Journalism for makers

I find myself wondering what it would take to fix the global financial system, but most financial journalism doesn’t help me to answer this question. Something seems wrong here. The modern world is built on a series of vast systems, intricate combinations of people and machines, but our journalism isn’t really built to help us understand them. It’s not a journalism for the people who will put together the next generation of civic institutions.

My friend Maha Atal — whose profile of incoming IMF chief Christine Lagarde recently graced the cover of Forbes — tells me there are two histories of financial journalism, two types that have been practiced since the dawn of newsprint. One tradition began with lists of market prices and insurance rates and evolved into the financial data services and newswires we have today, a journalism of utility for people who want to make money. The other tradition she called “muckraking,” a journalism which interests itself in shady deals, insider trading, and undue influence. It looks for hypocrisy and offenses against the interests of the broader public.

Service to the status quo, and zealous suspicion of power. Are these really the only two stands that a journalist can take? When I imagine the global financial system improving, actually improving in the sense of changing in a way that makes the lives of very many people better — say, becoming less prone to the sort of systemic collapse that puts tens of millions out of work — I don’t see it much assisted by either of these approaches to reporting, necessary though they might be.

The financial system is just that: a system, sprawling, messy, very complex, built of people and laws and machines. It serves a great many ends, both humane and monstrously avaricious. It won’t be much improved by forcing a few traders to resign in disgrace, or focusing public fury on the bonuses of bank executives (which, obscene though they may be, remain just a drop in the bucket.) It seems rather that improvement will require international agreement on arcane solutions both political and technical, things like risk models, capital reserve requirements, and trading platforms. This is regulation both in the sense of law and in the sense of code-as-law, because software is a deep part of the infrastructure of modern finance. Markets don’t just happen; they are human desires channeled by what we have agreed to allow, and by what our technology has been built to support. Markets are designed things.

So maybe what we need are designers. Geeks who like to understand very complex systems, and tinker with them. I want to borrow from the culture of “makers,” because maker culture plants a flag on this idea. It draws on the hacker tradition of technical mastery, the DIY aesthetic perfected by the punks, and the best disruptive tendencies of global counter-culture. It lives in online forums and nerdy meetups and on the dingy couches of hack spaces. This is the chaotic ecosystem that powers Silicon Valley, and I bet it’s the secret ingredient that government planners miss when they build huge technology parks that end up empty.

But most of all, makers are deeply participatory. Where the political activist sees persuasion as the ultimate goal, the maker wants to personally rewire the system. This requires a deep love of the inner workings of things, the finicky, empirical details of how the real world is put together. A maker combines the democratic instinct with the technologist’s hands-on ability. And increasingly, makers are directing their attention to social problems. Efforts such as crisis mapping and Code For America and the whole information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) movement are evidence of this. Maker language has recently been spotted at the White House and the United Nations.

The global financial system is just the sort of complex, intricate, part technical and part social system that makers would love, if only they could open it up and look inside. There are textbooks, but you can’t learn how the world actually works from textbooks. What would it take to open the global financial system to independent minds? Because it will be these independent minds — smart, deeply informed, creative — who will pore over the arcania of today in order to conceive of the better worlds to come.

Consider the latest draft of the Basel III standards for international banking. Who reads such dense and technical stuff? The professional regulator is obliged to sit at their desk and study this document. The financier wants only to understand how these rules will make or cost them money. The muckraker might ask who is making the rules and why. Another journalist will look for headlines of broad interest, but almost certainly won’t have the technical background to trace the subtle implications. But a maker would read these standards because they are changes in the operating system of global finance. And of these, it might be the maker, the specialized outsider, who is most qualified to understand the detailed, systemic effects on everyone else. The systems that underlie finance have become so fast and so complex that we don’t really understand the interactions. The people who know it best are mostly too busy making money to explain it to the rest of us. The public interest is in dire need of geeks who are not on the payroll.

There is a journalism to be done here, but it’s not the journalism of making people money, penning morality tales, or interesting articles in the Sunday paper. It’s a techno-social investigative journalism for those who have chosen to use their specialized knowledge in the interests of the rest of us. It’s a journalism that generalist reporters may be ill equipped to do.

