The Texas Tribune launched in late 2009 with a newsroom of veteran journalists and rising stars. And while that respected crew of reporters, editors, and columnists would go on to unearth their share of political scoops, it wasn’t traditional reporting and writing that propelled the Tribune to early prominence. Instead, the Tribune quickly made its name as an interactive resource for readers to do their own exploring.
During its first year the Tribune’s biggest traffic magnet was a series of more than three dozen interactive databases that enabled readers to scour their neighborhood’s school rankings, look up an inmate in the state prison system, or snoop on their office mate’s salary. The databases connected readers to more than one million public records they otherwise might not have known how to find. Collectively these databases were an unexpected hit, drawing three times as many page views as the site’s stories.
This is an edited excerpt from “Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences” by Jake Batsell (Columbia University Press) Copyright 2015 Columbia University Press
“Publishing data is news,” the Tribune’s Matt Stiles and Niran Babalola told readers in a blog post outlining their philosophy. “It aligns with our strategy of adding knowledge and context to traditional reporting, and it helps you and us hold public officials accountable.” Embracing that mentality, the Tribune created what almost instantly became its most popular calling card, a database listing the salaries of nearly 700,000 public employees. The salary database drew a flurry of complaints from state employees who considered it an invasion of privacy and from readers who called it the digital equivalent of “water-cooler gossip.” But ultimately it was an easy-to-use tool that connected readers with publicly available information. That ethic of accessibility informs all the Tribune’s interactive news or apps. The databases also bring in revenue. For example, each salary listing has its own digital page with several ads placed by corporate sponsors.
The Tribune is part of a growing tide of newsrooms that are creating interactive platforms for readers to use in whatever ways matter most to them. Major U.S. newsrooms have long employed a handful of computer-assisted reporting specialists who acquired data through public records requests, sorted and analyzed the databases, and summarized the most attention-grabbing figures in their stories (or highlighted them in accompanying sidebars and graphics). The approach certainly produced a lot of worthwhile journalism, but a key element was missing: enabling readers to explore the data themselves. In the digital era that basic expectation of interactivity has become one of the most essential components of effective journalistic engagement.
Aron Pilhofer, executive editor of digital for the Guardian in London, remembers precisely when his mind-set in regard to data journalism changed. In May 2005 the pioneering journalist-developer Adrian Holovaty launched chicagocrime.org, a website that combined Google Maps with data from the Chicago Police Department to create interactive block-by-block crime maps. The site gave Chicago residents the ability to easily track crimes in their neighborhood, regardless of whether the incidents made television news or the metro briefs column in the Tribune or Sun-Times. “It totally changed the way I thought about journalism … the idea that data itself, presented to readers in a format that they, then, could investigate, could itself be an act of journalism,” Pilhofer said during a 2012 training webinar sponsored by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. That’s the hallmark of effective data journalism. No matter how artfully an interactive project is designed, the ultimate test is whether the public can use it.
“If something’s useful, it’ll live in the wild,” said Matt Stiles, who left the Texas Tribune to join NPR’s news apps team in Washington, D.C. With every app the NPR apps team creates, for example, Matt Stiles and his colleagues strive to solve a problem for readers—“not just dump it [data] but to let them explore it with a good experience …. What story are we trying to tell? What is someone going to bookmark and use again? What is someone really going to want?” For example, NPR’s mobile Fire Forecast app synthesizes data from the U.S. Forest Service with interactive mapping technology to give users a personalized current assessment of the wildfire danger based on their location.
News outlets can appeal to readers’ competitive instincts by pulling them into digital “gamified” experiences that are even more immersive. The Telegraph in London did just that during the summer of 2013 with an interactive feature that was fun, compelling, and wonderfully simple—and took only a few days to build. “How to spot a Stradivarius,” published in connection with an Oxford museum exhibit featuring twenty-one of the world-renowned violins, challenged users to listen to three short audio clips and see if they could pick out the fairest fiddle of them all. Users listened to three audio clips, each less than a minute—one played with the Stradivarius, one with an eighteenth-century German violin, and one with a £40 (about $67) violin from the supermarket. Users dragged and dropped each violin into the box that they thought matched the corresponding clip.
