Designing journalism to be used

There are lots of reasons people might want to follow the news, but to me, journalism’s core mission is to facilitate agency. I don’t think current news products are very good at this.

Journalism, capital J, is supposed to be about ideals such as “democracy” and “the public interest.” It’s probably important to be an informed voter, but this is a very shallow theory of why journalism is desirable. Most of what we see around us isn’t built on votes. It’s built on people imagining that some part of the world should be some other way, and then doing what it takes to accomplish that. Democracy is fine, but a real civic culture is far more participatory and empowering than elections. This requires not just information, but information tools.

Newspaper stories online and streaming video on a tablet are not those tools. They are transplantations of what was possible with paper and television. Much more is now possible, and I’m going to try to sketch the outlines of how newsroom products might better support the people who are actually changing the world.

What’s a journalism “product”?

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The Structure of Social Journalism

Shortest way I can describe how I think journalism must change: the internet is not just for distribution, but production too. I’m not saying that “citizen journalists” will be making all the news. I suspect a complex collaboration between many people, including something like a newsroom full of pro journalists. In this article I’m going to explore what that might look like, by asking what the component tasks are that make up “journalism”, and thinking about who can do those most efficiently. And I’m going to sketch out the design for a piece of social software to support this.

Here’s a list of things that professional journalists do:

  • decide what should be more broadly known
  • decide what should be more deeply investigated
  • collect information from sources both public and private
  • check that information for factual accuracy
  • construct narratives to make sense of that information
  • produce content to convey those narratives
  • publish and market that content

This list is by no means definitive or exhaustive. It’s just illustrative, a starting point for a thought experiment. Who could do each of these things best? And what tools to do they need to do it?

Having a network of people producing journalism around a newsroom is not a new idea. Jeff Jarvis has been discussing networked journalism since at least 2006, and naturally I think he’s on to something. In this essay I want concentrate on process and roles. If cheap networks make new types of collaboration possible, they also set the stage for new types of specialization. I think one of the problems of the traditional, mainstream media newsroom is that it it tries to handle the entire journalistic process internally, even the parts that it’s not actually very good at.

An example

On November 25, a video appeared on YouTube which appears to be the testimonial of a young woman recently fired from the credit card collections division of Bank of America. She had been allowing the bank’s most desperate customers to enroll in fixed-payment debt recovery schemes. Many of these customers are currently paying 30% interest as a result of recent rate hikes, so this was a great kindness. It was also against company policy.

The video is powerful. It’s an amazing first-person testimonial of the greed and heartlessness of large corporations.

So is this journalism?

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What Can We Learn From the Network Structure of Wikipedia Authors?


The edit network for “telephone tapping” shows a bipartite structure, indicating that the topic is controversial (image from Brandes et al.)

An interesting new paper defines the “edit network” of a Wikipedia article by drawing edges to indicate that one person has deleted or restored text written by another. While it’s always fun to look at pictures, the surprise here is that we can verify that the resulting graph structure really does tell us something useful about the article. In this study, articles with a more “bipolar” edit network — meaning that the authors split into basically two camps who routinely undid each other’s edits — were also much more likely to appear on a manually-maintained list of controversial pages.

Although there has been previous work on network mapping of Wikipedia in particular (and of course volumes of work on social networks in general) I find this paper interesting because it tries very carefully to understand whether the pictures mean anything. Like all science, what you find depends on where you look, and the practitioner of network analysis has an absurd amount of freedom to define what a “node” is, what an “edge” is, and how the resulting graph is visually laid out (since the point of a map is a visual representation, it’s very important that graphical properties such as distance, size, color, etc. have the right sort of metaphorical relationships to the more abstract properties we are trying to understand.)  

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