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Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

This is a piece I did recently for Source, a great learning in journalism side.  Interaction design for Journalists, the saga continues. 


5e4684711209c218b535a6c75098886cCopy editors, bless ‘em, they make our writing makes sense to people who are not us. Are there awkward phrases? Is it logical? Has anything been left out? Copy editors fix it. It’s a system that works because the editor can act as a stand-in for the end user, the reader, assuming that they mimic the intended reader’s literacy level. Digital journalism projects like data visualizations have no equivalent “digital” copy editor. We can never assume that the creator and the end user have the same technological literacy level, just for starters. Once a data team has created an interactive map or chart, their own familiarity with it nearly invalidates any self-critique of the end product. And by the time the piece gets in front of the end user it’s usually too late to adapt. Read the whole piece at Source>

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Journalism outsider is a lonely role.  It’s a little like being a Janitor, a hired hand who tackles the unsavory duties avoided by the more  fastidious and mainstream staff.  You can find them doing web updates, or mobile app development, or “dealing with all that social media stuff”, or maybe, in more forward-thinking organizations,  the R&D, but one thing they’ll rarely be found doing is much journalism.  News with a capitol ‘N’ promotes from within, and the number of its High Priests who started as anything other than a writer is still pretty low.

As a Journalism outsider myself (using the traditional definition, my bona fides extend to only two semesters as Comics Editor at the Johns Hopkins weekly back in ’99) it’s interesting to observe that writing is still sometimes considered the basic journalism accomplishment. It would be like declaring that the default unit of Marine Biology is ‘naming fish’.  I mean, it’s certainly a foundation skill for every marine biologist, and, depending on the job track, they might even end up doing some seriously classy fish naming, but it’s hardly the exhaustive definition of the career.

But as the search continues for a new skillset fit for a post-writing industry,  seriously, how tempting is it to say:  ‘But of course!  We need more of those janitorial skills we’ve overlooked for so long!’  It’s a great ‘gotcha’ solution, isn’t it?  Everyone loves to hear about a young savant coder who overcomes the cynical traditionalists and saves the day.  Teach the Journalist of tomorrow how to livestream and podcast!  There shalt be coding in 5 languages so they can make all kinds of news games and mobile aps and social media channels and data visualizations!  It’s as though sprinkling technology over the field like pixidust can make the underlying bulk fly.

Surely on the changing menu of journalism, arguing if steak should replace chicken seems rather pedantic, no?   We’re debating the merits of one limited skillset over another, an exercise which rather misses the point.  Why are we still deciding between chicken or steak?  Why are we arguing about the best dishes to put on the menu?  Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to just  teach tomorrows journalist how to cook?

Myself I come down on the side of methodology. The world has plenty of delightful news writers trying to find their relevency, but it’s just as easy to imagine the world full of of delightful news technologists trying to find their relevency. What does the world have very few of?  Folks with the background training to orchestrate either group.

Skills are for interns. Everyone should know what the skills are and how they work, but if the Head of Digital is still spending his days thinking about HTML bugs then you’ve got a problem.   The power in any field lies in the planning, not the implementing.  It’s  in the ability to see the bigger picture and plot a course through it, and to relay that vision to those who were hired for their limited skillset (who, increasingly, aren’t employees at all but rather someone’s college  friend who’s between jobs, or  a dude bidding on projects from Poland.)

Yes, anyone arriving at a journalism school should be expected to know a basic level of  technology just as their counterparts of yesteryear were expected to know how to read.  Perhaps there could still be remedial tutorials for those getting up to speed. But for the core experience?  Perhaps it’s time to really take a page from software development.  Instead of co-opting its low level skills, co opt its high-level ones!  The Agile design cycle.   Iterative Project development.  Pitching.  Usability testing.  Gamification. Entrepreneurship.    You know, the tech skills that actually matter.

