Posted on January 4, 2013
Required reading: How open source makes you better
In this blog post (Why Journalism Tools Gather Dust), Dan Schultz of The Boston Globe describes what amounts to one of the big reasons why news websites are not as successful as they could be.
If you borrow code then you are more likely to be familiar with what the rest of the world is doing. If you share code then you are going to build your systems with an emphasis on reuse and extensibility (i.e. correctly). If you regularly borrow AND share code then you are building a community around whatever it is you do.
What I’m trying to say is that if newspapers can buy into the mantra of openness — even just internal openness — they can kill about thirty birds with one stone.
But they usually don’t.
Legacy media companies have a lot of bad habits. Like some close-minded people, these companies have dragged their ancient prejudices and beliefs with them into their old age.
What Schultz describes reminded me of a newsroom that jealously guards a “scoop” that’s not really a scoop — some news they uncovered that — seriously, guys — either no one really cares about except other journalists, or everyone will find out about anyway within an hour, so who the heck cares if you break it first? (I’m not saying there are no real scoops; I’m just saying that journalists sometimes get all proprietary and hush-hush about something that truly is not groundbreaking or even secret.)
As Schultz points out, some media organizations such as The New York Times do follow open-source principles — but there’s more to it than that:
[W]ithout a supportive institutional strategy, open source and reusable code are just nice-to-haves.
A deadline mentality (also dragged along from the past) encourages short-term thinking. Almost everything in most newsrooms is about today and right now; very little is about planning and building for the future.
Recently a friend of mine — formerly a professional programmer and systems analyst — lectured me about my plan to teach journalism student to code. Teach them to respect commenting and documentation, she said. Teach them to write code that others can come along later and read, because by doing so, they will become better programmers, and their future code will be better because of the effort.
Why is this required reading? These ideas are important for discussion, both in the classroom and in the newsroom.