Q&A: Creating a Github for storytelling

The landscape of Colorado journalism surely appears bleak to those on the outside. Let’s be honest, it’s not that different for many on the inside.

The fall of the Rocky Mountain News and the demise of CU’s journalism school are the most resonating local examples (deserved or not) of a profession in despair. But journalist-driven technological innovation is beginning to peek out from the rubble. Not surprisingly, it’s emerging from nontraditional ranks. From people like Boulder resident Jordan Wirfs-Brock.

A data curator for the Piton Foundation and an alum of CU’s graduate journalism program, Wirfs-Brock pitched an idea—a platform that “frees stories from the constraints of the article”—in the international MoJo (Mozilla + Journalism) News Technology Partnership earlier this year. The Infinite Story was selected as one of 60 winners among more than 300 entries. After four weeks in a “news-lab,” the 60 were whittled to 20, and their creators, Wirfs-Brock included, landed in Berlin last week for the MoJo hackfest, where they either hacked their own projects further or collaborated on a fellow challenge winner’s. Wirfs-Brock chose the latter, but it’s not the end of The Infinite Story.

Fresh off her trip to Germany, she shared her experience, future plans, and advice with Tekhne:

Tekhne: Take us briefly through your inspiration for The Infinite Story?

Jordan Wirfs-Brock: I started with the question: How can we turn a news story or article into something deeper and more engaging? I was intrigued by how, in the reporting and research process, I often end up with 10 times as much material as can actually make it into the story. I wanted to come up with some way to expose that material so that a reader can interact with it. From that rough concept, I began sketching out scenarios: Who would be using this and how? That gave me the insight I needed to refine the idea. … Ultimately, The Infinite Story could be a tool for helping news consumers become news creators.

Tekhne: Where is The Infinite Story now?

Wirfs-Brock: Right now I’m at the difficult phase where it’s time to go from idea to implementation. For me, as someone who has experience as a storyteller but not a programmer, coming up with the idea was the easy part. Turning it into a working project will be difficult. To do that, I’ll need to partner with developers.

Tekhne: Have you sought other means of funding and/or incubation? Do you plan to?

Wirfs-Brock: I haven’t thought about funding yet. For me, the business side of things is even more daunting than the technical side. The Knight-Mozilla partnership has shown how fruitful putting journalists and technologists together in the same room can be. Maybe the next step would be extending the partnership to include business people.

Tekhne: Have you faced any challenges as a female in the tech realm? How did you overcome them?

Wirfs-Brock: My mom is actually a software engineer, and growing up I watched her interact with a male-dominated industry. She never seemed phased by it, which has been a great source of inspiration to me.

At the hackfest in Berlin, the gender breakdown was lopsided with five women and 15 men. There, I always felt comfortable and welcome. But there was the question in my mind, “Did they pick me just because I’m a woman?”

Tekhne: Is there a specific organization or outlet you’d like to see launch The Infinite Story locally?

Wirfs-Brock: I would love to see it used by anyone who is releasing quality, longform journalism. My favorite stories to read are the ones that pull me into a world and immerse me. The Infinite Story is a way of pulling you in even deeper. I’ve always been a huge fan of High Country News because they are great at storytelling. It’d be interesting to see how they could put The Infinite Story to use. Likewise, I think it would be a great fit for investigative news, which often has tons of primary documents and data sets, so I’d love to see I-News use The Infinite Story.

Tekhne: Back in April, NewsCloud, which received Knight Foundation funding in 2009, lamented some of the barriers to partnering with traditional news organizations. Any thoughts on how “legacy” outlets can better implement innovative tools and partners?

Wirfs-Brock: That’s a tough one. I think newsrooms are not accustomed to the idea of failure. They are very good at getting things right on the first try. But with innovative technologies and partnerships, the nature of the game is that things will fail. You have to fail fast, learn, and try again. Some newsrooms, like The New York Times and The Boston Globe, have their own innovation labs that are designed to do just that. But I think even without the luxury of an in-house test-bed, newsrooms can still get better at thinking like innovators and startups.

Tekhne: What advice do you have for other local journos who have ideas for newsroom innovations?

Wirfs-Brock: I think it’s like taking on any project—it seems daunting at first, so you just have to start small. Just start doing it. … Start making a small piece, and by doing that you’ll learn new skills and, more important, you’ll learn what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Not doing anything at all is scarier than doing something that isn’t perfect. Find people you can ask for help and support.

At the hackfest we had the catch phrase “stop yammering, start hammering.” For me, that’s hard, because I love the “yammer” phase. I love thinking about what these tools could do and how they could be applied. But what I realized is that, when you start the “hammer” phase, you learn so much about the idea itself that you could never know just from the hypothetical brainstorming phase. Prototype, prototype, prototype, even if it’s just a sketch.

[note color="#C3DAE3"]This story was originally published on Oct. 2, 2011.[/note]