Otherwise we risk turning Journalism school into a certification degree like Nursing or Air Conditioning Repair – full of important protocol but with a focus on skillset, not strategy. Taking a step back and thinking a little bigger would go a long way to making sure that students don’t end up as outsiders in their own field. Journalists are too valuable to waste as highly-paid Janitors for hire.

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Today’s post is brought to you by the backchannel, that swirly, seething collection of tweets, FB posts, and I suppose technically Google+ comments that makes up the realtime reaction to any presentation. If used right it provide instant audience interaction, keep folks paying attention, and guards against awkward silences when the presenter asks “anyone have any questions?” If used wrong it’s great place to heckle.  It’s what you would be saying if you didn’t have to wait for the darn speaker to be done.

Generally, the line of thought is, the audience is gonna talk about you anyway so you can either force them to turn off their phones (which makes you look like a dick) or you can harness their sniping for the powers of good.  Usually this is accomplished by projecting the audience’s twitter feed or chatroom somewhere the presenter can see it.  More rarely it means building the feed directly into the presentation software.  Even more rarely it means hosting the chat yourself.  That’s the one I wanna talk about.

After all the backchannel excitement at SXSW I started getting curious about how they could be used in an academic setting.  One sign of a good class is when I see that the students have gone ahead and made their own group chat (using partyappchat, or some such) so they can talk during lectures.  Usually it’s to make fun of the professor, but sometimes it’s to share resources or ask advice.  The point is, they only bother in classes where there’s some level of engagement.

I tried experimenting with this a little during a class I was involved with last semester.  During the student’s final presentations I tried projecting the live twitter feedback on the wall near the speakers. Students sent a pre-list of all the quotes and links they wanted re-tweeted during thier presentation, and that, plus the reactions, made up the backchannel. With a couple of exceptions, this totally failed.  There was a lot of excitement and retweets, and a little joking in the feed, but not a whole lot of conversation.

I think the issue is that people might retweet interesting quotes, and people might heckle or offer encouragement, but no one is going to clutter up their feed with comments like “Could you repeat that?” or “What’s he talking about?” or “Actually, I think that’s wrong but I’m not totally sure, anyone?”  We’re all too worried about the persona we’ve created on our social networks to risk polluting it with anything resembling real conversation.

Here’s one possible solution, this Fall I’ve implemented a new experiment with the same class. During each four hour lecture every week, all students, and also the professors and visiting critiquers are logged onto HipChat.  If you haven’t used hipChat yet I must say this is a pretty great tool – complete archiving and searchability in a nice chat package.  What goes on there?  Whatever!  Reactions to the presentations, side conversations, reference material, and yeah, a little bit of snarking.  Why is this so great for us:

  • Each presenter ends up with a complete transcript of reactions throughout their presentation.  When listening, especially to a lecture that’s a little long, it’s so easy to forget the more nuanced points of feedback in trade for the big ones.  And likewise, if there is good feedback there’s pressure to tune out the rest of a conversation in favor of remembering your comments.  Either way, better to just get it down on screen.
  • As moderator it’s a whole lot easier to see who’s engaged and who isn’t, the commenting and the not. I await the day that this thing has some analytics built in so I can see participation a little more easily.  It’s great to no longer wonder if someone is taking notes or on Facebook.
  • Questions get answered a whole lot faster, and without breaking up the presenter’s train of talk.  It’s so easy to derail a line of thought when a concept doesn’t make sense, and the jump to boredom after that is pretty fast.  This way confusion gets resolved immediately, and moreover without stopping the stream of the  lecture to do it.

Is it a panacea?  Not at all – there’s one glaring issue:  it’s hard to pay attention while typing.  This method almost requires small lapses in attention.  And second of all, it does require a healthy dose of control to keep things from devolving into ascii art.  If the presenter isn’t pretty darn dominant, this isn’t the tool for them.

Of course, that’s a bit of a gamble in any presentation, whether academic or otherwise, but I heartily suggest giving it a try either way.

