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Why "news nerds" are an essential part of quality reporting

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Call me stupid, but I think journalism is an exciting way to change the world. But in order to do that these days, we need to favor change and promote disruptive innovation within the news and information ecosystem — and start thinking way outside the box.

This is something I’ve been working toward as hard as possible for several years: as a Knight Fellow at the International Center for Journalists; through Poderopedia.org, a website that reveals the links among Chilean business and political elites; and Hacks/Hackers Chile and Poderomedia Foundation, an organization that promotes the open web and the use of technologies to rethink journalism, teach new skills to journalists and foster cultural change in newsrooms in Latin America. So far this year, I’ve organized and taken part in 10 hackathons, two radiothons, two data journalism bootcamps, helped create a civic lab, participated in the birth of Chicas Poderosas (powerful women in newsroom tech) and collaborated on at least 30 workshops for journalists, students and newsrooms around South America.

I still have the same questions you probably do too: How can we fund journalism and make it profitable? How can we best do journalism in the digital era, embracing new tools, formats and business models while bringing technologists to the table? How can we build interdisciplinary teams with new workflows, and job definitions? How can we use the massive amounts of data out there to ask the right questions and get the right answers? Here are some of my predictions for what we’ll learn about those questions in 2014.

  • Journalism needs nerds!:

Finally, some Latin American newsrooms will start understanding that news nerds — developers coding in the public interest within media — are an essential part of quality reporting. In 2014, we will see more programmers coming into Latin American newsrooms as part of journalism teams. According to what I’ve seen, at least five new data-driven teams and a couple of news app teams will start working across the region. In 2013, hackdays, hackathons, workshops, app challenges, and events — organized by Hacks/Hackers chapters (Buenos Aires’ is the biggest in the world, Chile’s is ninth), Chicas Poderosas and joint efforts by organizations like ICFJ, Knight Foundation, the World Bank, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, Grupo de Diarios de America, Global Investigative Journalism Network, Consejo de Redacción, Colpin, the Knight Center for the Americas, IPYS Venezuela, FNPI and others — all paved the way to help media owners, editors and journalists grasp the real impact developers can have in news. Websites like this one and the awesome work by NPR, ProPublica, NICAR and so many others I fail to mention set the bar as well.

  • A local style of venture capital:

Initiatives like the Media Factory, a startup accelerator which focuses exclusively on the business of online news and journalism, managed by Mariano Blejman, supported by the Media Development Investment Fund and other venture capitalists, will invest $75,000 per company in content-related startups. Their “Bollywood” mindset — closer to the local investor’s exit strategies and market reality, rather than the Hollywood/Sillicon Valley type of investment — will generate new endeavors. We should expect at least one or two big surprises from these guys.

  • The rise of Latin American media- and news-related startups:

In the same way that MediaFactory has laid its eyes across Latin America, programs like StartupChile, StartupBrasil and other accelerator programs like Wayra have given space to media- and news-related startups that will become regional players in most cases — or try to go global in others. Companies like Janus (a Tivo or Netflix for streaming, check out a sample use), Kewen (a social connection app that provides audience metrics and insights for media; disclosure: I’m an investor there), and many other projects being developed as you read this will go big or go home in 2014. Nevertheless, we will see the birth of at least five new online news ventures in the region, especially in niches like business, politics, technology and other specific verticals. Most should come along with hybrid business models based on brand, mission and community.

  • English-speaking networks, and maybe a Chinese-language one:

As The New York Times and Huffington Post expand outside their home countries, there’s a good chance that a player like The Guardian, for example, will give a try to setting up an English-language news network in the region. Local big players could also consider creating high-end English-language regional niche products about business, finance and natural resource markets to feed the unfulfilled need of top-paying customers with huge economic interests in South America. Along these lines, considering the importance of China’s import/export economy and the country’s investments across the Pacific, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if a new Chinese-language project comes to life.

  • The World Cup effect:

The global sports event will be hosted by Brazil in June, and it will be like a kid hyped up on sugar for newsrooms and new content-, context-, and news-related ventures in the region. Lots of mobile-first and experiments will follow la pelota.

  • Semantic web, social network analysis, entity extraction and news-as-API:

This is nerd stuff, but it will become important — a few news projects are already working on it. If they can prove these ideas can be good for business, others will follow.

