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Building an inclusive, independent, open newsroom

I didn’t make a big announcement about it, but for the last few months I’ve been working as the CTO at The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom that reports on stories at the intersection of gender, politics, and policy.

It was a necessary move for me: I needed stronger work/life balance for my own health, and I also wanted to feel like I was helping in the midst of a very tumultuous social and political climate. It was also a move back into the core ideas my career has been built on.

The 19th was launched in January 2020 by veterans of the Texas Tribune and ProPublica who understood the need to report stories from a more diverse perspective than is normally offered by an industry still dominated by white men. I’ve been following it from the beginning as a prominent subscription in my RSS reader, and was deeply impressed by the detailed, empathetic, unsensational reporting.

The 19th’s technical platform is largely based on self-hosted WordPress, with some interesting theme modifications that allow for visualizations and in-page interactivity. (Did I immediately add simple microformats support to articles as soon as I arrived? Yes, I did.) Importantly for me, the team cares about the same privacy issues I do: particularly in an environment where abortion-related surveillance is becoming a safety issue, dealing with audience data intentionally is crucial.

Openness is core to what The 19th is. Its financial backers are published in full, so you know exactly whose is bankrolling the non-profit. Since the beginning, the newsroom has also made its content available via a Creative Commons license that allows anyone else to republish it for free. Those partners have included the Guardian, USA Today, Teen Vogue, PBS NewsHour, Ms. Magazine, RawStory, and many more. It could be you, too, if you wanted to: you can find the full HTML source to republish on every article page. Because The 19th’s newsroom is more diverse, every republished article furthers its mission of improving representation in the news media overall.

It’s an obvious extension to this strategy to make our technology available as well, via a permissive open source license. That’s my ambition: to package up some of our supporting tools and make them available in a way that other newsrooms can take advantage of. If they have the technical capability to collaborate on building them, great; if not, they can still pick up the technology and use them. Open source itself has a giant diversity problem, and if we can apply an equity lens to building our technical community in the same way we build our journalistic ecosystem, perhaps we can be a part of the solution there, too.

I’ve long been a member of the indieweb community, which encourages everyone to own and control their own website and domain. Both technically and ideologically, the overlaps with news are obvious: every newsroom must own its relationship with its audience in order to build trust, understand their needs, and above all to build community. Trends on the web have been in the opposite direction for most of the last decade: social media platforms like Facebook seek to intermediate and monetize that relationship, stripping newsrooms of resources and undermining the ability of voters to receive information in the process. Building an independent website for representative news content and community, and then helping others to do the same, is an important mission.

Right now it’s a very small team: Abby Blachman and me. I’m looking for a third member of the technology team to help with everything I’ve discussed.

And so far, it’s been joyful. Abby is amazing; everyone is. I’ve never been part of an organization - least of all a remote team - that understands the need for a supportive culture so clearly. As an organization, it continues to listen and evolve. The people team - led by Jayo Miko Macasaquit - has put procedures and benefits in place that I haven’t seen in organizations ten times the size. To build representative, empathetic news, you first need to build a representative, empathetic organization, and that’s what’s happening here. I hope they do more to tell their story and share what they’re doing, because it’s genuinely phenomenal.

I can’t believe my luck; it’s a real privilege to be on this team. I want to be a good ambassador: although I knew about the journalism, which should always be front and center, I wasn’t as familiar with the organization’s ecosystem and openness chops before I joined. It was the nicest of surprises, and I want to tell you more about it. We don’t have an internal blog right now, so from time to time I’ll discuss what we’ve been working on over here.

I’m also working on building some tools of my own to support my management process; the first is all about building a consistent culture of transparent feedback. More on that when I’m ready.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, I’d love to answer them. And if you happen to be interested in our technology position, you should definitely apply.

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