We already have models for this. practices “solutions journalism,” writing about how best to solve societal problems. I appreciate that, but I don’t think they’ve conceived of their audience as the policy and technology geeks who will one day flesh out and implement those solutions. The contemporary science journalism ecosystem might be a better example. There are science reporters at news organizations, but the best science reporting now tends to come from elsewhere. Science, like finance, is absurdly specialized, and so its chronicling has been taken over by networks of specialists — very often scientists themselves, the ones who have learned to write. Science blogging is thriving. Its audience is the general public, yes, but also other scientists, because it’s the real thing. Even better, science writing exists in a web of knowledge: you can follow the links and go arbitrarily deep into the original research papers. And if you still have questions, the experts are already active online. Compare this to the experience of reading an economics article in the paper.

We don’t have much truly excellent journalism on deep, intricate topics, issues with enormous technical and institutional complexity. There’s some, but it’s mostly in trade publications with little sense of the social good, or tucked away in expensive journals which speak to us in grown-up tones and don’t know how to listen for the questions of the uninitiated. And yet our world abounds in complex problems! Sustainability, climate change, and energy production. Security, justice, and the delicate tradeoffs of civic freedoms. Health care for the individual, and for entire countries. The policies of government from the international to the municipal. And governments themselves, in all their gruesome operational detail. These things are not toys. But when journalists write about such issues, they satisfy themselves with discovering some flavor of corruption, or they end up removing so much of the substance that readers cannot hope to make a meaningful contribution. Perhaps this is because it has always been assumed that there is no audience for wonkish depth. And perhaps that’s true. Perhaps there won’t ever be a “mainstream” audience for this type of reporting, because the journalism of makers is directed to those who have some strange, burning desire to know the gory details, and are willing to invest years of their life acquiring background knowledge and building relationships. Can we not help these people? Could we encourage more of them to exist, if we served them better?

This is a departure from the broadcast-era idea of “the public.” It gives up on the romantic notion of great common narratives and tries instead to serve particular pieces of the vast mosaic of communities that comprise a society. But we are learning that when done well, this kind of deep, specialist journalism can strike surprising chords in a global population that is more educated than it has ever been. And the internet is very, very good at routing niche information to communities of interest. We have the data to show this. As Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal put it, “I love analytics because I owe them my ability to write weird stories on the Internet.”

Where is the journalism for the idealist doer with a burning curiosity? I don’t think we have much right now, but we can imagine what it could be. The journalism of makers aligns itself with the tiny hotbeds of knowledge and practice where great things emerge, the nascent communities of change. Its aim is a deep understanding of the complex systems of the real world, so that plans for a better world may constructed one piece at a time by people who really know what they’re talking about. It never takes itself too seriously, because it knows that play is necessary for exploration and that a better understanding will come along tomorrow. It serves the talent pools that give rise to the people who are going to do the work of bringing us a potentially better world — regardless of where in society these people may be found, and whether or not they are already within existing systems of power. This is a theory of civic participation based on empowering the people who like to get their hands dirty tinkering with the future. Maybe that’s every bit as important as informing voters or getting politicians fired.

26 thoughts on “Journalism for makers”

  1. YES!

    This is precisely the kind of thing I’m interested in. I think one of the challenges in recruiting people to do this kind of work is that, unlike narrative journalism, there’s usually no byline on a database; the pride of authorship is muted or removed.

    I’m personally motivated by Making Things, far more than I am in producing a unit of work called a “story.” (No snark is intended here; I have a lot of respect for journalists). But I think our age doesn’t just call for computational journalism; it demands it.

  2. You are right on the money in your concept of a mosaic of communities. I used to argue to my newsroom colleagues that instead of weighing every story in terms of reaching the maximum part of our readership, we should recognize that there are many publics. What concerns some greatly will be of only middling or less concern to others. If we always write for the great middle we leave out important segments of the overall community. Niche publications are the best hope for those narrow segments, but all journalists need to know that they exist and hunger for information.

  3. Hi Jonathan,

    So true. We need journalism that is covering and promoting the alternative ways. First assignment would be to cover Douglas Rushkoff’s Contact Summit because there is where the makers gather to envision and start to create a better system, that works for all.

    Another source that should be covered is John Robb with the Miiu wiki fostering Resillient communities.

    Who is going to do that?

    Would be great, Mark.

  4. There is less money in writing about “deep, intricate topics, issues with enormous technical and institutional complexity”. The audience is small.

    People do that sort of writing when the small audience is willing to pay for it: investment analysts (I used to be one) and economists write extremely complex analyses, but for those who are really interested.

