“Why are you going to Africa?”

I’ve heard this question a lot in the past few days. So, let me try to explain.

sunset Masai Mara

Sunset over the savannah in Masai Mara, a famous park reserve in Kenya. Gorgeous.

Angela Sevin via Compfight

The short answer: I’m going to Nairobi, Kenya, to conduct research (“fieldwork”) on three case studies at the intersection of journalism and open source / hacking / computer programming.

The longer answer: This work figures into the ongoing research that I’m doing with Nikki Usher on the rise of programmers and programming in the world of news and information — a book project we call “Hacking the News.” (Hey, we even have a working logo, designed by one of my research assistants, Jeff Hargarten.)

These three cases that I plan to study are positioned at this nexus of news and code in different ways:

(1) Ushahidi (Swahili for “witness”) is a non-profit tech organization that famously has developed a free and open-source platform for crowdsourcing crisis information across media channels and visualized in different ways — perhaps most notably via “crowdmaps” like these. (Incidentally, Ushahidi was an early Knight News Challenge grantee, so I interviewed founder Ory Okolloh during the course of my dissertation work.) The Ushahidi platform has gained all kinds of attention (Clay Shirky talks about it prominently), but for my purposes it’s interesting because it has elements of participatory news, user-generated content, and a civic information mission to go with a good dose of open-source and technological activism — so, a useful study of media + code. Ushahidi’s team is spread throughout the globe, but its heart and soul is in Kenya, including its headquarters at …

(2) the iHub, which describes itself as “Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community [and] an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers, designers and researchers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and VCs and part incubator.” That about sums it up, and should explain why I’m interested in observing and participating in this space — particularly in meeting with hackers (et al.) who are developing projects with a news/media focus. Why are they interested in news/media/journalism?

(3) Last, but certainly not least, I’m excited to learn more about the newly launched Code4Kenya initiative, co-sponsored by the World Bank and the African Media Initiative. This program embeds developer “fellows” in media organizations, including newsrooms. What’s interesting about this case is how it blends an emphasis on open data and coding technologies with the context of media and journalism. As one fellow (see them all) puts it on his LinkedIn profile: “I am embedded inside a host organisation and knighted with the ground shifting task of changing hack journalism. Incorporating developing applications that will increase public data awareness and disseminating to the citizens as well as improving data journalism skills and approach.” These fellows are being coordinated through a startup incubator called 88mph, which should be an interesting site for study all its own!

From the website for 88mph, a startup accelerator (a la Y Combinator) that "makes investments in early stage mobile-web companies targeting the African market; focusing purely on ideas with potential to scale across Africa."

 

Oh, and in addition to all this, there’s a new Nairobi chapter of Hacks/Hackers. Hacks/Hackers — i.e., “hacks” for journalists, “hackers” for technologists” — is a grassroots global network that obviously, in its very name, captures the intersection of journalism and hacking, and so it has been an important case that I’ve been studying during the past year.

They say that Nairobi is becoming the Silicon Valley of east Africa, and I’m excited to see why. So, 11 days, 3 cases to study, and 1 amazing trip ahead!

(I should add: This research — like previous fieldwork in London at Mozilla Festival and in newsrooms and at hackathons in New York, Chicago and elsewhere — is being funded by a generous grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research at the University of Minnesota. Thank you, UMN!)

Journalists, technologists, innovation and participatory news: Two papers and a panel discussion at AEJMC 2012 in Chicago

It’s the second week of August, so it’s time for the annual AEJMC convention. It should be a busy one for me, leading off with two papers to present. Both are variations on a key theme of my present research with Nikki Usher: exploring the rise of technologists (hackers, coders, web developers, what-have-you) in the world of news and information—and what this “hacks and hackers” moment means for shaping the nature of news in relation to technology. At the bottom of this post are the 75-word abstracts for the two papers being presented—one on Aug. 9 to the Newspaper and Online News Division, the other on Aug. 11 to the Communication Technology Division.

