Hackastory: teaching coders and journalists how to collaborate
Building the future of journalism by organising journalism Hackathons where multidisciplinary teams of designers, coders and journalists work together.
Hackastory founder Albertine Piels was working as a journalist for 15 years when she realised she had not once in those years worked with a newsroom developer. This struck her as strange, especially since collaboration with cameramen, producers and editors is very common within the Dutch broadcasting organisation she was working for at the time.
Wondering whether this surprised more professionals in the journalism field, she created a simple wordpress page where she asked people to reach out if they were interested in collaborating. Within an hour, 15 people had signed up:
“The first Hackathon came out of this. It was an incredibly basic setup. We just welcomed all the participants and then they all started tapping on their computers. And almost all teams ran into big challenges.”
Tweaking the method
After the first Hackathon, Albertine and her team realised they needed a better way to connect the brains of the participants during a longer period of time. They developed a process to find creative solutions for challenges in journalism. Using method cards and canvas they aim to guide journalists, coders and designers to build new products in 2,5 days. Hackastory uses principles from design thinking and agile project development and applies them to journalism:
“During the hackathons and workshops we observe our participants. Afterwards we interview a couple of them to learn from their experiences. And we do it again after a few months to track our impact. We truly believe you have to focus on the user. It is what we preach while developing new digital projects with our clients: audience first.”
Cooperation between journalists and coders is not always easy to achieve, but the basics are simple, according to Albertine: “be curious and have fun. Two things – if you ask me – journalists are good at.”
Encouraging technology use
But Hackastory is not only about organising Hackathons. They also created DigitalStory.Tools, where they collect the tools Albertine and her team like to work with themselves. In the first 10 weeks after launch they had 25.000 views from dozens of countries and after 9 months they reached 100.000 views from 150 countries around the world. Albertine explains why this is such an important signal:
“The internet is a powerful tool in the hands of journalists. Web technology and the possibilities of online storytelling are more important than ever before to be embraced by news media. It’s crucial for journalists to stay influential in this digital era. And – we’re realistic – the majority of media companies don’t have a newsroom developer. Luckily, journalists can accomplish a lot with tools.”
Journalists and innovation
“Journalists respond really quickly to breaking news. If something happens on Dam Square here in Amsterdam, we’ll be live reporting on that within the hour. However, we don’t respond as adequately to innovation.”
Albertine feels this is partially due to journalists’ critical attitude. They need this to get to the bottom of a story, to report more profoundly on events than simply copying a press release. However, she also sees this critical attitude during their Hackathons, where it is doing more harm than good:
“Journalists are very knowledgeable and they bring this knowledge into the brainstorm sessions. They are extremely critical. This leads them to sometimes crush a seed before it has even had a chance to be planted.”
Learning to dance together
Key to innovation is diversity. And while there’s increasing attention for diversity in newsrooms in terms of ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, the need for diversity in professional backgrounds remains under-exposed:
“Around the world, journalists are still a relatively homogenous group. This leaves many possibilities untapped. The lack of collaboration between journalists and developers is like dancing alone,” says Albertine.
In their Hackathons, Hackastory aims for groups that are 50% journalists and 50% developers. The crux seems to be in giving journalists the confidence that they have something valuable to contribute to the innovation process as well:
“A journalist participant recently told me she had believed until that moment that developers were part of some parallel universe with a very special kind of expertise. During the Hackathon she discovered that developers do not know everything either. And she, as a journalist, actually had something to contribute to the conversation other than getting coffee while the technicians were doing the work.”
Putting things into perspective
It has been a year since Albertine stopped working fulltime as a journalist, but she feels great about having more time to think about the future of journalism through Hackastory:
“I really missed this while working in the newsroom. Journalists are extremely busy and are working incredibly hard for very little money. There’s no time to think about whether we’re actually running this hard in the right direction.”
At events she often hears how familiar this is for journalists, but it would benefit from being shared more often. Nonetheless, it only took The Guardian a few weeks to reach out to her after the first Hackathon with a request to organise something similar for them. Hackastory has organised 11 Hackathons so far for different legacy media worldwide and universities.