Journalism and the power of design

This is the text of Skye’s talk at the 2015 Walkley Freelance Focus conference in Brisbane:

Journalism needs some new ideas.

It needs new practices, formats and platforms. And it needs its own people to invent them. To be able to manipulate and control them.

This is how journalists will be able to shape and determine the future of their craft.

It is how values — such as the right to know and the public interest — will continue to underpin journalism in the future, no matter how technology evolves.

Technology has changed the way we do journalism. We can see this in the way that news organisations publish on multiple platforms; in the enthusiasm of journalists on Twitter, and the interactive features and data visualisations that are now part of the storytelling mix.

We’ve got our heads around multimedia, social media and need for deeper engagement with our audiences.

The trouble is, these weren’t our ideas. We didn’t develop the social tools that enable this interactivity, and we don’t control them.

Instead, we have adapted journalistic practice to fit the needs of the social networks and digital platforms that our audiences, in many ways, prefer over traditional media products.

But what will we do when communication technologies move out of the screen and into our clothes?

What about when when news is delivered via our coffee pot or when intelligent robots process and filter facts and output narratives according to an algorithm, rather than the public interest?

Advances in wearable computing, the internet of things, robotics, artificial intelligence and the potential for quantum computing, mean the media of the future is unlikely to resemble the formats we are familiar with.

In fact, the pace of technological change means we can’t predict what technologies we will be using in 10 years’ time. Or who will control them.

The point is that current ways of producing, distributing and managing journalistic work are not sufficient to tackle the computational advances and challenges that are coming.

The way we have integrated social, mobile and interactive media into journalism is unlikely to apply to robots or AI.

We need to build resilience into our practice, so that as technology changes, we are able to adapt and accommodate it in a way that preserves the essence of journalism.

Already news organisations rely on tech companies to distribute their content. Facebook’s Instant Articles is a case in point.

Is this ideal? Is this how we should reach readers?

Emily Bell, the director of Columbia University’s Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, points out that social networks don’t necessarily like, or share, the responsibilities the media has. Verifying facts and protecting sources are important to journalists, but software engineers couldn’t give a Tor’s.

Bell argues that we need to get to a point where the values of journalism are part of software, as much as software systems are a part of journalism.

To achieve this journalists need to design journalistic tech.

The way to do this is through design.

We need to become designers.

Design is not a secret practice for those with a talent for drawing. It is simply a process. A way of looking at problems and finding creative solutions for them. Solutions that are specific to the issues and needs of the users.

It is a collaborative, people-focused and practical process of research, designing, prototyping, evaluating and iterating — refining and improving a design based on use and feedback.

It is the process I used to create the NewsCube.

I am not a designer by trade or training. But I applied design techniques to solve a journalistic problem.

The NewsCube is an interactive, 3D storytelling tool. It was created to solve the problem of hyperlinks in news stories. To create a way of using links so they give readers greater control over stories and enable them to experience complex narratives from different points of view.

I started with research into hypertext and its potential as a storytelling tool. I then analysed news stories, news packages and news apps to find out whether they lived up to the potential.

They didn’t. Journalists predominately link to past coverage. Sometimes they take readers to primary sources but they rarely use hypertext to give readers narrative control. There was no sign of spatial hypertext or the use of shape as a navigation device. Nor were there any specific journalistic tools — this is despite the fact that fiction writers started creating hypertext authoring systems 20 years ago.

This was all fertile ground and provided a basis for my designing activities.

I am no artist. But I can draw a diagram, I can use a glue stick, and can wield a pair of sizzors. And this is enough to begin designing.

My sketches and low-fidelity, balsa wood prototypes show how an abstract idea of using a cube to tell a story began to take shape. Working through this process meant I could begin to map out how a story could be told in six sides, and then to think about the functionality — what would happen, how it would work. The wireframes tell that story.

These artefacts, these designs, embody the NewsCube concept, and the thinking involved in bringing it to fruition. And they meant I could then approach a developer to create a digital prototype.

This is it. This prototype included the basic functionality: you could create a cube, add content to it and create relationships between ideas. You couldn’t share or collaborate, but that ability was suggested with buttons, even though they didn’t work at that stage.

It was enough to get some feedback. So it was deployed to potential users: working journalists, former journalists and those in new media startups.

These people used the tool, then I interviewed them about their experiences.

They told me the NewsCube was fun and engaging, but difficult to use. They valued the tactility of the interface and the idea that it was collaborative. They also liked way it simplified complex stories.

This gave me a steer on what to fix, what to forget and, thanks to a Walkley Innovation Grant, I was able to iterate. The NewsCube in now in a beta phase.

The NewsCube is not the answer to interactive journalism. That is not its point. It is an experiment and it represents a possibility. It tells us that tactility, collaboration, playfulness and information synthesis are features that users find valuable. And this can influence future designs.

Designing, as you see, is not complex. You can do it cheaply with simple tools. This means that ideas can be tried, evaluated and iterated with little impact on production. The techniques do not require extensive training to master.

What they do require is curiosity, a little head space, a willingness to see things differently and to drop bad ideas.

The result will be a better idea. A new possibility. An opportunity for journalism and, potentially, innovation.

The technology theorist W Brian Arthur says that advanced, innovative technology, comes not from knowledge but from deep craft. To paraphrase him:

“Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work… [and] … knowing how to manipulate newly discovered … phenomena.”

Journalism has this deep craft. A craft, that if given the opportunity to explore new boundaries could drive its own innovation.