I’m also leading a panel discussion (Aug. 9, 1:30 p.m.) on the future of scholarly research on participatory journalism; the panel includes Jane Singer and Sue Robinson, both widely published in this area (e.g., see Jane’s book and Sue’s articles), and two up-and-coming researchers in Avery Holton and Bart Wojdynski. My interest in bringing together grew out of my dissertation on the Knight News Challenge and its connection with what I called an “ethic of participation.” I tried to explain this concept a bit better in a piece published this year:

By dropping its patrol of traditional professional boundaries, Knight has sought to create space for external actors (like technologists) to step in and bring innovation to journalism—while at the same time allowing concepts on the periphery of journalism, like citizen participation, to be embraced as founding doctrines of news innovation. The result, I argue, has been the emergence of an ‘ethic of participation’, seeded in a hybrid resolution of the professional–participatory tension, that envisions audience integration as a normative goal of a truly digital journalism. In short, Knight is helping to further the idea that journalism in this space not only can be participatory but indeed should be.

Journalism studies, in the aggregate, thus suggests that the fundamental tension between professional control and open participation, or between producer and user in news, is one of mismatched ethics and expectations: Journalism’s identity and ideology remain rooted in a one-way publishing mind-set at a time when media are becoming a multi-way network (Singer 2010). The sociology of professions framework predicts that occupational actors do not easily abandon jurisdictional claims once they are established, much as journalists have been reluctant to relinquish the gatekeeping control so central to their identity and purpose. And yet, a trickle of empirical data is beginning to suggest a ‘slow philosophical shifting’ (Robinson 2010, p. 140) that could portend a resolution to the professional–participatory tension. This is more than simply making peace with participation as a fact of life on news websites (Singer et al. 2011), but hints at a deeper rethinking that may be occurring—among journalists and their organizations, and among institutional actors like Knight that help shape the profession’s discourse and culture. This, then, may lead to a revised logic for journalism: one that preserves certain ethical practices and boundaries that lend legitimacy, abandons jurisdictional claims that have lost their currency in the new environment, and embraces fresh values, such as open participation, that are more compatible with the logic of digital media and culture. (pp. 851-2)

But the problem, as I pointed out next in the article, is to develop better research approaches that assess an ethics of participation in action.

Going forward, the challenge for researchers will be to track the contours of this nascent boundary work: How (in what kinds of discourse and practice), where (virtually in digital niches, spatially in newsrooms, or geographically across regions and media systems), and why (under what normative considerations) does the professional logic of control become rearticulated (or not) in relation to the participatory logic? This broad framing of the question encourages us to consider both the cultural/rhetorical and structural/material nature of this boundary work (in line with Abbott 1988), and to do so using traditional research methods such as newsroom ethnography (Cottle 2007; Domingo & Paterson 2011) as well as alternative approaches attuned to the many splintering forms of journalism as media work becomes increasingly precarious and contingent, detached from the stability afforded by institutions (Deuze 2007; Deuze & Marjoribanks 2009). (p. 852)

Those are the kinds of questions that I hope we can begin to address in tomorrow’s panel. (See more below.)

Should be a great time in the lovely city of Chicago!

Yet another bean photo

Justin Kern via Compfight

An Analysis of News Innovation Contest Submissions to the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership

Lewis, S. C., Zamith, R., Kominak, T., & Usher, N. (2012). An Analysis of News Innovation Contest Submissions to the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership. Paper presented to the Newspaper and Online News Division of AEJMC, Chicago, August 2012.

Abstract: This paper examines how journalists and technologists are re-imagining the intersection of news and technology through a qualitative study of 234 idea submissions to a popular news innovation contest. We consider these submissions in light of three distinct concepts: interactivity, the public sphere, and normalization. We find in these submissions a break from the normalization hypothesis—a vision of journalism adapting to technology, rather than technology being configured to suit the legacy patterns of journalism.

Imagining the Future of Journalism Through Open-Source Journalism: A Qualitative Study of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership

Usher, N., Lewis, S. C., & Kominak, T. (2012). Imagining the Future of Journalism Through Open-Source Journalism: A Qualitative Study of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership. Paper presented to the Communication Technology Division of AEJMC, Chicago, August 2012.

This paper examines how journalists and technologists engaged in a high-profile partnership to re-imagine news for the digital age. We qualitatively analyzed a series of online videos (N=49) pitching group members’ open-source solutions for news. In light of the literature on journalism innovation and open-source technology and culture, and in the context of this connection between “hacks” and “hackers,” we identify key themes that articulate the future of news as process, participation, and social curation.