    I think the problems in the financial sector just reflect those

  5. There is less money in writing about “deep, intricate topics, issues with enormous technical and institutional complexity”. The audience is small.

    People do that sort of writing when the small audience is willing to pay for it: investment analysts (I used to be one) and economists write extremely complex analyses, but for those who are really interested.

    I think the problems in the financial sector just reflect those in the broader economy. For example, banks should not be “too big to fail”, but this is just an example of big corporations dominance of the economy (most industries are oligopolies).

    I have written too blog posts on this subject:

    What I propose would give us a genuine free market – but those who do best out of the way things are at the moment would lose a lot.

  6. At the risk of looking like a self-promotor: At the Guardian we’ve just started a blog that tries to do more or less what you’re talking about here: opening up a very complex and highly institutionalized issue to complete outsiders. The blog starts at the very beginning, simply asking people working in finance what a typical working day is like; the idea is that even complete outsiders will have no problem with ‘a typical working day’ as an entry point into the material.
    It’s really early days but reactions have been really encouraging, both from the audience and from people working in finance themselves; dozens have come forward to speak, anonymously, about how their job works. Would be really interesting to hear your views about how this experiment might be of use to what you’re talking about here?

    best, joris luyendijk

  7. I think you are onto something… but I think it needs to take place outside of what we currently call “journalism.” The journalistic values of explanation and storytelling, combined with the latest technology and techniques for doing both, need to be embraced by subject matter experts to communicate what they know, not just hope to get “coverage” for what they know.

    Love Lisa’s comment: “I’m personally motivated by Making Things, far more than I am in producing a unit of work called a ‘story.'”

    That “unit” of explanation is expanding to the “application” (something “made” for digital media). We heard a lot about this at ONA11 last week. We need to empower experts to make these things or participate in making them. And that’s going to happen to a large degree outside of newsrooms and journalism as we currently know them.

  8. I love this phrase, “the journalism of makers.” You’ve articulated elegantly a big challenge and opportunity.

    It’s a journalism that isn’t just explanatory, but one that could explore, curate, and invite solutions. It’s not data, trade news or muckraking, but a more holistic journalism that could encompass all of those elements: verification of facts, inspirational/solutions-oriented, and sustained monitoring of the issues raised.

    In metro newsrooms, there’s a tendency to write for a lay reader. It’d be nice to experiment with offering modular content online that gives readers the choice of how far they want to delve into the topic. For example, a short synopsis for the casual reader, a data visualization for the more interested reader, and a microsite for the passionate reader.

    It’s the kind of journalism that foundations, think tanks and civic-minded businesses could – and do – support, but we don’t have enough journalists with the deep expertise in all the technical areas nor the time to pull this off in a general-interest newsroom. Because the audience is small for this kind of intensive holistic treatment, finding a way to make it financially sustainable is tough.

    Certainly the subject matter experts have their blogs, but a good number of them are written in a way that is opaque to the uninitiated. If we can find ways to harvest, organize and distribute their insights in a meaningful way to a broader audience, that might constitute a journalism of makers as well.

    Thanks for your insightful post.

  9. I think there’s a third kind of financial journalism you’ve overlooked – one that emerges out of the service tradition of news. This form of financial journalism – increasingly practiced at places even as big at the NYT, is a consumerist financial journalism with a service perspective. It is this ethic of financial journalism that I think has the strongest hope of connecting to a participatory public.

    I think that you’d find a muckracking journalism and maker culture intersecting in interesting ways at present. Take for example what happened when the combination of Diana Henriques’ reporting was matched up with a searchable Madoff database tool created by the CAR/interactive data folks at the NYT – this was a way to hack data and make it managable and searchable for lots of people (the data was just a mess) and it added to the reporting. So muckracking and maker culture are not inconsistent.

    Maybe I’m missing the point, but I think that these cultures are extended by maker culture in useful ways already in practice, and we just need to see more of it. There are examples, and it’s happening slowly, but there’s great hope.

  10. It sounds like ProPublica might fit the bill. The focus there is not only on enterprise reporting, but also developing new reporting tools that begin to filter and make sense of an avalanche of data. The nonprofit has a definite muckraking orientation, and partners with other news organizations (like PBS) to tackle in-depth, award-winning pieces on topics like fracking and post-Katrina failures in New Orleans. Other outlets also set a high bar for quality, but ProPublica alone, I think, makes the connection you argue for here: putting the tools of reportage in more hands in order to upend traditional news-gathering.

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