications for the hacks developed this weekend, the real philosophical question is one we’ve all heard before: How should technology shape the practice of journalism?

To answer that, one last comparison between “The Newsroom” and NewsHack Day is in order.

Halfway through the first episode of Sorkin’s show, the characters get some breaking news: The Deepwater Horizon oil rig has exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The “good guys” then rally together to find out exactly what happened, in a refreshing acknowledgement of teamwork’s importance to fast reporting.

In a matter of minutes, they produce an hour of TV that proves McAvoy’s pessimism wrong: It’s factual, hard-hitting and insightful.

Impossible? No. But stuck in the past? Still yes.

Perfection was never an option at the weekend’s hackathon. Even given more people from more backgrounds and more time, all the projects demoed on Sunday were plainly incomplete. One of the big themes of the weekend was accepting that incompleteness is okay.

David Cohn, the founder of crowd-funded news platform, told a group of NewsHack attendees that learning to work with limitations and imperfection is a vital part of the process, something coders know well and journalists often fear.

“This is a great first time to fail,” Cohn said.

Coren agreed that coders and journalists need to learn to borrow from one another’s rule books. And the only way they can do that is for them to actually do something, rather than just thinking or talking about it.

“It’s not enough to bring journalists in and lecture them,” Coren said. “It requires something that’s more experiential … and more difficult.”

As, of course, it always has been in media that matters.

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— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”