An exchange of networked journalism apps

One of the best possible results of the Networked Journalism Summit, I’m told, is collaborative work by WNYC and the Ft. Myers News-Press to create a tool to enable crowdsourced collections of data from the public (a la WNYC’s Are You Being Gouged, which required lots of manual input and analysis).

This inspires another thought: Wouldn’t it be great if news organizations of all sizes and shapes could share applications that would enable networked journalism? Imagine if any news org could get their hands on that crowdsourcing tool to start mobilizing their audiences to go get information. Imagine if someone created a tool to make it easy to compile news reports via Twitter or photos via Flickr and make it ready for embedded publishing with an optional admin tool to clean things up. Imagine if folks wanted to follow in the footsteps of MyHeimat or NorthwestVoice and reverse publish content from the public into print with less cut-and-paste hassle. What other ideas could you imagine?

And this leads to another question I sent to the folks working on that app: What platform would be best for this? One thought is Django. Others like Drupal. I don’t know enough to know. Your suggestions?

  • bowerbird

    do you want your people to bend themselves to a system?

    or do you want a system that bends itself to your people?

    if it’s the latter — and i think it is, because you will have
    need for all kinds of special things — code from scratch.


  • IMO, one of the platforms that should be considered to run something like this on would be Joomla. There’s lots of configurable components and modules that can be added, as needed.

    Considering bowerbird’s comment, the Joomla platform is pretty “bendable”, without the need to code from scratch (do people still “do” that?).

  • As someone who hoped that the NetJ conference and the BeatBlogging project would yield exactly that sort of result – a useful web application for gathering crowdsourced data – I would heartily recommend something along the lines of…

    …a Drupal theme/modules heavy on groups, polls, and forms…

    …or a Django-powered set of forms that feed into a database that’s easy to manage and display.

    The Drupal instance would be more useful for qualitative reporting and social networking.

    The Django path is a little trickier to get running, but the final product would be a great way to gather and manage quantitative data.

    An even better trick would be for one organization with developers and database chops to build and host an application (think: meets with embeddable widgets, so rather than ten news orgs trying to figure out how to host a Django app, they can all just have an account and a javascript embed for each project, as simple as a poll.

  • Ryan,
    With most paper sites, simpler is better. I’m hoping for the simplest means to accomplish an exchange of apps. Some can add bells & whistles but I fear that this is already beyond many.
    I’d considered a hosted solution but the problems are (a) cost and (b) these sites also don’t understand doing things anywhere but their servers.
    So I like the widget strategy.

  • Most of the structure of your Flickr/Twitter example is already built, and could be useful for gathering breaking news reports from pros and amateurs in a hurry:

    Dave Winer’s Twittergram gets audio and photos to Twitter in a pro-and-am friendly way, and there’s more of this sort of thing all the time: Jott, Utterz, maybe even Seesmic.

    All of these bring content into your Twitter stream. In a breaking news situation, give all your reporters — and the general public — the e-mail addresses and phone numbers and passwords, and you’re on your way, without requiring every new contributor to sign up for Flickr and use a certain tag, for instance.

    So an embedded Twitter widget would be a simple way to bring all that content to a news site, plus you get the bonus of built-in text messaging going out to Twitter users who want it.

    That said, I don’t think that’s the ideal way to gather hard data from the public – unless you can train a well-behaved set of users to send messages that answer a question in the exact same format.

    For example, if the question is: “How much does a gallon of milk cost at your corner deli?” The answer, to be useful later, needs to be something like “Famous Original Ray’s Deli,75 Third Ave.,$1.99”

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  • We just started to work on something like that. We chose Drupal vs Joomla because it is easier to create different levels of participation with Drupal. We hope to be able to release phase 1 in about three months. It is an open source project.

  • Hard question to address, given the lack of specifications. From my POV, anyhow.
    We use java-based roller ( with modifications.
    We’ve twisted Scoop ( into various customized shapes for similar purposes.
    Either way, the achieved goal is easy-to-use tools that fit without undue fuss into an existing site, and don’t over-stress the staff.
    Properly managed, both scale well.
    Along the way, either can be made appropriately secure and efficient. And they’ll do a lot of other things for you if and/or when you want them — most obvously blogs and content aggregation.

  • But the point Jeff is making – to a rousing cheer from me – is why is every news organization on the planet having to reinvent their own wheel, or taking a very crude or vanilla wheel and having to shape it into something that 99 percent of the news organizations out there could use?

    Case in point: Us. We joined World Now earlier this year as our platform (like it or not) and they at present have little or no user-generated content abilities. They are rushing toward video, but where’s the simple forums, article comments and photo galleries, far more useful to a broader segment of the population?

    Our Web guru, a great guy, likes KickApps. I don’t, I find the user interface confusing and would rather bolt on simple free forums, open-source photo gallery (Plogger) etc. Either way, why are we having to reinvent things like this, in a Market 192 TV statin? Why isn’t there a place online for journalism organizations to work together to make such tools? Is everyone afraid of standardization and building on the work of others? Sure sounds good to me.

  • Here is the update from NewsInnovation I wrote when this discussion first started.

    It hasn’t gone much further yet. But Drupal and Django are the two front runners. But you have the idea exactly Jeff: To build software that will seamlessly allow for crowdsourced investigations. One of the most important lessons from Assignment Zero was, as I say, crowdsourcing will be used again, but it won’t be structured like it was at AZ – what it needs is software that others can improve on over time.

    At — I will update any new info that happens in this project.

  • Owen Stiles

    Interesting post. Here’s an interesting post on collaborative networks over at conversation agent.

  • I am researching some of these now. I like the open source ideas – it really seems like Drupal has a great following.

    I can say without a doubt – writing your own from scratch is not a good option (in my opinion.)

    The company I work for did that – and it is just too much work to get some of the basics down. You spend too much time getting an article published that you have no time to work on social networking aspects and all the other cool stuff people want.

    Interesting post – keep up the great blog Jeff!

  • Donica Mensing

    This is a great idea and one that needs serious resources and deliberate collaboration to work. Jay and David’s work on newsinnovation is a great start.

    Based on our limited experience, I think the journalism community needs a small consortium of dedicated programmers and journalists whose sole job is to build widgets, vetted online by the journalism community, built specifically to be customizable for a variety of organizations using a variety of platforms.

    Trying to accomplish this in working newsrooms with often limited time and programming resources makes the effort extraordinarily difficult. Just agreeing on a particular platform to use is a mind numbing and endless argument. We all have different needs, different resources and skills.

    About 18 months ago we started a small scale graduate program where journalism students would design online journalism applications, our programmer would build the applications in Drupal, and then we would share them with the world via Drupal themes on

    In reality, this was a difficult plan to execute. Programming was more time consuming than we estimated and the time spent creating Drupal themes, above and beyond what we needed to operate on our own site, was resented by those with pressing internal needs. Once created, serving the Drupal community with support for our work didn’t rank high on our internal priorities.

    Creating interfaces so that local news organizations could use our new applications demanded more programming and was more time consuming than we or they could realistically support. Making the applications user-friendly, well designed and customizable was far more ambitious than we could pull off, at least so far. (You can see a list of our first year experiments here:

    This year we are scaling back and working to use more out-of-the-box solutions, rather than creating Drupal themes from scratch. This will limit what we can imagine, but expand what we can realistically implement.

    If one of the several journalism foundations supporting these types of efforts could get together and fund a consortium of programmers and journalists to build customizable widgets that work on multiple platforms –then we could experiment with actually using these ideas in real life, discovering and creating the next forms of journalism. That would be cool!