Gift to Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Unites 'Hacker-Journalists' with 'Legacy' Newsrooms

One would assume that a headline proclaiming "Major American Philanthropic Foundation Gives Multi-Million Dollar Grant to Hacker Organization" would make a few people flinch. But nowadays, it doesn't, and it's a testament to how quickly technology is transforming the non-profit world.

We're talking about a recent grant from the John S. and James Knight Foundation (see Knight Foundation: Grants for Journalism) to Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, a global network of developers, journalists, and self-described "hackers." The gift, in a nutshell, aims to bridge the gap between traditional "legacy" newsrooms and do-it-yourself "hacker-journalists" armed with digital cameras and Twitter accounts.

In reality, these "hackers" aren't the sinister or shadowy type. If anything, they're the good guys. OpenNews hosts "hack days," where programmers write code and build "community and momentum around creating technical solutions to problems that working journalists face." And that's why this gift is so intriguing. It's an example of an established, old-school philanthropic organization embracing a new model of journalism that is highly decentralized, democratic, and occasionally unregulated. If anything, it will further accelerate the fragmentation of traditional journalism by taking power away from a select group of newsrooms and distributing it across countless scattered networks. That such a disruptive development is being encouraged by the Knight Foundation is no small feat. (Read Vice President of Journalism and Media Innovation Michael Manness's IP profile.)

But we give the foundation credit, because it sees the writing on the wall. With the advent of social media, the world of traditional print journalism has entered a slow death spiral. Large publishers have adopted pay-as-you-go models to compensate for plummeting subscription rates. They've embraced social media and created interesting and useful apps. But the larger trend is unmistakable. The "hacker-journalist" is here to stay and only growing in influence. Just look at the major social upheavals of the past five years. From Occupy Wall Street to the revolutions in the Middle East, it was average citizens with smart phones who were out in front of the stories.

Yet, rather than isolate "legacy" news outlets from hacker-journalists, the Knight grant actually unites them. The gift supports programs, such as new technologies for traditional newsrooms, that will benefit both sides of the equation. For hacker-journalists, it will bring their skills and stories to the attention of major industry players. And for the "legacy" players themselves, it will drag them — some of whom will be kicking and screaming — into this brave new world of decentralization, open source reporting, and expanded collaboration. 

Grant funding for hackers. Who knew?