OpenNews, Philly-style

This is cross-posted from my blog.

I was a reporter in a time before the graphical web. My small daily newspaper distributed print editions only, spit out at a dizzying pace by the presses in the back of our building. You absolutely knew when you’d gone to press because you could feel the low rumble as the giant machine, more than two stories tall, stamped the words and images of that day’s edition onto rolls of newsprint, cut then assembled for delivery to street corners and supermarkets, doorsteps and postal boxes.

Once in a while, local schools would send students to the newsroom on class trips so that we reporters – we took turns – could explain and show what we did as we gathered news and wrote about the community. But the highlight of the trip for the kids was always the pressroom. The noise. The blur of movement. The minute precision of a gargantuan machine.

Nothing I could say about the gathering and writing of the news could top the lure of those mesmerizing presses.

I welcomed these trips. It was a chance to give youth the opportunity to see how the news was made, from start to finish. They saw the press operators as well as the journalists, the layout designers as well as the workers who loaded the bundled papers onto delivery trucks. And we journalists knew the process as well. Not just because we had to have the facts – the newsprint was two miles long if rolled out, for example – to dazzle the kids. But also because at our local community daily, we were immersed in the production process. We saw the metal printing plates as they were created, understood the consequences of having to stop the presses for any reason, worked under the layout constraints of  only-so-many column inches.

Today, the Mozilla Foundation, through its OpenNews initiative, is helping journalists acquire that same kind of lived knowledge, this time with regard to creating and publishing and innovating on the web. And my organization, the National Writing Project, is taking part.

Last week, the Mozilla Foundation and NWP sponsored an event called Writing.Making.Sharing, loosely linked to the EduCon conference happening the following weekend. Despite frigid conditions and a false start involving a wrong address (apologies again to any participant reading this), working journalists, educators and others interested in learning how to manipulate the underlying building blocks of the web – html and CSS – showed up at Drexel’s uber-cool ExCITe Center for a 4-hour Make event.

Folks from WHYY, the local Associated Press, the Philadelphia School Notebook, and many others came together to play with Mozilla’s webmaker tools, Thimble and Popcorn Maker, via “hacktivities” (one for Thimble and one for Popcorn) specifically meant for journalists. We were led by Laura Hilliger and Erika Owens from Mozilla, local coder and community activist Dana Bauer, and me and my NWP colleagues Christina Cantrill and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl.

Teachers attending, from both Philly and far away, included Mary Beth HertzChad Sansing, Sam Reed and Paul Allison.

The event itself was full of play and building and learning and teaching. But most importantly, in my mind, it was full of community. The room continually churned out a spirit of togetherness and local activism, powered on this night by open webmaking tools. It gave me hope to see the creativity and social good of my traditional journalism experience being repurposed by the OpenNews initiative. As the OpenNews website states:

Knight-Mozilla OpenNews is about building an ecosystem to help journalism thrive on the open web. It’s about producing next-generation web solutions that solve real problems in news. It’s about supporting communities of developers and journalists as they make, learn and invent together. And it’s about deploying fellows—and code—into news organizations to collaborate and innovate in new ways. Join us!

It’s hard to avoid the grim realities of print journalism. The presses that so mesmerized the elementary students I toured around my newspaper office are rapidly becoming relics. “Stop the presses” will all too soon become one of those colloquial phrases divorced from its original meaning.

The future of traditional journalism may be in doubt. But what’s clear is that one path forward through the fog involves community organizing as well as both young and old understanding the tools we examined during the Writing.Making.Sharing event: the tools of the Open Web.