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Tag: NewsCubed

Journalism and the Power of Design

This is the text of my talk at the 2015 Walkley Freelance Focus conference in Brisbane:

Journalism needs some new ideas.

It needs new practices, formats and platforms. And it needs its own people to invent them. To be able to manipulate and control them.

This is how journalists will be able to shape and determine the future of their craft.

It is how values — such as the right to know and the public interest — will continue to underpin journalism in the future, no matter how technology evolves.

Technology has changed the way we do journalism. We can see this in the way that news organisations publish on multiple platforms; in the enthusiasm of journalists on Twitter, and the interactive features and data visualisations that are now part of the storytelling mix.

We’ve got our heads around multimedia, social media and need for deeper engagement with our audiences.

The trouble is, these weren’t our ideas. We didn’t develop the social tools that enable this interactivity, and we don’t control them.

Instead, we have adapted journalistic practice to fit the needs of the social networks and digital platforms that our audiences, in many ways, prefer over traditional media products.

But what will we do when communication technologies move out of the screen and into our clothes?

What about when when news is delivered via our coffee pot or when intelligent robots process and filter facts and output narratives according to an algorithm, rather than the public interest?

Advances in wearable computing, the internet of things, robotics, artificial intelligence and the potential for quantum computing, mean the media of the future is unlikely to resemble the formats we are familiar with.

In fact, the pace of technological change means we can’t predict what technologies we will be using in 10 years’ time. Or who will control them.

The point is that current ways of producing, distributing and managing journalistic work are not sufficient to tackle the computational advances and challenges that are coming.

The way we have integrated social, mobile and interactive media into journalism is unlikely to apply to robots or AI.

We need to build resilience into our practice, so that as technology changes, we are able to adapt and accommodate it in a way that preserves the essence of journalism.

Already news organisations rely on tech companies to distribute their content. Facebook’s Instant Articles is a case in point.

Is this ideal? Is this how we should reach readers?

Emily Bell, the director of Columbia University’s Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, points out that social networks don’t necessarily like, or share, the responsibilities the media has. Verifying facts and protecting sources are important to journalists, but software engineers couldn’t give a Tor’s.

Bell argues that we need to get to a point where the values of journalism are part of software, as much as software systems are a part of journalism.

To achieve this journalists need to design journalistic tech.

The way to do this is through design.

We need to become designers.

Design is not a secret practice for those with a talent for drawing. It is simply a process. A way of looking at problems and finding creative solutions for them. Solutions that are specific to the issues and needs of the users.

It is a collaborative, people-focused and practical process of research, designing, prototyping, evaluating and iterating — refining and improving a design based on use and feedback.

It is the process I used to create the NewsCube.

I am not a designer by trade or training. But I applied design techniques to solve a journalistic problem.

The NewsCube is an interactive, 3D storytelling tool. It was created to solve the problem of hyperlinks in news stories. To create a way of using links so they give readers greater control over stories and enable them to experience complex narratives from different points of view.

I started with research into hypertext and its potential as a storytelling tool. I then analysed news stories, news packages and news apps to find out whether they lived up to the potential.

They didn’t. Journalists predominately link to past coverage. Sometimes they take readers to primary sources but they rarely use hypertext to give readers narrative control. There was no sign of spatial hypertext or the use of shape as a navigation device. Nor were there any specific journalistic tools — this is despite the fact that fiction writers started creating hypertext authoring systems 20 years ago.

This was all fertile ground and provided a basis for my designing activities.

I am no artist. But I can draw a diagram, I can use a glue stick, and can wield a pair of sizzors. And this is enough to begin designing.

My sketches and low-fidelity, balsa wood prototypes show how an abstract idea of using a cube to tell a story began to take shape. Working through this process meant I could begin to map out how a story could be told in six sides, and then to think about the functionality — what would happen, how it would work. The wireframes tell that story.

These artefacts, these designs, embody the NewsCube concept, and the thinking involved in bringing it to fruition. And they meant I could then approach a developer to create a digital prototype.

This is it. This prototype included the basic functionality: you could create a cube, add content to it and create relationships between ideas. You couldn’t share or collaborate, but that ability was suggested with buttons, even though they didn’t work at that stage.

It was enough to get some feedback. So it was deployed to potential users: working journalists, former journalists and those in new media startups.

These people used the tool, then I interviewed them about their experiences.

