You have 17 nights left to Challenge yourself.

I remember where I was the first time I read about the Knight News Challenge and was inspired enough to blog about it.

A tire shop.  This one:


(Photo yanked from Google Maps Street View.)

Seriously, it was late in September 2006 and I was sitting with my huge beast of a laptop in the waiting area at a tire shop on River Street in Santa Cruz, a few weeks after finishing an internship as a reporter for the ANG regional desk at the Oakland Tribune, and a few weeks into my last semester (of in-person classes, anyway) at San Jose State.

I needed a new tire because the 880 had not been kind to the Honda, which I had been driving back and forth to Oakland, 140 miles round-trip, four days a week for the duration of the internship.

There was no work in Oakland for me that fall, and to this day the Honda thanks Dean Singleton for that, but two weeks later I would find a job at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which allowed me to *walk* to work for almost a year.


So that’s the story of where I was when I read about the Knight News Challenge and didn’t submit a proposal.  A year later I had an idea, sent it in, and joined a group of innovative thinkers who blow me away with their passion for building tools that enable those with less access, or fewer resources, or the odds stacked against them to communicate, participate, and inform each other.

You’re passionate about all those things, aren’t you?

But you’ve got to be in it to win it.

(Yeah, I said that, just now. Not out loud, but right here.)

The deadline is November 1.

It’s time for you to give that great idea of yours a chance to strut in the moonlight, to stretch its legs, to get some air, to get some life.  Bring out your brilliant plan to save Journalism — or better yet — to help improve the news, one town at a time.

Start at the Garage, where you can collect feedback and soak up some input from past winners and anyone else willing to help.

Refine your pitch by a few notches, then sit down and fill out the application form online. It won’t take long.

You’ll be glad you did it.

Keep this in mind: A real desire to improve the world is a prerequisite here.  But more practically speaking, there are four main parameters you’ll hear repeated a lot by the News Challenge folks*:

  1. Be innovative: Take it and turn it, don’t just build the same old thing in the same old places for the same old people.
  2. Be open-source: There’s not a whole lot of proprietary code kicking around here. You should plan to build something that can be repeated by others using free technology, whether it’s PHP or low-cost electronics to build hardware.
  3. Be local: This is crucial, and my project is a bit of a twist on this rule, but you should be proposing to save a town, not the whole world. Your testbed for this great innovative open-source idea of yours should be someone’s backyard. If you’re building a tool, plan to pick a geographic place to deploy your tool first.  It helps — greatly — if they need it.  Fill an unserved niche in an underserved place.
  4. Serve the public: You’re here to help. This idea of yours, it’s not for you; it’s for the greater good.

*(Note: These are my translations. For the official phrasing, check out the FAQ.)

IdeaLab: One week of ReportingOn, international style

Yes, yes, I know I haven’t written much here lately, but my reading and blogging time is mostly getting happily occupied with development on ReportingOn, which has been open for a week now in a public beta.

The most noticeable thing about ReportingOn so far is the strong Spanish- and Portugeuse-speaking turnout.  Seriously, North America, where are y’all at?

The awesomeness that is the Spanish-speaking media blogosphere has been kind to me so far, though.  Yesterday, Pablo Mancini, who works at the beautiful El Comercio in Peru, interviewed me by e-mail.

I’ve posted the English version at IdeaLab. Check it out:

Q: It seems there are quite a few non-US journalists, several of them from South America, among the first 100-odd users. Had you counted on so many non-Americans joining so fast?

A: The biggest surprise of the first week, which you and your colleagues are the evidence of, is the huge turnout from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking journalists. I’m scrambling to come up with an intelligent way to deal with the different languages on the site without creating too many divisions between users based on their location. As a researcher, it’s really exciting to me because it’s what we might call an “unintended use” of the site, and as a developer, it’s exciting to have a sudden need to push something up the feature queue in a hurry.

So, tell a journalist or blogger with a beat about ReportingOn, and I’ll keep working on adding features like comments, better profile pages, and an assortment of other things on my list.

IdeaLab: DIY Django development at ReportingOn

Over at IdeaLab, I’ve posted a bit of background on why I ended up building ReportingOn in Django instead of Drupal.  Frankly, to the users of the site, it shouldn’t matter which platform I chose, but to me, and to the future of the project as an open source basis for news organizations, I think it matters a great deal.

Here’s a clip from the IdeaLab post:

“Did I need the structure Drupal came with for users, posts, archives, feeds, and comments? Probably. But there was a whole bunch of other baggage, like all the WYSIWYG block and module organization that I wasn’t as comfortable with. My first instinct was to start from scratch and build my own theme, but I quickly realized I needed to build my own content types. And views. And the file system was confusing to me, coming from WordPress. Plus, although the Drupal community is full of awesome people building awesome modules, I still couldn’t figure out how to do a few simple things, like create a content type with a maximum length (say, 140 characters).”