Whether you guessed right or not, the Stradivarius challenge provided a brainy five-minute escape and perhaps the impulse to pass the story along to a friend. Telegraph readers shared the game repeatedly through Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. When I spoke with members of the Telegraph’s interactive team in London, they said they considered the Stradivarius project a relative success, especially given the minimal staff time spent creating it. “It’s not the best, by far,” said Mark Oliver, an online graphics editor who spent roughly half a week creating the feature. “But in terms of the amount of time that we spent building it, it was pretty successful, I think.” Oliver and Conrad Quilty-Harper, an interactive news editor, said they don’t have a fixed formula for gauging the success of interactive games. When a project goes live, they pay close attention to page views, social media shares, and comment activity, as well as more subjective factors like the tone of the comments. The Stradivarius test, which drew roughly five thousand responses from people sharing their results, “was probably a midlevel-high success,” Quilty-Harper said. “But then, some graphics we’ve done have thirty thousand or forty thousand [shares]. If we get something that does fifty shares and we spent three days on it, that’s dramatically unsuccessful.”
On the other hand, a news game that catches on can attract a motivated and loyal subset of users, as the Texas Tribune found in 2011-12 with its daily trivia game about Texas politics, Qrank. Rodney Gibbs, cofounder of Ricochet Labs, which developed Qrank, said the game was designed for those “microboredom moments” when you’re waiting in line or picking up your kids.
Reeve Hamilton, a staff writer, was in charge of updating the daily Qrank quizzes with newsy nuggets and tidbits from the Tribune’s stories and interactive features. “There were a lot of inside jokes embedded in it that you would only get if you were paying attention,” Hamilton said. “It gave people a reason to come to the site.”
Players accumulated points for correct answers and were ranked on a leaderboard as they competed for monthly prizes worth hundreds of dollars, such as dinner for two at an upscale Austin restaurant. “You basically have to read everything on our site to get a perfect score,” said Emily Ramshaw, the Tribune’s editor. “The facts we stick in there sometimes are so obscure.”
The experiment worked in some ways but not others. Players found ways to cheat. And over time the game became a drain on Hamilton’s time—he spent roughly an hour every night updating the quiz. “It was quite an undertaking,” he said.
Gibbs conceded Hamilton’s point: “For all its strengths,” he said of Qrank, “it took constant feeding.” In September 2012 the Tribune discontinued the Qrank experiment; Ricochet Labs sold the game’s technology to another gaming company, and Gibbs became the Tribune’s chief innovation officer.
Still, during its twenty-month run Qrank created a sense of competition and excitement for the roughly eight hundred to nine hundred unique users who participated each month. Realized to their maximum potential, news games can spread the impact of journalistic projects far beyond their original publication outlet. Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times columnist, and Sheryl WuDunn, a former Times reporter, supplemented their best-selling book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” (2009) with a Facebook adventure game in which players complete quests to unlock actual gifts that support women and girls around the world. Kristof announced on his public Facebook page in August 2013 that the game had reached one million players and raised more than $400,000 for global women’s causes. “Games can do good,” Kristof told his Facebook followers.
To make a newsgame, ask: Does the game inform? If it doesn’t, it is only a game. Does it entertain? If not, it is only journalism
In Brazil, simulation games aimed at young people demystify the news by assigning players enticing roles and missions, such as an undercover cop who poses as a trafficker to infiltrate the mafia. The Brazilian youth magazine Superinteressante and its publishing house, Editora Abril, have developed several such games. Fred di Giacomo, the former youth department editor for Editora Abril, describes his editorial process in deciding which topics were worthy of a news game:
First you need to think about when it’s worth creating a game. Is the story I want to tell best told through a game, a post, or an infographic? If I had wanted to explain how to avoid catching swine flu, for example, I would never do it in a game. Will making a game facilitate understanding of information? That is the starting point. To make a newsgame, you have to ask two questions: Does the game inform? If it doesn’t, it is only a game. Does the game entertain? If not, it is only journalism.
California Watch, an investigative site founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), informed and entertained a younger-than-usual audience in 2011 with Ready to Rumble, a coloring book released in tandem with an acclaimed series that examined seismic safety in the state’s public schools. The nonprofit investigative news outlet published a first run of roughly thirty-six thousand coloring books that educated children on what to do when an earthquake hits. Ashley Alvarado, the public engagement editor, explained that CIR created the book because she and her colleagues wanted to directly reach and inform the children whose safety was the ultimate goal of the series: “While California Watch articles are written for adults, we recognize that oftentimes children are those most affected by the stories we report.” Several media partners helped cover printing costs for the coloring books, which were translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, traditional Chinese, and simplified Chinese.