They told me the NewsCube was fun and engaging, but difficult to use. They valued the tactility of the interface and the idea that it was collaborative. They also liked way it simplified complex stories.

This gave me a steer on what to fix, what to forget and, thanks to a Walkley Innovation Grant, I was able to iterate. The NewsCube in now in a beta phase.

The NewsCube is not the answer to interactive journalism. That is not its point. It is an experiment and it represents a possibility. It tells us that tactility, collaboration, playfulness and information synthesis are features that users find valuable. And this can influence future designs.

Designing, as you see, is not complex. You can do it cheaply with simple tools. This means that ideas can be tried, evaluated and iterated with little impact on production. The techniques do not require extensive training to master.

What they do require is curiosity, a little head space, a willingness to see things differently and to drop bad ideas.

The result will be a better idea. A new possibility. An opportunity for journalism and, potentially, innovation.

The technology theorist W Brian Arthur says that advanced, innovative technology, comes not from knowledge but from deep craft. To paraphrase him:

“Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work… [and] … knowing how to manipulate newly discovered … phenomena.”

Journalism has this deep craft. A craft, that if given the opportunity to explore new boundaries could drive its own innovation.

Collaboration Cubed

Since our outing at Storyology in December we’ve been tweaking the NewsCube and rolling out some new features, among them embedding and collaboration.

Users will see some new icons on their settings page, and the full-screen presentation mode allows a NewsCube to be shared on Facebook and Twitter, emailed to friends, or embedded on websites. It means people can read, play, and distribute a NewsCube without an account – much like YouTube videos.

Embedding, along with sharing, has long been on the list of core functions for the NewsCube because it is vital to building awareness, and hopefully adoption, of the technology.

Everett Rogers called this process diffusion, referring specifically to the communication of innovations and new ideas through a social system.

In our case, we hope our sharing and embedding tools will help diffuse the NewsCube, so it makes sense to spend time developing that capability.

But the case for collaboration is less obvious. The function we have rolled out allows a user to share the creation of a NewsCube with others. It means a group of cubers will have access to the editing functions on a single NewsCube. Cubes that are shared with you appear in your My Cubes gallery.

This type of collaboration means story cubes can be created by more than one person, but it falls short of the ‘breathing’ story idea of the original NewsCube concept.

Since it was conceived in 2011, one aspect of the NewsCube was a way to involve readers in the creation of stories. The idea has roots in hypertext theory, which suggests that stories can be constructed so that readers have a level of control over the narrative and can alter the plot, or switch perspective within them.

It was envisaged that a publisher or author would create a NewsCube in the first instance but that readers would be able to make contributions – add stories, commentary, or media – so creating an evolving, ‘breathing’ story.

Such contributions might shed light on an unreported aspect of a story, or show how an issue changes over time. Each face of the cube could be used to cluster related content, but these relationships would be fluid and could be changed by journalists or readers as the story evolved.

The aim is to tell stories in a way that captures their diversity, nuances and perspectives.

This type of interaction means authors relinquish some control over a story to the reader, and as I discovered from those who used an early prototype of the NewsCube, it makes people uncomfortable.

Some wanted to preserve the cube they had made and create a duplicate that could be collaborative, while others were concerned with how unwieldy a story might become if it was “designed by committee”.

At the same time most recognised that collaboration could lead to new insights and make stories better.

The question for us was how to design something that accommodated these views and was usable.

Several times it was put in the “too hard” basket. The need to develop a workflow around collaboration, ownership and control was a lesser priority than making sure users could get content onto the NewsCube and share it with others.

But we were asked often how to show a NewsCube to someone without making it public, and whether a team could work on one, so we looked again at collaboration.

In the end our solution has been to allow sharing between other NewsCubed users. This means more than one person can construct a NewsCube, though the owner has control over publishing and other settings.

It is not the living, breathing vision of interactive storytelling I imagined, but it provides a level of functionality that users desire. And design is all about the user.

This post was originally published by The Walkley Foundation

Taming the cube


Shape is a tricky thing to work with and at NewsCubed it has been both our strongest feature and biggest challenge.

The NewsCube is all about shape – it’s a cube after all – and as the tool has developed, we’ve grappled with how to manage it. On the one hand it has familiar, interactive qualities that make it appealing, but on the other it demands space and attention.

The NewsCube is like a building block that you can add things to. You can touch it and manipulate it. It’s tactile and easy to understand.

