[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site longform.org and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.

Steampunk Blogging, meet Ross Floate

You can’t escape the death of print media talk. Newspapers may not be folding at quite the same rate as they were earlier this year or last, and there are plenty of exciting projects getting up, but print newsrooms are still clearing out – the latest is Fairfax cutting some $10 million in costs with a new restructure.

Still, there’s always someone doing things differently.

I first heard about a British group called The Newspaper Club on Dan Hill‘s blog – and a new scene or creative community or maybe even genre called ‘the papernet.’ And Ross Floate, Ned Dwyer and James Noble‘s new Melbourne-based paper And Now It’s In Print is definitely part of it.

(the first edition – well, really, the pilot edition)

It’s small: indie publishers find stories online, and print them. But with giants like Hewlett-Packard getting involved with their MagCloud project, and The Newspaper Club expanding, it has the potential to be something quite different.

So when Ross was in Sydney a little while ago, we met up.

What is it exactly?

What we tried to do is create a newspaper out of the best pieces of material we had on the web. As you say, most things have been going the other way. What we did was try to find things we thought were great, and bring them to an audience that was kind of offline.

Did you grow up with papers?

I used to read an extraordinary number of papers growing up. My parents are massive newshounds, my father especially. So I always read a lot and I studied journalism, so I was always around writing and reading and so forth.

What sparked the idea?

I went to South By Southwest earlier this year, which is a big festival in Austin, Texas, and one component of that is the Interactive Festival. I saw this newspaper called Things Our Friends Sent Us For Printing, which was basically a small, I think a 12 page newspaper put out by a group called the Newspaper Club. And it was material that was written specifically for that newspaper, but it was by people who were better known as bloggers or online writers. And out of all the things that I was inspired by when I was there, it was this one thing that I thought that’s a really cool idea, why couldn’t we do something like that, a little bit more localised?

What struck you about it? What grabbed your attention?

Well for a start, everything else was online material. It was all, what’s the latest technology, what is the greatest new website, what is the greatest new cool thing. And the idea that these people were saying, ‘No it’s worth doing something in paper’ really struck a chord with me. There’s something we get from newspapers that people don’t realise. What people think they’re buying when they buy a newspaper is the news that’s in it. In fact, the value of a newspaper is what’s left out. Because you’ve got a limited amount of space, having an editor or a curator saying, ‘Well here’s actually the only important stuff, it’s all we’ve got room for, so we’ve given you the best stuff of that space’ is of tremendous value. So what we wanted to do was say, ‘Well here is 12 or 24 pages of the Internet, and here’s the stuff that we think you should know about now.’ So the scarcity was important.

Is that something that came to you while you were looking at this thing at South By Southwest, or was it as you were on the plane home filtering through what you’d got out of the festival, you started to come to that idea, to realise this might be something?

The idea of scarcity being important is something I’ve always kind of realised. That the editor and the curator was important, and that was one of the things that wasn’t really around on the web. But the idea that a small group of people, which the Newspaper Club people are, would just go out and have a crack at it and do it themselves, was really interesting to me. I went to SXSW to see what was going on, and be inspired by things there, and I thought well there’s no reason why that couldn’t happen here, and we couldn’t do something that was interesting and largely local. So I came back and spoke to some people about doing it, and we got started pretty quickly.

Why do this now and here?

Australia is an interesting case in cultures worldwide. We constantly look overseas and we have forever. One of the things we hoped out of the Internet is that it would bring us closer to the rest of the world, instead it’s made it very easy for us to look overseas even quicker which makes us even less likely to create our own things. There’s always something better overseas, people have bigger budgets there, why not just get the thing from elsewhere. I think it’s important people realise things can be done locally. We can do things that are looked at internationally as interesting, and we’ve sold a lot of copies of this overseas, we’ve had a lot of international interest.

(fan photo in Chicago)

Was there an article you read on a blog or somewhere else that you thought online’s just not doing that justice?

