Healthy Journalism

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Newsers and geeks: come together

Shouldn’t the developers of cool new media tools and journalists be going to the same parties?

Of course they should.

But if this were happening, I would have swapped a lot more hugs and high-fives during the 2011 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference back in June. Close to 400 people showed up to cheer the Knight News Challenge Winners for 2011, who together took home $4.7 million. You can read all about the winners here.

The three-day conference wrapped around the awards had about 200 invited participants. I knew only about a dozen of them, mostly people like me whose programs are funded by the Knight Foundation and those who work for the foundation.

This was a shock because at my core professional conferences, National Association of Science Writers and Association of Health Care Journalists, the majority of participants looks familiar to me– whether or not I can summon their names at a moment’s notice.

At the MIT meeting, young people who embrace geek culture ruled the conference sessions and parties. They’re devising cool new tools for visualizing what’s important in huge and messy databases, identifying credible sources when an international crisis unleashes a tsunami of tweets, or mapping oil spills by dangling cheap cameras from balloons or kites. And much, much more.

This is exactly the stuff that activates the “gee whiz” gene in the geeky science reporters who’ve been my mentors, peers and students. But my peeps were not at MIT and they didn’t have the chance to hear about new tools for gathering information, engaging citizens, and spreading news every which way.

At this meeting, the civic media people were talking mostly to themselves and the people who fund their work.

One prominent speaker came close to saying that the goal of the civic media movement is to make journalists obsolete. Another said that when major broadcast news organizations pick up a trending topic on Twitter or a viral YouTube video, they’ve been “hacked.” People laughed.

I found this disturbing and annoying. It sets my teeth on edge just like hearing accomplished journalists dismiss Twitter or scoff at the idea that members of a community can talk among themselves, without a reporters and editors to mediate.

Journalists and civic media activists have a lot to learn from one another. Even brilliant data analysis is no good unless it can be told as a compelling story that fires up the populace, one of the award winners admitted. Reporters and editors know something about this.

And the fact is that civic media folks and journalists all want to change the world. We all love the rush of discovering what others have overlooked, connecting the dots, figuring out what it all means, and – if we can – fighting injustice and moving people to act.

So it doesn’t make sense to disrespect one another or talk about putting anybody out of business. It does make sense to bring our knowledge, skills and passion together. An organization called Hacks/Hackers, whose tagline is “join the media revolution/rebooting journalism” has begun doing this, with journalists and techies launching local chapters in the United States, Canada, and a few Latin American and European cities.

Here’s another idea: integrate civic media tool developers into the programs of all the major journalism conferences. Personally I’d like to start with AHCJ 2012, the Association of Health Care Journalists conference set for next April in Atlanta.

Which brings me to the robot (pictured above) created by Dutch designer Joris Laarman. She’s part of the “Modern by Design” show at the High Museum in Atlanta, where visitors watch her pluck tiny steel cubes from a tray, dab on glue, and deftly slot them into position. The startling result of this high-tech effort is a high-style, Baroque side table constructed of metal instead of lustrous wood.

At first the juxtaposition is startling, but then it makes perfect sense. If a Dutch robot can win friends in an Atlanta art museum, surely it’s not a stretch for professional journalists and civic media activists to come together.

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