For those who have used the NewsCube, and were involved in testing an early prototype, it was these qualities that they liked – it was fun and interactive.

In fact, a former newspaper editor who tested a prototype said “People talk about newspapers being tangible and having that, well this cube’s pretty good for that.”

At the same time, a cube has limitations, most obvious is six sides, so there’s only so much you can fit on it (in our case 54 items, up to nine on each side).

This defined shape can feel restrictive in a way that a web page is not, which can carry as many items as you like.

Restricting space was one of the reasons for using a cube in the first place.

The NewsCube is a experiment in non-linear, hypertext storytelling. On the web, hyperlinks allow us to create connections between things. The paths created by these links can potentially go on and on forever.

This has implications for comprehension. In an inverted pyramid, for example, the narrative is controlled, the reporter takes the audience through the story. But with hypertext, the audience can go where it likes, so the narrative can diverge.

This is the appeal of hypertext. It can make online journalism more interactive, credible, transparent and diverse. It can help tell stories from multiple perspectives. But these stories can be difficult to follow.

This is why the NewsCube is a cube. A cube can bound the hyperspace: give it clear dimensions and help readers navigate the story and get back to where they started.

That’s the theory. In practice, juggling these characteristics has been difficult.

As the NewsCube has evolved from rudimentary prototype to functioning, responsive website, grappling with the demands of the shape have been constant and we’re still not sure we have fully tamed the cube.

In the early balsa wood prototypes the physicality of the cube was the key feature. This translated fairly well to an iPad prototype because it was a defined size and people still used their hands to manipulate it.

On the web things are different. The latest iteration is a responsive web version where tactility is mediated by a mouse or trackpad, and the size changes depending on where the cube is being used.

This gave our designer, David Lloyd, a headache.

“The shape of the cube is a real challenge because it takes up a lot of space and I need to design for a worse-case scenario. We still have ‘small type’ issues, which are being refined as we go.”

For Andrea Epifani, developing a 3D interface on a web browser, and making it usable, has been a battle, but one worth fighting.

“Putting something 3D into a web browser sounded weird and extremely complicated but then turned out to be fun and challenging.

“Fighting with the 3D framework to make the cube better and better over time has been the most interesting part. It’s something I wouldn’t have any chance to do otherwise.”

Working on the web means other features of the NewsCube work better. Creating stories and uploading content are easier, and we’ve created a browser bookmarklet so you can Cube on the fly.

On the web we are not restricted to a specific mobile platform, so the NewsCube is available to more people.

We’ve still got work to do, but the NewsCube is now in Beta release. We’re looking for people to try out our 3D story experience, so if you’d like to give it a spin, please get in touch.

This post was originally published by The Walkley Foundation

NewsCube wins innovation grant



My NewsCube project has won a Walkley Innovation Grant. The project was one of six projects in the running for a share of $40,000 in seed funding to develop the project. It’s exciting news and means I can develop a beta version of the product and make it available to storytellers.

Check out the Walkley Foundation for more on the grants.

The NewsCube has been developed as part of my PhD research, which explores how interaction design effects journalistic storytelling. Essentially, it set out to redesign journalism from a technology perspective, to create something that exploited digital media more than online journalism does currently.

The NewsCube is a platform that allows journalists to research, create and publish complex stories. It is designed to facilitate storytelling from multiple perspectives and encourage information synthesis. With a NewsCube, journalists can aggregate existing stories and documents, create relationships between items and organise story components. They can also share their stories and involve users in the storytelling process.

It aims to make quality journalism more engaging. If publishers can boost reader engagement with important stories, then they get more or their readers’ time and attention, and they can capture audiences who come back. For media companies this is more valuable than clicks or shares.

Feedback on the prototype suggests the NewsCube has some important qualities for boosting reader engagement. Participants said the NewsCube:

  • could increase time on site;
  • was appealing to younger audiences;
  • provided added value to readers.

With the grant money secured the focus now is on design and development. Design is in the creative hands of David Lloyd, and the development is being handled by the creative computer engineer Andrea Epifani. Meanwhile, the next event on the NewsCubed Pty Ltd startup calendar is the Journalism Entrepreneur’s Workshop in Melbourne in August. This is part of the Walkely Innovation Grants program. The workshop is being run by Lisa Williams, the Director of Digital Engagement for the Investigative News Network.

More on this to come. Keep and eye on Twitter too: @newscubed and @skyedoherty 

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