  • Data journalism for hire:

New data-driven studios and agencies will provide special services and develop projects for newsrooms and other type of clients who cannot afford to have in-house news app teams — or who still don’t want to make the investment. It will become a space for very talented journalists, designers and programmers who have a track record of success. These ninja-news-nerd teams will also be embedded in newsrooms to accelerate learning and provide consultancy for setting up in-house teams. The Offshoreleaks project, developed by the La Nación team in Costa Rica, and the collaboration by Mariana Santos with La Tercera in Chile are examples of that trend.

  • Open data in journalism:

We will see more news projects and news apps using open data. These projects, from the demand side of data, will give validation to the international open data scene. The key: doing useful things for the audience, things that have a positive or negative impact in people’s lives.

  • Paywall alert!:

Without enough testing (in my opinion), many of the biggest newsgroups in Latin America are preparing to launch full-scale, big-bang paywalls, following the model of The New York Times. This could be a great opportunity for the new kids on the block that will emerge in 2014.

  • Please, no more McKinsey:

While newsgroups in Latin America tend to avoid investing in startups or small-scale projects that can be tested fast to see if they fly, they are usually very pleased to spend millions of dollars in McKinsey-type consultants who come in, shake a few hands and roll out a template solution they’ve already sold to other big players in the region. The results, in most cases, are not good. So please stop hiring the McKinseys of the world and start listening to the smart people who work for you and know your product.

To broaden the perspectives, here are predictions from other journalists from Spain and Latin America.

  • Gumersindo Lafuente, former online director, El País (Spain): “For journalism, Google will lose influence; Facebook and above all Twitter, especially from mobile devices, will rise. In more advanced countries, access to information via PC will collapse, with growth only in tablets and smartphones. Paywalls will expand, but with disappointing results.”

  • Darío Gallo, deputy editor of Clarín.com (Argentina): “Mobile-focused newsrooms will start to be born. We will pass from the age of responsive design to the era of responsive content. The process of permanent adaptation will continue.”

  • Andrés Azócar, digital chief, Canal13 (Chile): “Latin America has so far been more or less immune to the severe crisis that is affecting the media in Europe and the U.S. Protected by growing economies and lower levels of connectivity in the first world, the media until now has successfully overcome the financial cataclysm. Even in recent years, [the media] managed historical earnings, as was the case of Chile in 2011. But in recent years, the trend has begun to change. Competition from Google and Facebook (regardless of country, accounting for 50 percent or more of the market), the tyranny of the agencies and the low yields of traditional display ads force the media to reorganize their sales areas and point to native advertising and video, which have higher CPMs. The feeling that the crisis is yet to come will become stronger. 2014 will be harder for the media in Latin America, but still — the worst is yet to come.”

  • Rodrigo Guaiquil, COO, AmericaEconomia.com (Chile): “I think newsrooms will begin to worry about multiplatform user experience. They will change the design of their sites to adopt the flat design of iOS 7 applications, so that they will be able to offer a more consistent experience on desktop, mobile and tablet. Thus they will move away from the traditional front-page style of a daily paper and become more flexible and adaptable, navigable, touchable, clickable. They will take as reference sites like USAToday.com and Quartz.”

  • Gabriel Pasquini, founder and director, El Puercoespín (Argentina): “In the past few years, there have been several attempts (some successful) to charge users for content. This alternative is increasingly being considered by small- and medium-sized publications outside of the United States, where advertising revenue is (and will be) definitely scarce and insufficient, and crowdfunding is being seen more and more as the ideal (or sole) source of funding. But the tools to collect money from the crowd are still quite primitive outside of the U.S. (and to some extent, even in the U.S.). My prediction is that in the next two years, we will see the development of new tools which will change not just how to offer content but how to relate with our communities/readers. The search for money — more specifically, money from the crowd — will make us rethink ourselves and what we do once again.”

This post was originally published by the Nieman Journalism Lab as part of the year-end series Predictions of Journalism 2014, and is published on IJNet with permission.

Miguel Paz is a Chilean journalist and founder and CEO of Poderopedia, a data journalism website that highlights links among Chile’s business and political elites. Read about his Knight Fellowship here.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via jhcrow.

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