Monday, July 18, 2011

Prototyping the PROCESS: What would a GitHub for storytelling look like?

Aza Raskin’s lecture helped me realize that I need to prototype a behavioral process, not a technology. I’ll get there, promise. But first, some context around my project idea:

What excites me most about the Knight-Mozilla learning lab? The opportunity to foster the open source software community’s collaborative ethic in the journalism world.

This led me to a formative question: What would a GitHub for news -- a web-based tool for truly social information-based storytelling -- look like?

Next step? Doodling and brainstorming. Here’s how journalists traditionally create news stories:

That diagram is kind of a lie. Really, it looks more like this:
But what if it could look more like this:
It's journalism -- with forking! This diagram is messy. Downright ugly. But the point is: Stories aren’t discrete entities with a beginning, middle and end of life. That structure is an artifact of the 20th century news industry. (The marvelous Clay Shirky has some recent thoughts on this. Read them. Now.) Just like the post-artifact book Craig Mod proposes, I’d like to see a post-artifact news story. 

Print narrowed our definition of news: The web can open it back up.

What web tools could support this updated  workflow? For starters, a digital open reporter’s notebook for organizing information (notes, interviews, multimedia). Add to that: 
  • community
  • forking
  • version control
  • privacy control
  • tracking of forked stories


My brainstorming came to a halt, right here. (See the skid marks?) And it’s Aza Raskin’s fault: The barrier to change in a system often isn’t technology -- it’s culture and behavior.

I stopped sketching features of a software tool and started thinking about behavior and culture. Are newsrooms ready (although perhaps readiness is a luxury) for collaborative storytelling?

My first reaction was newsrooms won’t be open to a GitHub for storytelling. A lingering sense of proprietary culture and competition pervades much of the industry. As Shirky notes, this has to change.

In the new news ecosystem, it's collaborate or die.

The good news: journalism is inherently collaborative. The bad news: newrooms are 30% smaller today than in 2000. As the pool of “in-house” collaborators diminishes, newsrooms have two options:
  1. Look outside for collaborators (journalists are doing this by integrating social media, made smoother by tools like Storify)
  2. Get better at collaborating with the resources they have left
Collaboration can be improved.

To get there, I need to prototype the process not the product. How?
  1. Look at successful journalism collaborations (great collaborations exist within the investigative news community, like ProPublica and other members of the Investigative News Network). What are they doing right? What could they do better?
  2. Look at open reporter’s notebook projects. Or build one.
  3. Start testing the workflow -- What would forking a news story look and feel like? Is it intuitive?
Then, and only then, can I start sketching software. (Hopefully, this will keep me from turning into a Swiss Army knife.) I have tons of work to do...better get started!


Chris K. said...

This is really a brilliant idea... Really brilliant.

I mean if you look at tech sites - TechCrunch, Ars, Gizmodo - they are all forking the same story anyways... Why couldn't it work for the news biz... Oh yeah... culture.

But here's the thing. Everyone copies everyone anyway... Look at Groupon. Once looked at as a fad, every major news organization has a Groupon clone.

All it takes is one news org to latch on to this and other should follow suit.

I really, really like this idea and if I can help in any way, let me know.

Chris K.

Mark Reginald James said...

Jordan, forking a news story is a great concept.

While I think copyright would put a damper on unrestricted forking, I think it can play a great role inside a news app hosted by a given news organization.

For example, the wiki-journalism project I'm developing for the Lab allows participants of a discussion forum to formulate proposed changes to news and opinion pieces and their parallel rebuttal streams. Journalists or high-reputation users are given permission to apply these changes.

I had imagined that proposed changes would be prepared inside the forum system. But it makes more sense for them to be draft wiki revisions, which could be considered a forking of the current piece. All participants, including those who have been given permission to "commit" drafts, will be able to see exactly what a piece will become after the changes.

Maura Youngman said...


I think this is such an excellent idea. Did you make it to BarCamp NewsInnovation in Philly earlier this year? Greg Linch hosted an excellent exploratory session on GitHub for Journalists, relevant blog post here:

And a quick one from Daniel Bachhuber:

Agreement here with Chris in that if one news org latched on to this, plenty of others could follow...

Best, Maura

Juan Gonzalez said...

This is such a great concept that I find it hard to believe it's not out there somehow. Also a good example of where technology has taken a step forward and can provide all the tools necessary. So much, that I think your instinct is correct: the real challenge is with the process, not the tool.

Jordan said...

Thanks, all, for the support and idea-sharing. I'll be posting some more thoughts and ideas in between assignments, so I really appreciate the feedback.

Mark - I think there's an interesting intersection between a GitHub for storytelling and your wiki-journalism project. In the past, I've thought of *creating* stories and *reading* stories as two distinct processes that need to be approached differently. Now, I think they may be more closely related than I ever imagined. Reading - especially the interactive, curatorial reading most of us do on the web - is in a way a form of writing/re-writing. There's lots of potential for these ideas to interact.

Maura - Thank you so much for the links. Those are right on point.

John Tynan said...

I've been using version control for writing for several years, for poetry actually. I've developed a process to go from restructured text files to a printed manuscript, so this has been an interest of mine as well. However, this idea takes using version control to a whole different... and very interesting level. I am glad to read Greg Linch's blog post on the subject as well (Thanks Maura!). Another person who has written and presented on writing with version control and who might be willing to offer some advice is Wesley J. Chun (although admittedly, he talks about using version control for book publishing). You can view his presentation PyCon here: and view his slides here: Look forward to hearing how this goes!

charlie pinder said...

wow, I really like this idea, journalism with forking :). I guess it happens behind the scenes informally anyway, so making it explicit would be very interesting, and possibly free up journalists to delve deeper into stories if they can openly build on what's been reported/discovered before.

You could have some really nice visualisations to enable readers to navigate around the forking tree (if that's a thing!) to explore a story's context ...

Mark Boas said...

I love this idea, but something at the back of my mind has been nagging away at me, it relates to a consistency of writing and an overall style.

Writing isn't like code in that style and consistency are much more important as they are integral to how the finished product 'functions'.

I guess a solution would be to have a single person come in and edit the whole body of work before publishing, introducing a common style and consistency of writing (?)

Phillip Smith said...

Great post, Jordan. Wanted to point you to this other conversation about a "Github for news." It's a completely different take, but it might give you another perspective on the same question.


Phillip Smith said...

Doh. I should have read the comment thread first -- seems you've already been pointed to this resource! :)

Phillip Smith said...

Okay, maybe this links will be another avenue to explore -- some good ideas on version control for writers in this project.