Contests also can help individual bloggers build a bigger following, as Mark Luckie discovered years before he became Twitter’s manager of journalism and news. In the late 2000s Luckie started a blog called 10000Words.net that covered the intersecting worlds of journalism and technology. To promote the blog Luckie began to run contests on Twitter, offering prizes as modest as a $5 or $10 gift card. “That was the point that I realized 10,000 Words was a business, and I needed to do something to make it more engaging to take it to the word-of-mouth stage,” Luckie said.
The contests helped Luckie engage his core audience and attract additional readers to the blog. Luckie later sold 10000Words.net for an undisclosed amount to WebMediaBrands Inc. (now Mediabistro Inc.), parent company of Media Bistro.
The Texas Tribune returned to the world of news games in May 2013 with the Session Scramble, a photo scavenger hunt held during the frenetic final two weeks of the state legislative session. “Think of it as Instagram with cut-throat competition instead of sepia tone filters,” the Tribune proclaimed in announcing the contest, whose assigned hunts ranged from the newsy (taking shots of demonstrations at the capitol) to the silly (legislators high-fiving each other). Funded by corporate sponsors, the Session Scramble drew 1,243 photos from 244 participants vying for prizes that included a spa retreat and three nights at a Caribbean hotel.
The sheer journalistic effort involved in creating a comprehensive data-driven interactive project is considerably more intense than a lighthearted attempt to engage readers through a newsy quiz or contest. But from the reader’s perspective, the end result is largely the same: journalism becomes more accessible and participatory.
News organizations that empower readers to dictate their own experience follow a number of common practices:
- They regard data as journalism—so they treat it that way. Most news websites follow the conventional practice of leading their home pages with a lengthy story or an embedded broadcast, not an interactive database. But data-driven projects can anchor home pages and should be presented as journalism in their own right, not extras or add-ons. Designing interactive projects to stand on their own also is important because readers are increasingly likely to find them through search or social media, outside their original context on a home page.
- They keep the data fresh. To be truly interactive resources, data apps need to be refreshed at least once or twice a year with the most current information available. It’s not always possible to refresh every app, but in those cases news organizations should make clear that the apps are not being updated. “We kind of owe it to readers to keep updating it,” said veteran data journalist Jennifer LaFleur.
- They err on the side of simplicity. When building the Stradivarius feature, the Telegraph’s Mark Oliver said the goal was to appeal to novices and experts alike. Ultimately the team opted for an approach based on simplicity.
- They recognize that games should not be a chore for the staff. Over time, as momentum for Qrank faded within the Texas Tribune newsroom, the game became a burden for Reeve Hamilton. News games can whip up enthusiasm in, and deepen the loyalty of, core users, but the games take work and can drain energy from other journalistic pursuits. When it’s clear that the energy has waned, it’s time to move on.
- They are mindful that interactive features can boost the bottom line. The Texas Tribune’s public salary database created its own digital ad inventory by giving each salary entry an individual page on the site. However, page views are not the only way to make participatory news features pay. The Tribune also seeks out sponsors for contests like Session Scramble and earns several thousand dollars a month from Google by adding sponsored microsurveys to its databases, which earn the Tribune a nickel each time a user answers a question. When newsrooms create interactive platforms that fulfill readers’ needs—practical, whimsical, or otherwise—they must somehow find a way to capture that value. Their survival depends upon it.
Posted 10 days before the end of 2013, The New York Times dialect quiz rocketed to the top of the list of the year’s most-visited stories
At its finest, interactive journalism can provide a riveting and memorable experience that you can’t wait to share with your friends. That happened in December 2013 when The New York Times published an interactive news quiz called How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk. The quiz created a personal dialect map based on participants’ answers to which-word-do-you-use questions, such as whether one drinks from a water fountain or a bubbler. The feature was published with only ten days left in 2013, but it still rocketed to the top of the Times’s list of most-visited stories for the entire calendar year.
“Think about that,” Robinson Meyer, the Atlantic’s technology editor, writes. “A news app, a piece of software about the news made by in-house developers, generated more clicks than any article.” Astonishing things can happen when a news organization invites its audience to participate.