What’s Next for Research on Participatory Journalism?

Moderator

  • Seth C. Lewis, assistant professor, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Minnesota

Panelists

  • Jane Singer, associate professor, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Iowa
  • Sue Robinson, associate professor, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin
  • Avery Holton, doctoral student, School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin
  • Bartosz W. Wojdynski, assistant professor, Virginia Tech University

Abstract: There is now a large and growing body of academic work on participatory journalism (e.g., as manifest in studies examining citizen journalism, user-generated news content, social media and journalism, newsroom practices oriented to civic/citizen engagement, and so on). This provides a good moment to reflect on lessons learned, themes developed, and (most importantly) areas yet to explore. This panel aims to generate discussion around the next steps for research on participatory journalism. Panelists will address questions such as: What kinds of spaces (literal / virtual / figurative) should we, as researchers, be exploring? What kinds of theoretical connections should we be making? What kinds of questions have gone unaddressed? And what kinds of methods and tools should be deployed in improving this line of inquiry?

Plugging my new journal articles, via the Culture Digitally blog

I’ve been lucky to have two new journal articles, both originating in some fashion from my dissertation, get published in recent weeks. They were plugged today on the Culture Digitally blog. Cross-posting it here…

Announcement: Two journal articles from Seth Lewis on the discursive work of journalism and participatory media

 Seth Lewis has just published two new articles of interest to Culture Digitally readers. The first, still in iFirst online form, appears in Information, Communication & Society, in a coming special issue on tensions in digital media work. The article is titled The Tension Between Professional Control and Open Participation: Journalism and its Boundaries. (If you can’t access the official version, there is a pre-print available here.) This literature synthesis attempts to articulate journalism’s norm of professional control over content, exploring its boundary work and its “ideological incompatibility” with the norms of open participation online. While the literature suggests that journalists have struggled with the architecture and culture of the social web, Seth argues for the possibility of an “ethic of participation” — a hybrid logic of adaptability and openness within and through journalism — that is emerging to resolve this tension going forward.
 Also just published is a related piece of interest: Seth’s case study of the influential Knight Foundation and its efforts to shape how the journalism field perceives digital media, participation, and innovation. The article is titled, From Journalism to Information: The Transformation of the Knight Foundation and News Innovation, and leads off the latest issue of Mass Communication and Society. (If you can’t access the official version, try this pre-print version.) Of note for Culture Digitally is the rhetorical shift that Knight underwent to focus less on “journalism” and more on “information” as a boundary-shifting strategy, allowing this major nonprofit foundation to connect with a wider range of fields and actors beyond journalism. This is akin to what Tarleton Gillespie found in his study of the politics of “platforms” — the careful invocation of that term to elide underlying tensions in the role that digital media firms play in mediating public discourse.

Still shaping the way people think about news innovation? A few reflections on the new Knight News Challenge 2.0

[In case you missed it: cross-posted at Nieman Journalism Lab]

As someone who probably has spent more time thinking about the Knight News Challenge than anyone outside of Knight Foundation headquarters — doing adissertation on the subject will do that to you! — I can’t help but follow its evolution, even after my major research ended in 2010. And evolve it has: from an initial focus on citizen journalism and bloggy kinds of initiatives (all the rage circa 2007, right?) to a later emphasis on business models, visualizations, and data-focused projects (like this one) — among a whole host of other projects including news games, SMS tools for the developing world, crowdsourcing applications, and more.

Now, after five years and $27 million in its first incarnation, Knight News Challenge 2.0 has been announced for 2012, emphasizing speed and agility (three contests a year, eight-week turnarounds on entries) and a new topical focus (the first round is focused on leveraging existing networks). While more informationwill be coming ahead of the February 27 launch, here are three questions to chew on now.

Does the Knight News Challenge still dominate this space?

The short answer is yes (and I’m not just saying that because, full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Lab). As I’ve argued before, in the news innovation scene, at this crossroads of journalism and technology communities, the KNC has served an agenda-setting kind of function — perhaps not telling news hipsters what to think regarding the future of journalism, but rather telling them what to think about. So while folks might disagree on the Next Big Thing for News, there’s little question that the KNC has helped to shape the substance and culture of the debate and the parameters in which it occurs.