Bonus: Django is fun, challenging in a productive way, and I know a ton of people working and playing with it.

Launching ReportingOn 1.0

This is an experiment.

I launched what I’ll call ReportingOn 1.0 this afternoon, as an unfinished application to help journalists of all stripes make connections based on their beat.

ReportingOn 1.0

It’s the word “unfinished” that’s the most experimental part of this right now.

I guess it’s my translation of “iterative.”

The premise is this:  Launch what you have ready, knowing that the rest of it will really be far easier to figure out once some users are banging away at the application.

Seems simple enough, but I’m scrambling to squash a few bugs and bring a few other pieces up to speed.

If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of ReportingOn, read the FAQ or check out what I’ve written about it over the last year or so that I’ve been thinking this over.

Most of the Django-powered site that’s live tonight was built (assembled is really a better word for it) this summer with an incredible about of help from my own personal open-source community, made up of developers like Nick, Pete, and Jon at the office, advisers from San Jose State, the Knight Foundation, and the core group I’ve been bouncing ideas off of (whether they knew it or not), like Howard Owens, David Cohn, Hassan Hodges, Scott Karp, and many more.

Thanks.  Now back to those bugs…

My obstacles to innovation question, abandoned and rediscovered

From my living room at the crack of dawn on Sunday, getting ready to catch my flight to SNDVegas, it seemed like a good idea to give myself a reporting assignment.

I said that I would ask lots of people a question, on video, and post their replies.

Well, fail.  Epic fail.  Why?  Because, frankly, I was having too much fun learning from everyone, going to sessions, and spent my time talking to people about ideas and workflow and comparing notes, and usually, these moments were in loud places.

So, there’s no finished assignment to post here, and frankly, the amount of work and non-work I have on my plate between now and a few days from now is pretty much insane, so I wouldn’t have had the time to finish it anyway.  This way, instead of feeling guilty about having interviews in the can, unposted, I can feel guilty about not having done the interviews in the first place.


Someone else asked the first question, on Seesmic, to a different audience and is getting some great replies.

The surprise connection: It’s the Knight News Challenge asking the question.  Here it is:

What are the obstacles for innovation?What have been your obstacles to turning a great idea into a great startup? http://www.newschallenge.org

Chicago tomorrow

Later tonight, I’ll be on my way to Chicago for a Knight Foundation meeting ahead of the UNITY 2008 conference.

I’m psyched to see the News Challenge posse, but of course if you’re in town for UNITY and want to cross paths on Tuesday, drop me a line or better yet, DM me on Twitter.

So far, I’ve really enjoyed these short conferences as a way to recharge my mental batteries and throw some ideas up against various walls with some incredibly sharp thinkers.

Hoping for more of the same tomorrow.

I happen to know some people with ideas.

If you’re not already subscribed to the PBS IdeaLab blog, the forum for Knight News Challenge winners to talk about their projects, spout off on related topics, and generally try to change the world, now would be a good time.

Here’s a few recent posts over there that I’m still thinking about:

Check it out, leave a comment, rate a post.  I’ll be posting there for the next two years (!) about the progress and upkeep of ReportingOn.

Hello, Boston!

I’m at the MIT Center of Future Civic Media today and tomorrow meeting with fellow Knight News Challenge winners, Knight Foundation staff, and rock stars from the MIT media lab who are building all kinds of crazy stuff.

Seriously, there are lots of cool kids here, few of whom I’ve met in person before.

Say hello if you see me.

I’ll post cameraphone pictures to Flickr when I’m not physically underground…

Migration and alternate reads

I’ve been a little busy for the last week or so moving across the country, although going weeks between posts isn’t really anything new here, eh? As always, I’m posting to Twitter far more often than I could hope to blog here.

While I’m slammed with life and work busy-ness, please check out the following if you haven’t yet:

  • Sean Blanda’s Confessions of a journalism student: “The problems facing journalism schools are similar to those facing colleges overall: industries moving too quickly, lower barriers of entry into certain job markets, and the cost of education outpacing the reward.”
  • Shawn Smith on How to write Web headlines: “Be interesting, not mysterious! Interesting doesn’t mean making readers guess what a story is about. A web reader won’t often click into a story to figure out what your headline means.”
  • The Knight News Challenge runners-up: Including Matt Waite’s Louretta CMS for small-town news sites.
  • Hartnett introduces us to Backyard Post: “What I’d really like to leave you thinking about today is simply the foundation on which Backyard Post is built: Neighborhoods. Not cities, ZIP codes or some other vague, gigantic or similarly off-the-mark stab at reaching actual humans in the actual neighborhoods where they actually live.”

Our new washer and dryer will be here any minute, so I’ll leave it at that. Rumor has it our car is in New Jersey, so we’ve got that going for us. Moving is easy. Migration is hard.