My wishlist for a modern news organization

EJ Fox
EJ Fox
Dec 11, 2013 · 7 min read

This summer I spoke to a large well-known news organization about joining their design team to help figure out what data-driven news should look like today. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be a monumental task to get an existing company to transition to the web in the ways that are necessary. To accomplish news properly on the web requires rethinking fundamental assumptions the majority of news organizations make today. It would be much easier to start from scratch.

I think the most promise is in starting from the ground up. I am most excited by young organizations tackling news like Circa, VICE, and Vocativ.

News of Pierre Omidyar’s plans to start his own news organization from scratch with Glenn Greenwald is very exciting. Omidyar’s experience echoes my own.

In the spring of this year, Pierre Omidyar was one of the people approached by the Washington Post Company about buying the Post. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, wound up with the prize. But as a result of exploring that transaction, Omidyar started thinking seriously about investing in a news property. He began to ask himself what could be done with the same investment if he decided to build something from the ground up.

It is becoming obvious to everyone, from investor to consumer, that something new needs to be done. Here’s my wishlist for any news organization that wants to thrive today and beyond.


Make better use of modern technology

As the threat against journalism from government surveillance grows, journalists and news organizations owe it to both their readers and their sources to follow the best security practices. The famous story of Greenwald delaying communication with Snowden because of an unfamiliarity with encryption software shouldn’t be repeated.

Not only should journalists be on the same page as technically-savvy sources, they should help other sources who do not have that knowledge gain both the skills and the confidence to anonymously come forward with information. More organizations need to follow the model of Forbes, who recently launched an anonymous file/text drop on the TOR network.

Journalists should be using the most advanced technology available to them to find stories as well. I’m not talking about giant iPads either. News-startup Vocativ use an application to search for leads on the web algorithmically, even in places a typical search engine wouldn’t look. This leads to unique insights found in places like message boards or seemingly-mundane tweets in a foreign language.

This could be classified as a Signals Intelligence approach to journalism, where the goal is to gather as much data as possible to analyze and find stories. Pulling in media from publicly-available streams and filtering it down to find the gems that help tell a story is essential for a modern news organization. The quality of the software that finds these stories will increasingly determine their success as time goes on and we generate exponentially more data.

Data-gathering can’t be done only by machines though, and the modern journalist needs to embrace reporting a story and filling out a spreadsheet as much as reporting a story and writing an article.

The goal should be to store information in a way that’s reusable, so that the work done by a journalist can turn into not only a written article, but also a data visualization, or a map, or another story entirely when another journalist comes across the data and thinks of a unique way to analyze it.

Get rid of ideas that no longer make sense on the web

Any fledgling news organization needs to start looking for ideas that have been long-held in the industry but have no place on the web. Many long-held beliefs in the industry remain

Quartz has found one in the exhausted idea of a news ‘beat’. The idea of a beat made managing a newspaper easier because you had a determined number of pages to fill, but what place does it have on the web?

So instead of fixed beats, we structure our newsroom around an ever-evolving collection of phenomena—the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in. “Financial markets” is a beat, but “the financial crisis” is a phenomenon. “The environment” is a beat, but “climate change” is a phenomenon… We call these phenomena our “obsessions”. Source

Circa has found another, and is redefining the basic unit of news.

The way the technology is organized changes the nature of the news itself. We are not going to organize the news in articles. In most news organizations that’s the unit and at best you can organize by topic. So we said ‘What happens if you make the unit, this atomic unit of news, the fact — a stat, a quote, an image?’ A quote can exist in multiple stories. Source

Journalists need to gather information so that computers can help organize and display them. A well-tagged, well-maintained database of facts will quickly become essential for every news organization. They should not be wasting their time rehashing old articles to give context to a current event, the system should automatically discover and arrange previously-added facts into a backstory while journalists discover what is happening now.