Some evidence for this comes from the contest itself: Whatever theme/trend got funded one year would trigger a wave of repetitive proposals the next. (As Knight said yesterday: “Our concern is that once we describe what we think we might see, we receive proposals crafted to meet our preconception.”)

And yet the longer answer to this question is slightly more nuanced. When the KNC began in 2006, with the first winners named in 2007, it truly was the only game in town — a forum for showing “what news innovation looks like” unlike any other. Nowadays, a flourishing ecosystem of websites (ahem, like this one), aggregators (like MediaGazer), and social media platforms is making the storyline of journalism’s reboot all the more apparent. It’s easier than ever to track who’s trying what, which experiments are working, and so on — and seemingly in real time, as opposed to a once-a-year unveiling. Hence the Knight Foundation’s move to three quick-fire contests a year, “as we try to bring our work closer to Internet speed.”

How should we define the “news” in News Challenge?

One of the striking things I found in my research (discussed in a previous Lab post) was that Knight, in its overall emphasis, has pivoted away from focusing mostly on journalism professionalism (questions like “how do we train/educate better journalists?”) and moved toward a broader concern for “information.” This entails far less regard for who’s doing the creating, filtering, or distributing — rather, it’s more about ensuring that people are informed at the local community level. This shift from journalism to information, reflected in the Knight Foundation’s own transformation and its efforts to shape the field, can be seen, perhaps, like worrying less about doctors (the means) and more about public health (the ends) — even if this pursuit of health outcomes sometimes sidesteps doctors and traditional medicine along the way.

This is not to say that Knight doesn’t care about journalism. Not at all. It still pours millions upon millions of dollars into clearly “newsy” projects — including investigative reporting, the grist of shoe-leather journalism. Rather, this is about Knight trying to rejigger the boundaries of journalism: opening them up to let other fields, actors, and ideas inside.

So, how should you define “news” in your application? My suggestion: broadly.

What will be the defining ethos of KNC 2.0?

This is the big, open, and most interesting question to me. My research on the first two years of KNC 1.0, using a regression analysis, found that contest submissions emphasizing participation and distributed knowledge (like crowdsourcing) were more likely to advance, all things being equal. My followup interviews with KNC winners confirmed this widely shared desire for participation — a feeling that the news process not only could be shared with users, but in fact should be.

I called this an “ethic of participation,” a founding doctrine of news innovation that challenges journalism’s traditional norm of professional control. But perhaps, to some extent, that was a function of the times, during the roughly 2007-2010 heyday of citizen media, with the attendant buzz around user-generated content as the hot early-adopter thing in news — even if news organizations then, as now, struggled to reconcile and incorporate a participatory audience. Even while participation has become more mainstream in journalism, there are still frequent flare-ups, like this week’s flap over breaking news on Twitter, revealing enduring tensions at the “collision of two worlds — when a hierarchical media system in the hands of the few collides with a networked media system open to all,” as Alfred Hermida wrote.

So what about this time around? Perhaps KNC 2.0 will have an underlying emphasis on Big Data, algorithms, news apps, and other things bubbling up at the growing intersection of computer science and journalism. It’s true that Knight is already underwriting a significant push in this area through the (also just-revisedKnight-Mozilla OpenNews project (formerly called the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership — which Nikki Usher and I have written about for the Lab). To what extent is there overlap or synergy here? OpenNews, for 2012, is trying to build on the burgeoning “community around code” in journalism — leveraging the momentum of Hacks/HackersNICAR, and ONA with hackfests, code-swapping, and online learning. KNC 2.0, meanwhile, talks about embracing The Hacker Way described by Mark Zuckerberg — but at the same time backs away a bit from its previous emphasis on open source as a prerequisite. It’ll be interesting to see how computational journalism — explained well in this forthcoming paper (PDF here) by Terry Flew et al. in Journalism Practice — figures into KNC 2.0.

Regardless, the Knight News Challenge is worth watching for what it reveals about the way people — journalists and technologists, organizations and individuals, everybody working in this space — talk about and make sense of “news innovation”: what it means, where it’s taking us, and why that matters for the future of journalism.

