"Mojo" working — on journalism and the Web

If you’re interested in how journalism on the Web might be freed from its often-clunky constructs to flourish in the digital age, you should stop by the website where participants in the new Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership (Mojo for short) are mixing it up this month.

A kind of online summer school, the Mojo Learning Lab is running webinars, discussion, reference pointers and coaching for more than 60 people — those who made the first cut in a process that’s part contest, part collaboration and large part public experiment.

While not alone in trying to harness tech innovation for better news and information flow, the Mojo effort has drawn several hundred idea pitches — for better online discourse and storytelling, better tagging and linking of parts of video and other improvements — that touch on both the problems of current formats and the opportunities of evolving Web tools.

The $2.5 million project is a joint effort of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation. It aims to “embed” 15 people and projects in partner organizations over the next three years. This year’s selection process began with a broad call for ides and meetups around the Web and in several countries and will continue with 20 participants being picked for a two-week “hackfest” in Berlin this fall before five finalists are selected.

Mojo is interesting not just for what it wants to do — connect Web innovation with journalism needs — but also for the way it’s trying to do it.

Instead of spinning winning ideas and their authors off with some prize money, the partnership hopes to develop them in working news operations. The 2012 partners: Al Jazeera English, the BBC,the Boston Globe, the Guardian and Zeit Online.

Organizers also promise, and are hammering home to participants, that winning projects must be built using open Web standards so they can be broadly used for greater impact. The program website describes a process that will train participants to turn concepts into code and offer publicly available demos and reference materials.

Anyone can follow along at the Learning Lab and project website, or via Twitter at #MozNewsLab.

Spreading “lessons of the Web”

All that can sound a little abstract, but a lecture the other day by London based “international developer evangelist” Christian Heilmann of Mozilla connected some of the dots. Heilmann’s focus was on programming standards, particularly regarding HTML5, but his illustrations focused on making news and information on the web easier, simpler and more elegant — both for people who create material and for people who use it, no matter the device, browser or screen type.

Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman,who stopped by the lecture to introduce Heilmann, told participants the Mojo partnership aligns with the foundation’s decision to reach beyond its signature Firefox Web browser to other projects “in particular places where we feel like the future of the Web is going to be shaped.”

“Journalism and media is one of these places,” Surman said. Mozilla, he said, has two main interests, “One, that the lessons of the Web and how organizations like Mozilla operate are things that media can tap into,” and second that new tools and services are based on common standards, including HTML5.

Both Knight and Mozilla hope the Mojo project, beyond the software it produces, can act as an accelerant to the frustratingly slow movement of innovation into the core of news culture.

In a recent interview, Jose Zamora, journalism program associate at the Knight Foundation, referred several times to “bridging the gap” between innovation and organizations with significant news capacity and audiences.

He noted that Knight has committed $27.1 million in the past five years to the Knight News Challenge, a contest-based grant program aimed at jump-starting media innovation, funding 76 projects from 12,000 applications.

Zamora said the Mojo partnership is a different approach with similar goals to the news challenge, aiming to pull ideas and skills of programmers, Web designers, artists and other disciplines into thinking about news and information.

“The environment is changing so fast and it’s constantly moving, that we don’t even know exactly what we looking for,” he said. “It’s probably things that we haven’t even imagined.”

To that end, Zamora said, Mojo reached out worldwide and to many disciplines outside journalism to solicit applicants, few of whom came from traditional news backgrounds.

“In the first round it will be more about technology, but it’s about trying to bridge a divide and create a different culture,” Zamora said.

Mojo’s supporting foundations joined forces after Surman met Alberto Ibarguen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, and recognized “a kindred spirit” in terms of civic aspirations and interests in finding ways to accelerate technology innovation in journalism and news.

The two organizations share a commitment to information as part of civic life and want to “build stuff, not just talk about stuff,” Surman says. As he and the Knight leadership talked, Surman said, he also attracted by the “subversive idea of really getting inside big media organizations and playing inside.”

Can “open” ideal come true?

Yet Mojo has built some large challenges into its plans. The first is trying to stimulate both competition and collaboration — and open prototyping — at a time when ideas for apps and solutions crowd the marketplace.

“Figuring out the balance between contest and collaboration is both intentional and not easy,” Surman said.

Another tall order is Mojo’s promise to make outcomes open to anyone who wants them, an ideal that has not proved out with some Knight News Challenge projects.

“Nobody’s good at taking iterative inventions that are interwoven with something bigger and pushing them back into the world,” Surman said. Mojo’s paid fellows will be working in news organizations with their own content management systems, he noted.