News has a new attitude

News consumers now expect their information to come in a package just as entertaining as any prime-time TV show. They no longer expect their hosts to embody the age-old principles of objective impartiality at the expense of honesty. Gonzo is the new standard in organizations like VICE who have shows like Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia where the host reports on psychedelics primarily by ingesting them, but who also confidently explains their chemical makeup in his relatively sober introductory explanations.

Other shows frequently involve finding an interesting area, or newsworthy group of people, and making a host do their best to keep up. When the story is African moonshiners, the obviously means plenty of on-camera drinking with the locals, and it feels much more honest than just showing up and clinically interviewing strangers as, say, CNN would do. You end up feeling like you might know what it would be like to have that experience.

VICE reports by finding hosts that viewers can relate to and sending them around the world into new situations. Seeing remarkable experiences through someone they can relate to, and who is honest about what is happening is a powerful formula that VICE is perfecting.

Journalists don’t need to strive for an antiquely sacred objectivity, where they are never rattled and always know the answers. They should be more like rockstars. They will frequently be much more like Hunter S. Thompson, Matt Taibbi, and Jeremy Scahill than Walter Cronkite.

Presenting news beautifully

The presentation of news is also changing. The New York Times Snow Fall piece is now infamous, and opened many eyes to what long-form stories on the web should look like. It had over 2.9 million visitors, a feat for an article that is hardly a front-page story. It could be argued much of that traffic was people simply marveling at the way the story was told, which is an indication of how hungry people are for something better.

The New York Times knows this, which is why they moved their national editor to head a division whose “first assignment is to create an immersive digital magazine experience, a lean back read that will include new, multimedia narratives in the tradition of Snow Fall.”

Vox Media, the company behind The Verge, Polygon, and SB Nation recognizes this change as well.

When Vox launched The Verge, they took their first stab at what some call “immersive storytelling” — they just call it “longform” stories, appropriately — in November 2011. We’re talking about stories that have big, beautiful photos and typography, where the design is tailored to the content, rather than being shoehorned into an inflexible template like most news organization sites. Source

Each feature article should have it’s own page, with it’s own style and format. The content and the mediums that best deliver it should shine.

This means organizational rethinking in both gathering stories and presenting it. There is an enormous gap in the tools journalists currently have when it comes to putting their stories together beautifully. Each story should have it’s own experience, but often crafting that experience takes too much time. Great pieces of reporting are stuffed into antiquated templates that don’t do them justice.

News organizations should be using content management systems that allow them the full flexibility needed to craft unique, beautiful stories. Until a new standard emerges, this means custom solutions. Which is what they have done at The Verge.

The layouts aren’t handcoded. And they don’t take six weeks of collaborations. And in many cases, it doesn’t even require the assistance of a web developer (of which they have 46, by the way).

“We’ve had editors get so good at it that it takes no longer than an hour, hour and a half,” Brundrett said. That includes deciding on a layout, adding photography, pullquotes, taking an editing pass and hitting publish. The most time-consuming part of it is the time spent polishing and editing.

By breaking each article into an ‘atomic unit of news’, it is much easier to lay it out and rearrange it based on templates. Once you separate the content from how you display it, you are capable of much more than a static article.

A new era for news

The best stories will combine different mediums seamlessly, be it text, photos, videos, audio, or data visualization. NPR CEO Gary Knell said last year he wants to

“smash together the digital and so-called audio journalists… we should eliminate these distinctions. Because, really, the audience doesn’t view news that way anymore.”

News is entering the big leagues. Readers will soon expect videos as entertaining as VICE, combined with audio documentaries as good as This American Life, with data gathered by statisticians like Nate Silver and visualized by programmers like Mike Bostock, the reporting as rock-solid as the New York Times, all wrapped up as beautifully as Snow Fall.

Each medium should be used to tell the piece of the story it can capture best, and combining those atomic units creates something better than the sum of it’s parts. A modern news organizations needs to shape the technology and organization to make that process as smooth as possible.

Thanks to Paul Van Slembrouck

    EJ Fox

    Written by

    EJ Fox

    Freelance dataviz designer at @hellomainstem - available for work - Taking pictures and making infographics - Left my heart in Oakland -

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