Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dear Digital Journalists, Take Me To Your Leaders. Love, Non-Journalists

by Jeff Stanger

A February 26 New York Times interactive package on natural gas wells provides a fresh example of the emerging information forms that are unique to digital media. This post offers an overview of the package and argues that more non-journalism organizations should emulate this innovative approach in their dissemination strategies.

I was reminded of the groundbreaking work taking place in the digital journalism field as I watched some tweets come through the tubes from NICAR in Raleigh, NC this weekend (#nicar11 on Twitter). These included accounts of an enlightening talk by Jeffrey Heer of Stanford University. Purely coincidentally, I had just been re-reading Heer's paper (with Edward Segel) "Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data" [PDF]. Then the New York Times's excellent package on natural gas well regulation appeared offering a fresh case study of the sort of evolving digital form that Segel and Heer investigate, NICAR attendees create — and non-journalists ought to emulate.

The package contains three elements that are completely impossible in any other mediumnative digital information. Two other parts are important, but could have been accomplished in older media — in other words, digital distribution. Taken as a whole, this package demonstrates the narrative strength and depth of a digital information approach. This sort of innovative, uniquely digital storytelling is what's needed everywhere information is produced, not just newsrooms.

Let's take a look at the Times package. I've listed the components in order from most digitally native to least.

  • Interactive data map: A data-driven/computational, zoom and rollover "reader-driven" experience in Segel and Heer's terms. Perhaps more a tool for discovery and data exploration rather than storytelling. Verdict: While we have gotten somewhat accustomed to this bubble-chart-on-map display, we shouldn't forget that this is a uniquely digital information form.
  • Interactive animation: Initially linear, containing Segel and Heer's "messaging" element in an "author-driven" narrative, but interactive and reader-driven in the ability to advance from section to section and click on those sections in any order, skipping back to review or jumping ahead. Verdict: uniquely digital information form.
  • Highlighted and annotated documents: Among the elements here, a 1,113-page EPA draft document, highlighted and annotated in-line, with anchor links to the right to navigate the annotations. Verdict: Loved Nicholas Carr's book, but there is nothing shallow here. A uniquely digital information form constructed atop a 1,113-page non-digital primary resource.
  • 7-minute video: This is a great, moving piece, and a excellent supplement to the package. But there is nothing uniquely digital about video per se, so that's why it's down the list. Verdict: Digital distribution.
  • The "story": Again, great, and the anchor of the package, but text existed before digital media. I don't count hyperlinks. Verdict: Digital distribution.

Other residents of our information ecosystem, namely research organizations — think tanks, foundations, nonprofits, academic institutions, government agencies — employ very few, if any, of the new and powerful interactive storytelling mechanisms at their disposal for the original telling of the story. If this package was put together by Research Organization X at, the table of contents would most likely look like this:

  • 150-page PDF report (or maybe 1,113 pages)
  • Blog post with link to the 150-page PDF document
  • Emailed press release linking to the blog post linking to the 150-page PDF document

The contrast between these two tables of contents is obvious. They represent two entirely different approaches to information dissemination in a digital setting. But nevertheless, the objectives are exactly the same — audience engagement and storytelling for the purpose of information dissemination. I believe the gas well example has an escalating chance to engage and inform a digital society, while the Research Organization X example has a decreasing chance of success. As part of a multi-billion-dollar investment in feeding our public dialogue with original (emphasis) information gathering and analysis, Research Organization X can and must do better in order to remain informative and relevant in a digital society.

So to digital journalists, hats off. Take me to your leaders. Your skills are needed in many other settings beyond the newsroom.

Comments welcome...