And deliver us from distraction: Understanding resistance to media life

Note: This is cross-posted from the Culture Digitally blog, which represents a collective effort by a couple dozen scholars converging on questions of cultural production in the digital age. This is part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored series of workshops, the first held March 2011 at Cornell University and the second coming in April 2012 at Temple University.

Jonathan Franzen, dubbed the Great American Novelist by TIME magazine, isn’t a fan of ebooks—nay, he sees them as corrupting our values, undermining all that’s good and holy about the printed word and its place in society.

But what caught my attention about this report on his comments at a writing festival recently wasn’t so much his lament for the loss of a sense of permanence (“everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change”), although that does raise interesting questions about the role of physicality in media’s communication of authority. No, I was more intrigued by the backstory of his writing habits, which appear to shape how he sees technology generally:

The acclaimed author of Freedom and The Corrections – which are published as ebooks – has said in the past that “it’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”. He seals the ethernet port on his own computer to prevent him connecting to the internet while he writes, also removing the card so he is unable to play computer games and wearing noise-cancelling headphones to prevent distraction.

Leaving aside the issue of a removable card used to play computer games (huh?), this concern about the interwebs, with all their neon lights and dens of distraction, getting in the way of the creative writing process appears to be shared among a number of leading writers today—at least judging by the list of authors who swear by the benefits of a Mac/Windows application that’s appropriately titled Freedom.

Screenshot from the internet-blocking software Freedom

The software locks down all network connections for up to 8 hours; you can only break the spell by restarting your machine. (By the way, I’ve played with Freedom a bit, and it’s a fine tool; my wife swears by it for her novel writing.)

So, why should this internet avoidance matter for us—for the study of cultural production in the digital age? Because, as Mark Deuze noted in this space the other day, and as he’ll explore in his forthcoming book, “our lives gradually, invisibly, [are] shift[ing] from living with media – in which case there are indeed things that can be effectively switch ‘off’ (by pulling a plug or developing sophisticated media literacies) – to living in media.” As this transition occurs, I would argue that it becomes increasingly important to understand the strategies that people deploy in negotiating these conditions—both rhetorically in the way they talk about living in media, and materially in the way they structure their physical environment to embrace or resist living in media.

Of course, the premise of a media life suggests that, as lived experience and work practice and so forth become ever more mediated, distinctions between life “offline” and life “online” begin to blur, making it harder (and less meaningful, anyway) to distinguish between them. Thus we might expect it to become more challenging for people to step back, away from media, and self-critique their experience lived within and through it. And yet, given the lengths that writers like Franzen are going to (superglueing your ethernet connection—really?!), it would seem that research on cultural production and technology use might better capture the dynamics of resistance to the connectivity that is so central to media life, for reasons ranging from productivity to digital anxiety. (p.s. I’m sure there’s a literature on internet avoidance that I’m missing here, so forgive my ignorance; please enlighten us in the comments!)

Perhaps the more pertinent question, and an important practical consideration for scholars whose primary output is long-form writing, is this: How do users negotiate the participatory immersion and fluid, ambient exchange of always-on communication with the temporary need for quiet and connection-free contemplation? Because it isn’t just an idiosyncratic group of elite authors who are using these techniques, judging by the folks talking about Freedom on Twitter. I think it’s fair to say that many internet users (hey, I’ll count myself among them) struggle to maintain attention—real, enduring, deep-writing kind of attention—on digital projects, when so many bright, shiny bobbles are just a click away, ready to relieve us, momentarily, from the stress of writer’s block.

Practically speaking: Don’t we all, Odysseus like, need to lash ourselves to a mast (of Freedom?) to avoid succumbing to the Siren song of digital temptations?

If so, then what are the implications of this condition, for scholarship on digital users and for our own personal work habits? How are we to understand  the psychological, rhetorical, and/or material negotiations that figure into digital labor in an age of easy distraction?

Perhaps, as the nature of digital work and writing evolves over time, it’s possible that we’ll come to re-define notions of “productivity” and “distraction” in a digital context. In the meantime, we’re left to wonder about the philosophy and practicality of shutting off the wireless to survive within (or without) a media life.