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The road to professional academic success often seems to be paved by wild refutations: pick a pet theory by another leading academic and disagree as loudly as you can. Maybe the concept is to to provoke a response which will drive traffic to your site. I’d feel bad for all of the recent flack Malcolm Gladwell is receiving for his well-researched and thoughtful New Yorker article from people who obviously did no more than skim it, except that Gladwell himself is occasionally guilty of this method. Another prime example, well, Evgeny Morozov love him though I do.

The lesson here: it’s never too early to backlash. Let’s call it the ‘Remora Effect with a twist’, although I’m sure there’s an official name for it (and someone who loudly disagrees with that name). Romoras  (AKA Suckerfish) are fish that hitch rides on a host to save themselves the effort of really thinking about a topic.  Alright, I added that last bit.

The concept does bring up an interesting question though, how much of news media released is original thought, that is to say primary source reporting and editorial, and how much of it is a rehashing of other sources. Jay Rosen points out the surprising amount of “reporting” is taken directly from press releases, and anyone following Japan on twitter the last two days sees that new developments come about once every six hours, not on the second by second basis that the firehose would have you believe.

To do this xkcd style, I’m guessing the graph of actual news before and after digital tools looks something like this:

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Roughly a year ago in March 2010 Mathew Ingram wrote a post titled “Forget Paywalls – How About More Serendipity?”  The article itself acted as a good summing up of a meme sweeping media thinkers at the time:  the loss of randomness and rise of homogeny in the news-reading experience.

The argument went like this:  As readers browse the squashed tree version of a newspaper their eye catches on unexpected content.  Maybe it’s an article that’s been fit into a leftover portion of the page, or a picture that’s been substituted for unused advertising space.  Suddenly (the argument goes) the reader will find themselves reading about child-weavers in India. It will unexpectedly speak to their soul. They will quit their job to spearhead labor movements in the third world.  Serendipity.

I remember this one because its comments section contained this great anonymous post:   “…serendipity is the great rationalization that generations of journalists have convinced themselves has some consumer value” . Consumer value is the important phrase here:  the purpose of news is to inform, but the value to consumers is different.  The value of honey is the concentrated calorie source, but we eat it for the sweet taste.

In the intervening year I think it’s become obvious that there are a couple of problems with the “serendipity mourning” meme. IE: One of the few advantages for traditional journalism’s use of the internet is that there’s just so darn much of it, but a vast, sparsely populated prairie can’t be explored int he same way as a small, dense neighborhood:  who takes a stroll through the digital news anymore? We may make lightning strikes on favorite areas, but ever since Google switched our brains from from browsing to searching that’s the form most of us prefer when dealing with a large landscape.

But all this overlooks the more basic issue here: Serindipity as found in newspapers might be adverse to the most basic law of Web Usability: “Don’t make me think”. While it’s a great thing to unexpectedly delight and impress your users, it’s anathema to surprise them. Jeff Jarvis writes that Serindipity at its best serves to “satisfy a curiosity you didn’t know you had”. But that’s not quite serendipity – that’s actually the definition of a really good “related products” algorithm.

What it comes down to is this: delight in randomness only works in a situation where it’s replacing something boring. This sort of frisson occurs when an expected uninteresting experience is replaced by something enjoyable – when an amusing ‘news of the weird’, pops up where a “news of the regular” was expected. It’s the classroom delight of a rescheduled math quiz, or suddenly learning your straight-laced teacher has a tattoo: a feeling of sly relief over dodging an expected downer.

But! Without a captive audience already resigned to a dreary experience, these extras have no purpose. Rumors of a tattoo are uninteresting to kids who are clamoring to go to recess, and being detoured from the intended aim is frustrating. Frustration is the sworn enemy of usability, and should be ripped out of any webpage with extreme gusto.

I too wish it was possible to amble through the day’s articles and trip over the gems hiding among the mushrooms.  But as long as readers are crying out for a more targeted reading experience, it seems a little silly to decry a lack of a less-targeted one.

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