There’s one piece in there that’s actually from overseas, called ‘Better’ by Merlin Mann, which is kind of a call to arms to be good at whatever you do, and to always give everything your best shot. It was something I first read online some years ago and it didn’t really grab me at the time, and then I kept going back to it, thinking this is an important piece, this is something more people should read, and people who aren’t online all the time, people who aren’t aware of this person from their fame on the web should be aware of this.

And Now It’s In Print opens with a story by Andy Ramadge about the closing of The Tote, a classic Melbourne rock venue, and towards the other end of the paper, you’ve got another article by Dan Hill, a really ambitious piece that envisions Australia’s future as a kind of southern Nordic hub, focussing on innovative design. Andy’s piece was published in Mess + Noise, Dan Hill’s was published on his City of Sound blog. Does it make it easier, as an editor, focussing on stories like these that already exist?

Absolutely, it’s tremendous to be able to access this material that’s already been written. And the people who were gracious enough to let us run their material, let us run it free of charge. It was a fantastic thing, people wanted to be involved. There were challenges involved with that, too. If you’ve ever worked in a newspaper or in the press, one of the best things you can do is being able to edit things to length. We couldn’t do that, we had these really long pieces that had been written for online, and trying to fit those into a newspaper was very difficult. We discovered that people write in a really unusual way for the web. Really, really unusual. It’s not stream of consciousness, but if it’s like anything it’s like talking to a PowerPoint or making a presentation, rather than the more formal writing structure of soft or hard news. That was an interesting thing to deal with and it informed the way we had to design the newspaper.

You’ve been a designer for BRW in the past, how different was this as a designer?

Starting off with no template, nothing to work with, and not really having an idea how this was going to be, it was a difficult design challenge. We wanted to make sure this was an interesting thing to look at. When we first started it, we thought we’d be able to make it look like a 12 page newspaper, with large articles, small articles, five columns, photograph over to the right, the standard newspaper format. We discovered quickly that we couldn’t do that, and so we ended up making each article pretty much its own design. There are some design cues that are common, but pretty much each article is separate.

Why couldn’t you do that?

Because we couldn’t edit. We got permission to run the articles, but not to edit. Beyond that, say if you look at a piece like Dan Hill’s, that is a really difficult piece to lay out. When you read it on his blog, he talks to images that are in the copy. You don’t do that when you write for print, if you have an illustration you want to talk to, you mention it, but you don’t talk about it like it’s right in front of you. So to be able to design that, we needed to find ways of making the images go inside the run of the copy, which you just don’t do in newspapers. So it was very challenging.

(Ross Floate at work on a page layout)

Was it harder than you expected?

Absolutely. From a design perspective, it was a much bigger challenge than I thought it was going to be. And that might seem odd, but those challenges kind of made it worth doing. They made it really interesting.

Is it more design intensive than you’d want something regular to be?

No… I think now we know what the challenges are, we wouldn’t approach it in the same way. We wouldn’t spend days and days on a layout, which commercially you could never do.

Why go to the effort of printing and publishing something like this?

We wanted to do something interesting and something that was fun. We kept saying, we want to do something awesome, just for the sake of it. You don’t do enough of that these days, and certainly when you get later in your career, you do less and less of that sort of work. One of the other things we wanted to do was expose people, who have an opportunity to become much better known. Like for example, Ellie Won who wrote the food story at the end (‘Digging For Rubies’), should be better known, and if she was better known, would probably get a better audience, and if she had a better audience, would be able to not have to shoot the photographs herself, come up with the recipes, and everything else. She’s a real talent waiting to be discovered.

On the other hand, these articles were originally published on Mess + Noise, Fairfax’s The Vine, Dan Hill’s City of Sound blog – these have big audiences themselves, probably far more than the print run of the newspaper.

Yes, certainly more than the print run of this newspaper. But we wanted to recontextualise things, and put some people in a context that they otherwise wouldn’t be in. Like I said, Ellie Won’s blog is fantastic, but she’s not getting a massive readership, and so to put people who are lesser known in a context with people who are better known is worth doing.