“We won’t know till we get there what it means to do it in the open usefully in ways that others can pick up and run with it,” he said.

Along the way, Mojo’s champions hope to link like-minded people: news and information experts, programmers, designers, videographers and others who want to build better tools for creating and consuming news — and who’ll do so using open platforms and collaboration.

“We want to create a bit of a school of thought around these changes,” said Phillip Smith, a Toronto-based digital publishing consultant leading Mojo’s operational process.

Smith said he talked to dozens of journalists, journalism educators and newsroom programmers before putting out calls for ideas. The other day he blogged an invitation for journalists to lob their suggestions into the Mojo process. He also has posted at PBS MediaShift about Mojo.

The Mojo participants trend more heavily toward code than newsgathering, but offer a notable mix of interests, backgrounds and information passions.

Chris Keller, who’d worked in print and online roles in newspapers before joining madison.com to work on audience development, is hoping to develop better topical pages for news issues. Corbin Smith, 23-year-old working on his graduate thesis in Toronto, pitched his idea for a “kind of fact-checking and narrative building platform” that would be associated with a user rather than a web site.

Dan Whaley, a San Francisco entrepreneur who’s founded and sold one major dot-com company and is involved with several nonprofit ventures, was drawn in by a Mojo challenge inviting proposals for taking online discourse “beyond the comment thread.”

“This to me is mankind’s biggest problem, is how do we understand what’s credible?” Whaley said. “In order to figure that out, we have to have a feedback channel that works.”

Whaley submitted the outline for Hypothes.is, which he described in the pitch as a platform that “will enable sentence-level (i.e. annotation, or “atomic” commenting) critique of written words combined with a sophisticated yet easy-to-use model of community peer-review.”

Whaley’s bio notes that he wrote the original code and cofounded the online travel reservations company GetThere.com, which Sabre/Travelocity bought in 2000 for a widely reported price of $750 million. Hypothes.is isn’t dependent on the Mojo process, but Whaley said he was impressed by the participants and enjoying discussing his ideas with like-minded people.

“This challenge is kind of like the hashtag for people who are interested in solving this problem,” Whaley said. “In that way it’s attracting people like myself with a wide set of backgrounds.”

Does Web innovation need foundations?

Mojo organizers say they’ve heard some complaints and criticism, mostly in email and project comments. There were questions about whether technology innovation could happen in newsrooms at all. Some newsrooms questioned the selection of the first five partners — operations that seemed to have a leg up already on Web innovation.

There are practical concerns, too. Most legacy news organizations run on closed or proprietary content management systems, built for print or broadcast, that don’t afford easy integration with new technology. Incoming Mozilla journalism leader Daniel Sinker, who will take over Mojo’s leadership, noted that some newsrooms have found ways to work around such obstacles — implementing new features at the front end of systems rather than the back end, for instance, or building apps that work outside the CMS.

“Most limitations around CMS are cultural limitations,” Sinker said.

Others wondered why there was a need at all for a Mojo project, given the seemingly infinite supply of ideas, new tools and startup ventures for online information.

Zamora, however, said Knight sees gaps that the marketplace isn’t filling and a need — as a foundation focused on journalism’s changing role in the digital era — to actively promote news and media innovation. He also emphasized the impact that could come with working through Mozilla, an organization that’s “of the Web, not just on the Web.”

Despite all the players competing on Web technology, Zamora added, few take an open approach that “allows everyone to use services or products… or to learn from their projects, successes or failures.”

Success, he said, will be measured not just by the news partnerships and new products themselves but by whether Mojo succeeds in creating ripples that carry out many circles beyond its core.

“I think one of the main things would be to create this new culture of news organizations being more proactive and more open to constant changing on the Web,” Zamora said.

At Mozilla, Surman also hopes that Mojo’s ideas infect newsrooms. Mojo’s circle of influence seems modest so far – voting was light on the idea pitches and only 24 nonparticipants were following the Learning Lab early this week, according to the web site counter. Surman wants more “community-building” — and more impact.

At the end of a year success would show up not just in the newsroom projects but in relationship building among participants, the broader Web community and among the news partners and their business structures, he said.

He hopes the Mojo project will lead newsrooms to hire more people like those chosen for fellowships “to work on projects like the projects we introduce,” Surman said, describing “a cultural transformation piece, where decisions are being made.”

About Melanie Sill

USC Annenberg executive in residence, former editor of The Sacramento Bee and The News & Observer of Raleigh, NC. Currently exploring ways journalism can provide value in the digital age.