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How journalism can benefit from computer science thinking

An interview with Nick Diakopoulos

Nick Diakopoulos is an independent researcher and consultant in New York City, specializing in human computer interaction for computational media applications. His recently published white paper for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, “Cultivating the Landscape of Innovation in Computation Journalism”, examined overlooked or underexplored opportunities for innovation in journalism. For anyone interested in the future of journalism, the paper is worth a deep look. Diakopoulos provides insight into how journalism might better harness the power of computer science thinking and processes. I recently asked Diakopoulos some questions about the white paper and its implications for Lean Back 2.0.

How are the fields of journalism and computer science, which at first glance seem completely unrelated, actually quite similar?

Computing can be defined as ‘the systematic study of algorithmic processes that describe and transform information.’ When you think about it, journalism is also fundamentally concerned with information, of making sense of the world by gathering, producing and disseminating information and knowledge. Computing adds to this a focus on the algorithmic, about how automated processes can manipulate and transform information. Despite the conceptual similarity, though, it’s important not to forget journalism is still very much a human endeavor insofar as the information and knowledge produced is colored by the cultural milieu, ethics and temporal constraints in which journalists work. 

How do you think these two industries could better understand each other and work together in the future?

There’s in incredible bit of authorial agency involved with programming computers. And yes it’s still a specialized skill, but programming allows a storyteller to manipulate or tell a story in new ways. It’s the difference between painting a picture with pre-mixed colors and painting a picture by mixing your primary colors until you have exactly the color you want. Programmers have all the primary colors. So news organizations (and educational institutions) need to do better in terms of integrating programming skills into their content production processes. At the same time, programmers need to learn about storytelling and communication to be effective computational journalists. But I don’t want to over-fetishize the ability to program since at the end of the day it’s really about effective communication through a medium. Sometimes that will involve programming and sometimes it won’t.

What do you think are the biggest mistakes journalists and news outlets are making when it comes to new technologies?

I’m not sure this is a mistake so much as an under-realized opportunity, but implementing new technologies should never lose sight of who those technologies serve. A dose of user-centered design can go a long way toward helping to meet the needs and values of the people who will ultimately benefit from a new technology.

What exactly do you mean by user-centered design? That was one of my favorite parts of your paper. How can journalists better understand the needs of their users?

User-centered design, UCD, is about tailoring and developing technologies that fit human needs and incorporate an understanding of human physical, psychological and social physics. When we design such technologies they’re easier to use and adopt. Computational journalism needs to acknowledge UCD in order to be effective; it’s not just about spiffy new technology. A range of methods can be used to do this including everything from ethnographies, to in-depth interviews, to surveys. News organizations might consider bringing on more people trained in UCD and I think journalism schools would be well-served by incorporating design thinking into their curricula. The result would ultimately be journalism and technologies for journalism that serve the public better.

At Lean Back 2.0, we’re especially focused on the role that tablet technologies are playing in news and publishing. What do you see as some ways news organizations could understand and use tablets in more ‘computer science’ friendly ways?

A focus on user-centered design begs us to consider not only why people consume news content but also the myriad ways in which people satisfy their news needs through different media and technology. Tablets are often about complementing other media consumption as a second screen. I think news organizations might build on this and consider how tablets may enable or enhance other news experiences. In a sense it comes down to better understanding the contexts in which these devices are used and creating an experience that fits that context.

You created a brainstorming activity that helps journalism students and professionals uncover new opportunities in news and technology. Do you think this activity could help the industry brainstorm new business models?

As it’s currently designed, I wouldn’t say the brainstorming activity is geared toward helping people ideate around business models. This is definitely an area where we’d like to think more though. Once a set of new ideas is generated we’d like to be able to systematically think through the business and market opportunities.

 Cards from the brainstorming activity