Everyone’s got a story about print media dying at the moment, and everyone’s looking for an alternative business model for journalism. This project is definitely one of those exploratory models, is that part of the attraction?

It’s trying to even work out the question as much as the solution. There is something going on, there needs to be a model for writing, new journalism, for people who are doing creative things to get better known, and also to get remunerated. This product is our first kind of attempt at trying to work out what the question is and hopefully to work out the solution.

You’ve said you were looking for inspiration, for something to really latch on to. Is this a polished take on DIY culture, zine making?

Back in the olden days, I was the editor of the student newspaper at my university. And there’s no other project I’ve worked on that was as close to that as And Now It’s In Print has been. It’s effectively a very polished university student newspaper. It’s about finding some things that we think are very interesting and printing them.

It’s clearly marked issue zero, is it a pilot?

Yes, we wanted to see if it was something people would be interested in. It was a bit of a gamble, in as much as it was an idea that I had and then I got a couple of other people interested in, and we thought, great let’s do this. But there’s an extent to which you can fall in love with your own idea and not know whether it’s going to work or not. So we didn’t want to say this is definitely going to take place all the time. But we wanted to do it anyway, and so one of the things we did was set ourselves a short timeframe. We created some artificial deadlines to create a product that was… a fast prototype.

In the UK, the Newspaper Club has spiralled this out into an online space that can underpin or support people who want to make their own. Do you imagine going in that kind of direction?

We’re certainly going to continue on an individual level. We have plans to do an issue one. We hoped it might inspire others to do something cool themselves as well, in the same way I had been inspired by Things Our Friends Sent Us For Printing. What the Newspaper Club people have done, which is fantastic, is turned that into a business model, in a not dissimilar fashion to what Hewlett Packard have done with MagCloud – a really interesting product where you can create a magazine, upload it to their website, and make it available for sale, so people can buy one of a printed magazine that then gets sent out. That’s a similar, if substantially larger business model to what the guys at the Newspaper Club are doing.

When should we expect issue one?

Hopefully by the end of the year, December-January. This was a product that we paid for out of our own pockets, and it was not inexpensive for something like that. We’d be hoping to get people involved in sponsoring it. So it depends on that, and finding the right material again, that was a really important thing.

This idea of the papernet: Things Our Friends Sent Us For Printing, And Now It’s In Print, MagCloud, it seems to have come from nowhere, but seems to be coalescing into something?

There’s an extent to which people want to interact with something that is real. They want to touch things that aren’t necessarily perfect. One of the great things about newspapers is that it’s serendipitous, you don’t realise what you’re going to get, and you don’t get to choose what you’re getting. I don’t know about you, but most people’s RSS feeds are an echo chamber of their own thought processes and I don’t think that’s great. Something like a newspaper is a way of throwing something into somebody’s lap and saying I know what you think you want, but here are some things that might be interesting that you don’t necessarily know that you want. I think it’s tremendously important. There’s an extent to which, as much as this is not something that really works for me, but there’s an extent to which this is a retro thing in the same way that people are buying Holgas and Lomos and people are using Hipstamatic on their iPhones to get an aged effect, there’s certainly an extent to which this taps into that idea of wanting to touch something old and real.

Collecting records, swapping tapes…

I mean, the way this was described by Ned, who was one of the people who did it with me, was that this is a kind of steampunk collection of blogposts effectively. I mean this is going backwards technology wise that shows people some new things.

Read up at And Now It’s In Print, and follow the links to the original articles.

Blogging on architecture and urbanism

Just discovered Darlinghurst Nights is listed as one of the Top 10 Australian Architecture and Urbanism Blogs.

Wow. I was shocked when I picked up the link back to our page.

What about Dan Hill’s City of Sound (check out the awesome new article on electric cars and noise), Marcus Trimble’s Super Colossal, Butterpaper?


Turns out they’re all in there. It was compiled by Marcus, who lives in the area – thanks! And welcome if you’ve just followed Marcus’s link.

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