Journalism has to get one thing right for a social world

The Week has folded. The Global Mail doesn’t seem far behind, though it’s still publishing good stories. New Matilda is hanging on with crowdsourced micro-dollars.

Everyone assumes there’s a next thing for journalism, me included. Because if there isn’t, what then? What kind of democracy would we have without the fourth estate?

But while the bastions of media in this country fight to stay afloat, their upstart competitors aren’t exactly blowing up.

So how do you make a media company for a world where content is increasingly distributed through sharing and social media instead of the old print and broadcast channels? That’s the question asked by BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti in an email republished on Chris Dixon’s blog.

It’s a great, optimistic email – and I’d be interested to know how much Peretti’s vision matches up with the reality at BuzzFeed.

It’s not like the challenge is finding readers. Across the board, there are more readers than ever, or maybe more reading than ever. The challenge is sustainable business models for journalism, since the coincidence that wound up with advertisers cross-subsidising journalism seems finished.

Last year, I read a terrific manifesto of a piece from Craig Mod

On ‘Subcompact Publishing,’ it see-sawed between a very designerly aesthetic and the kind of pared back simplicity of message that I think most writers would aspire to. It stuck with me.

Referring to Clayton Christensen’s idea of the innovator’s dilemna – that “the perception of the incoming disruptors is that they’re low quality, and therefore not really worth paying attention to” – Craig talks about Honda’s N360, a light or sub-compact car. He imagines the car’s engineers looking at the sum total of cars created to that date, and asking:

What’s the simplest thing we can build with this?

In the software industry, they call it the “minimum viable product” – or MVP.

As Craig explains, newspapers or magazines are simple, generally intuitive objects. They’re easy to read. Most media apps and sites aren’t.

His ‘subcompact publishing’ manifesto is:

Subcompact Publishing tools are first and foremost straightforward.

They require few to no instructions.

They are easily understood on first blush.

The editorial and design decisions around them react to digital as a distribution and consumption space.

They are the result of dumping our publishing related technology on a table and asking ourselves โ€” what are the core tools we can build with all this stuff?

They are, as it were, little N360s.

I propose Subcompact Publishing tools and editorial ethos begin (but not end) with the following qualities:

  • Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)
  • Small file sizes
  • Digital-aware subscription prices
  • Fluid publishing schedule
  • Scroll (donโ€™t paginate)
  • Clear navigation
  • HTML(ish) based
  • Touching the open web

It’s prescriptive, and great creative projects are going to make their own rules. But dumping our publishing knowledge on a table and asking what can we build with it is a good place to start.

I had a very modern moment yesterday while searching for Craig Mod’s piece

I read Craig’s piece last year, but for the past couple of months, try as I might, I couldn’t find the right combination of search terms to find it again.

So I asked my Twitter community – I had, after all, tweeted it at the time. The first time I asked, it went nowhere.

Yesterday, I asked again:

So frustrated! Super inspired by manifesto for a new mobile/online news site that popped up a few months ago. Now can’t find it! @bronwen?

This time I tagged Bronwen Clune, who tweets about media innovation and runs the excellent email list Newsgraf, and she came back asking for more clues – “Australian? US?” I replied:

@bronwen think US, seemed more conceptual than case study. Led by a tech/startup person, not a media person. Very lean. Seemed v practical.

Great links and suggestions started coming in from great people like Amy Denmeade, Gavin Heaton, Paul Wallbank and Bronwen.

I hadn’t yet found what I was looking for and Bronwen captured the frustration of the fruitless search:

@matt_levinson Gah, now I’m searching for one I loved and can’t find.

But Amy Denmeade’s mention of Marco Armente’s site had given me the clue I needed. See the first half of this post ๐Ÿ˜‰

We don’t have the US’s huge media ecosystem, or the catalytic funding of organisations like the Knight Foundation and their terrific News Challenges, and our startup scene is much more focussed on data-driven projects (a rich vein to tap).

But there is a huge gene pool of creative media makers coming out of community radio, zine making, blogging and subcultural writing, as well as the mainstream of journalism schools, and there are stacks of senior, seriously experienced journalists out looking for work.

Our strongest digital media projects so far: Crikey, Mumbrella, the Spectator group (recently sold to News Limited), Mamamia, Andrew Jaspan’s The Conversation, sustainability website The Fifth Estate, News and the ABC’s opinion sites (The Punch, The Drum), CNET, ZDNet, maybe even The Monthly’s latest thing Politicoz – they’ve all started with a fine focus, and in some cases expanded.

In contrast, the sites and publications suffering… most are generalist, generally unfocussed – maybe that’s the point.

[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.