Notes on managing technology decisions

Over at the Knight News Challenge blog, I’ve contributed a short list of tips on dealing with developers and choosing a platform for your project:

3. Hire human beings, not a programming language or Web framework. Unless you’re doing the programming yourself, stay focused on your end goal and steer clear of mandating how the humans you hire do the job. Don’t look over the designer’s shoulder and worry about which shade of eggshell white to paint the walls until you have something really great to hang on them. Like content, for instance.”

You are getting your Knight News Challenge application ready, right? The deadline is October 15. Get on it.

Announcing: ReportingOn 2.0 is live

ReportingOn 2.0 is live and ready for your questions. And answers.

It’s still the backchannel for your beat, but it’s an absolute re-imagining of the network.

For those of you who haven’t been keeping score, ReportingOn is a project funded by the Knight News Challenge, and it’s a place for journalists of all stripes to find peers with experience dealing with a particular topic, story, or source.

ReportingOn 2.0 on the morning of launch, July 2, 2009.

(You can catch up with our progress reports from year one and related concepts at the PBS Idea Lab blog.)

The first time out, I built it to be quite Twitter-esque in the hopes that journalists would use it like Twitter, asking questions of their followers and sharing ideas about stories they were working on.

That didn’t happen organically, or if it was going to, it was going to take years. So, with the help of a professional development and design team, we’ve rebuilt the site from the ground up, framed around the act of asking and answering questions.

There’s no 140-character limit, but what you will find are lots of basic features that make sense in this sort of social network.

You can ‘watch’ users, beats, or a particular question, viewing everything in an activity feed that brings you the latest questions and answers from the journalists, topics, and particular issues you’re interested in.

I think you’ll like it.

And, as the grant year for ReportingOn comes to a close, we’re also making the source code for ReportingOn available here under the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 3. You can use that to build your own backchannel question and answer tool for the journalists in your news organization, or even let your readers ask and answer questions.

I want to repeat that and extend it a bit…

Here are four things that could happen next:

  1. itself is a stunning success, with thousands of journalists asking and answering great questions every day, finding peers and mentors, improving local news by adding context and insight gleaned from others working similar angles on stories in far-flung locales.
  2. A media company uses ReportingOn’s open-sourced codebase to build their own internal backchannel, probably on an intranet, or requiring authentication so they can limit it to members of their own organization.
  3. A single news organization uses ReportingOn to do the same thing — build an internal backchannel.
  4. A single news organization uses ReportingOn’s open-sourced codebase to build a public tool that allows readers, sources, and reporters to ask and answer questions in a sort of open forum.

What else could you do with ReportingOn? Give it a shot, and let us know.

What’s next for 2.01 and beyond? We’ll let the dust settle over the next few days and figure out which additional features we want to build first, then we’ll take a look at our budget and consider the options. Feel free to check out to get an idea of where we might go next, and add your own ideas, too!

Thanks to everyone who helped get this launch out the door on time and on budget, especially the Lion Burger development and design team, all the friends and colleagues who gave me their input over the last year, those of you that answered my last-minute call for beta testers, and the Knight Foundation staff for supporting the first year of ReportingOn.

So… Any questions?

On IdeaLab: DIY development, design, community management, and marketing isn’t for me (this year)

Over at IdeaLab, I’ve posted an update on what’s going on with ReportingOn, which is to say, there’s not much going on with ReportingOn.  For now.

My Knight News Challenge-funded project to connect journalists on the same topical beat with their peers launched on October 1.  I continued development work on it through the month of October, and then was completely tackled by a pack of wild bears known as my day job, life at home, and a need for some brief moments of sanity in between the rest.

Head over to IdeaLab to read about where my head’s at right now when it comes to this project, and what I’m planning to do next.  Feel free to beat me up about it over there.

I forget useful code, but Snipt remembers.

If you’re anything like me, you’re not really a Web developer by trade, but you push around a little bit of code on an extremely regular basis.  And often, it’s the same little bits of code over and over again.  And every time you need to use it, you go flipping through text files, Google searches, Delicious bookmarks, and oh, there it was.

Or there’s Snipt:

It’s simple.

  1. Sign up.
  2. Save your snippet of useful, reusable code.
  3. Give it a logical name.
  4. Add some tags.
  5. Find what you need later, quickly, just the way you like it.

Snipt is another fine little piece of usefulness from my friends (and co-workers) who go by the name of Lion Burger.

Howard Weaver’s exit interview

I was struck by a few things in Howard Weaver’s post announcing that he’s leaving McClatchy — and journalism — at the end of the year.

For one thing, Howard’s a damn fine writer.

I haven’t agreed with everything he’s said or done as I’ve followed his blog for the last couple years, but I recognized that he was someone at the pinnacle of a long career in the news business who still believed in the power of newspapers to make positive changes in our world through impassioned investigative journalism, even if it wasn’t profitable and never would be again.

And then there’s a few nods to the obvious in Howard’s send-off:  Google didn’t kill newspapers, Craigslist didn’t kill newspapers, newspapers aren’t dead, there’s more to the problem than the economy.

Howard’s an optimist, probably more than I am, about the future of print, but there’s one important paragraph near the end of his post :

“Nothing else we do as a company means much if we fail to sustain our public service journalism. The McClatchy family has not persevered into the seventh generation in order to publish successful brides magazines, or websites with comprehensive nightclub listings. We labor not to ensure we can create new blogs for pet owners, or rich vertical online sites devoted to vacation properties. All of these and much more are essential, of course, because public service journalism is an expensive proposition, but we must not take for granted the capacity or elasticity of our newsrooms.”

It would be easy to write off that paragraph as a brief rant against spending development cycles trying to build the inevitable platform for hyperlocal cat pictures, but I think he has an excellent point, which I’m about to co-opt and twist:

Spending resources on revenue-generating applications and integrating services that help us serve as a local information utility is important, yes, but if we have a mission as journalists, at some point soon, we’re going to need to funnel resources into development of applications and services that provide more of a public service for readers than a dining guide or a business directory.

Being the best source (with the best SEO) for local information, listings, and answering the frequently asked questions about our block or town or city is important, yes, of course.

But, fulfilling the mission of big-J Journalism (which I believe still can be done, whether or not it’s done by a news organization that puts out a print edition every day) — by doing things like exposing corruption in government, pointing out hypocrisy in the proverbial halls of power, and shining a bright light on the details buried deep in data sets — continues to require more than panel talks at conferences and handwringing editorials, it requires resources.

And by resources, I mean money, time, and Web development teams focused on applications for news.

Which raises the question: Is your organization willing to commit to spending those three things on news?

Technology is easy; labor is hard

Aron Pilhofer of on the hardware, software, and costs associated with building the best interactive data projects in the news business:

Everything we use is free and open-source. Our platform is Ruby on Rails backed by Mysql databases running on Ubuntu servers. The cost here isn’t software, or even hardware, which is relatively cheap these days through hosting companies like Amazon EC2 (on the high end) or Slicehost (on the low end). The price most news organizations (and it’s not just small ones) seem reluctant to pay is for people — developers like the ones in my group who can build the infrastructure to support the rich, deeply engaging web features that so many people love about our site.

Read the whole thing at Old Media, New Tricks.