How can technology help newsrooms in their community engagement efforts and, at the same time, do so by offering alternatives to current methods of community-building that depend on mobile phones and social media? This what we set out to investigate and imagine with the project Batjo: Bits, Atoms and Journalism.
A growing number of thinkers and researchers is raising concerns about the ethical issues embedded in the platforms and the digital medium that newsrooms rely on to publish their content. Issues that could very possibly be in stark contradiction with journalism’s “Hippocratic Oat” to “do no harm” to its audience. Relying on metrics to measure or drive impact and engagement has its implications. So does depending on property intermediaries that use closed-source algorithms to rank, distribute and moderate content. And let’s not talk of all the issues that come with the fact that smartphones are increasingly becoming the main source of news for many adults and especially young people. Smartphones have been accused of reducing some of our cognitive skills, in particular abilities like deep thinking, reading and creativity. Apparently, the mere presence of a smartphone in a room diminishes feelings of empathy and inhibits “the development of interpersonal closeness and trust”.
Implications of how digital and mobile readership works also pose very concrete questions in relation to the revenue prospects and the future sustainability of many news outlets. As print newspapers are faced with shrinking revenues and circulation, becoming online-only news outlets seems like the most viable option for many. This is what happened to The Independent (UK) in 2016. Two researchers, Neil Thurman and Richard Fletcher, went on to investigate the consequences of this transition. Among the findings, it stands out that, while The Independent’s net British readership 12 months after the transition was roughly the same as prior to the transition, the total time its audience spent on its articles fell by 81%. As an approximation, “a single print subscription to The Independent generated on average, about 6,100 times the actual content consumption as one monthly unique on its website or app”.
This is not only a question of revenue, ethics, empathy, and cognition: ultimately, it is a question of democracy, given newspaper’s central role in informing the public. And while digital news, and especially mobile phones, might increase access and exposure to news, the quality of such access is in question. To the point that, in their paper “News Attention in a Mobile Era”, the researchers argue that “building economic value into mobile news may inadvertently decrease its democratic value”.
Imaging Physical Scenarios for Digital Journalism
With the project Batjo: Bits, Atoms and Journalism, we want to try to imagine a world were the efforts of digital journalism are not cramped into smaller screen sizes and ways to communicate through shallower attention spans. We’d like a world where the next steps of digital journalism are focused on experimenting ways to let the digital news ecosystem be enriched by physical multi-sensorial news experience that happen in the real world. So that consuming news becomes a chance to facilitate intuitive understanding, deeper knowledge and cooperative social interactions within real-world communities.
As a starting point for this exploration, the project has decided to focus on data journalism. A rising start among newsrooms in the last decade, its implementation is not without dilemmas (and here). Data rich visualizations that shed light on complexity often don’t work well on mobile, a main source of news for many. They are basically inaccessible to blind people, if not through screen readers. Many beautiful data experiences will often require a (decent) wi-fi speed — something we might give for granted, but is not always a given. And, even if all the rest succeeds, there’s still the issue of visual literacy and how to educate readership to interpret charts correctly. Once data journalists transform their reporting and data visualizations in a physical 3D “news installation”, they can find space for stories that are hard to put in words, or present data visualizations that are too complex to be published online. And they can rely on all of the audience’s 5 senses to communicate their stories. Like a director, they set the stage and the mood for how data-driven pieces are consumed. This allows for both the journalist and the news process to be more deeply intertwined with the local realities and environments. The data journalism pieces are then no longer read in solitude, but become an event for the whole community.
Currently, a reader might come across a rich data journalism story while being on a 10-minute rush-hour bus ride, which makes it hard to parse statistics or click through rich interactives. By creating physical installations set in a specific space and time, the journalist has a direct influence in establishing the right attitude and context for its consumption. Instead of compressing more and more information in fewer and fewer pixels of screen size, newsrooms can embrace the opposite: slower and bigger news experiences.
Physical “news installation” can be a great mean to engage local communities around news topics. Newsrooms could coordinate with public spaces (like parks, libraries or museums) to host events and news installations on topics of local relevance, like the administration’s spending budget or traffic accidents. Such installations would continue to inhabit the place for defined periods of time, offering a constant visual token as people walk by it, perhaps spontaneously engaging with it and debating it with other members of the community. Its physical presence in a public space makes it discoverable by people touched by the topic who would not have accessed an online article (like, perhaps, the elderly or children).
Physical news installations inherently have some characteristics that make them a great complement to online journalism. For example, they can be used to deliver interactive data journalism in places with limited Internet access. They can be designed to be fully accessible for the visually impaired, unlike online data viz. They are also more straightforward to interact with than rich online interactives and can therefore be used to teach and improve the audience’s data/visual literacy.
Recent development in newsroom business models suggest that this path is compatible with what is working in terms of revenue. The 2017 Reuters Digital News Report notes that business models that are growing well are those that include community engagement, membership models, subscriptions and donations. And the report links this to the fact that “we are seeing more news organizations refocusing on quality, unique journalism that people would be prepared to pay for”. As newsrooms rely less and less on ads and more on paid-for quality content, there will be more room for experiments and a search for ways to better engage the audience.
In parallel to all this, newsrooms across the world are increasingly grounding their practice in the community they work with, engaging successfully in a constant conversation with their readers. According to the Engaged Journalism Accelerator that promotes similar initiatives, such journalistic practices have “the potential to restore trust in media, provide citizens with information they need and help establish new and resilient revenue models and enhance plurality and diversity in a crucial part of society’s information ecosystem”. And NiemanLab’s research across Western media outlets puts physical journalism, “in the form of public meetings, festivals, events, and stage plays”, among the 9 core ideas for innovative journalism. (If you speak Danish, there’s their book, “Den journalistiske Forbindelse”).
In short, it is a perfect moment to start playing with physicality, sensorial understanding and deeper multisensory interactions in journalistic experiences.
What we set out to do is to equip newsrooms and journalists with the actual tools and knowledge so that they can have control over the design of such experiences. We hope to get to a point where building a 3D data experience is part of the common data journalism skill set just like creating a 2D line chart. To do all this, we are developing a series of prototype customizable data installations, detailed tutorials, workshop and courses on digital fabrication techniques, all specifically targeted at journalists and requiring only open source software. Our designs will all be released under an open, free culture licence so that they can be easily reused and adapted by newsrooms around the world(the licence is CC-BY 4.0, specifically).