The Journalism Innovation Spiral: A Method for Journalism Innovation Design

How can designers imagine innovative technologies for news and journalism? I think I know the answer. In this post, I propose a model and demonstrate it by picking apart the “Profile article” for innovative ideas. The resulting design is a browser plugin which can attach writers’ tools to any text form on the web.

I’m currently taking Ethan Zuckerman’s class on News in the Age of Participatory Media, a compressed intro to journalism for engineers. In principle, we’re a group of engineers trying to learn enough about journalism to imagine new technologies to support journalism and media-making in general. In practice, that’s a really hard thing to do. People could genuinely argue that we’re only half-learning journalism in a fraction of the time students take in journalism school. Furthermore, we also need to think about technology. How can we do that?

Mitch Resnick's Creative Learning Spiral
Mitch Resnick’s
Creative Learning Spiral

Hiroshi Ishii’s
Hacking Cycle
At the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten and Tangible Media groups, they articulate their design approach as spirals. Mitch’s spiral is deeply reflective and neverending. The goal of his spiral is to experience the joy of creativity and cultivate more creativity among others. In contrast, Hiroshi’s spiral (correction: originated by Bill Verplank) wants to change the world. It’s about cultivating a vision and developing awesome technologies that shape how everyone else thinks and works. Both of these models have iteration baked in, with the expectation that each iteration will transform and improve the creative idea in a deliberate direction.
Both of the above spirals start with the designer. It’s an approach that has led to beautiful and world-changing innovations from both research groups. The Center for Civic Media is slightly different. We start with the realisation that we don’t have a hunch, and that we need to gain that hunch through direct contact with the people and issues we try to address. But we’re not consultants. We work in fields that need equally world-changing creativity.
The Journalism Innovation Spiral 
So what is the creation model for journalism innovation? Here’s a draft proposal:
  1. Learn about a particular issue in journalism
  2. Commit an act of journalism
  3. Reflect on that act as a designer
  4. Imagine what you might do to make it better
  5. Prototype something
  6. Play with it
  7. Share it with an audience
  8. GOTO 2

Learning about the broader issues in journalism is incredibly important. It’s poor planning to try to hack on an issue like fact-checking without some genuine understanding of what people think facts are, why they matter, and what’s already in the space. I agree with Ethan that actually committing acts of journalism is tremendously helpful. By asking us to write articles, Ethan is asking us to do what amounts to full-contact bodystorming. But we can’t assume that committing acts of journalism will automatically grant us epiphanies. We need to reflect on that act as designers, within the action as well as after the we complete the act. That gives a great starting point to imagine ways to improve things, at which point I think we can bring in Mitch and Hiroshi’s model to hack, prototype, and develop our ideas further.

Enough Talk. Let’s Do This.

For my next trick, I’m going to put this model into practice. This week, Ethan asked us to write a profile piece about one of our classmates. The class did some really wonderful pieces, which you can see at I didn’t finish mine. I did learn a lot (transcript of the interview, colour-coded) (my partly-written article).

I set out to write a profile of Eric French, co-editor of the leftist Costa Rican online opinion magazine Revista Amauta. As we talked on Skype, I recorded the interview with Audio Hijack Pro and transcribed it. This was easy for me, since I have pretty good typing skills and know how to slow down audio playback. Transcription was a major pain point for a lot of people, but it’s easy to learn and there are already several microwork audio transcription services, so I reckon that to be a solved problem. Background research was also a challenge, but services like PiPL can get the interviewer a long way.

We all agreed that it would be nice to have a tool for picking through someone’s Twitter and RSS history. I think the answer to that is to find and talk personally to a very specific kind of Twitter user: someone who (a) posts regularly, who (b) follows a smaller number of people, and (c) who has followed your person of interest for a long time. But it wasn’t my problem, so I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Challenge One: Background Research: In my interview, I focused on Eric’s difficult position of trying to amplify indigenous Costa Rican voices while living thousands of miles away in Rhode Island. There was no way I could get enough background on the Costa Rican media within a couple hours. I wanted to ask good questions and take the interview in interesting places, and the only way to do that was to pretend I knew what I was talking about. So before the interview, I spent two hours reading about Costa Rican media, reading Eric’s articles, and thinking about his situation. In the age of participatory media, we need to lessen the friction for ordinary bloggers to do great background research.

Challenge Two: Mining Source Material: My second problem happend as I wrote my article; I kept on forgetting which parts of the interview I had already quoted. Solving that one was easy for me. The low-fi option was to change the text colour when I cited it. The high fidelity option involved using a professional writing tool such as Tinderbox to tag sections of the interview which I had already used.

What parts of the interview have I quoted?
Challenge Three: Editing Transcripts. What’s an acceptable degree of editing? Lots of people disagree. To write a good piece, I needed to let go of my inhibitions around editing Eric’s grammar and cutting down his language. But great journalism doesn’t come with the source code. It’s not possible to look at the edit history of an article you admire. And like thousands of other bloggers, I’m never going to have an editor, mentor, or journalism school prof help me develop tacit knowledge in this area.
Imagining Improvements
So what would I do about these pain points?
  • Get someone else to help me do the interview. I don’t think I could outsource the interview entirely, since the interview subject will expect to talk to the writer, and since someone needs to think of the audience. Instead, I might talk to an expert in advance, inviting that expert to listen in on the conversation and text questions to my mobile. I’m sure some journalists do this, but how could we make this work for bloggers? Maybe in some cases, the expert genuinely wants to access to the featured person. Or maybe we combine with conference blogging and have someone from the readership doing the interview, with the blogger just writing the piece.
  • Design a simple two-paned transcript mashup editor, a “firebug” for blog posts: It should mark material that I copy over, automatically add elipses where I need them, be sensible about grammatical fixes, and complain if I do violence to my source’s words. It should probably be a browser plugin, so I can combine it with any web-based text entry system. Subsequent versions could remind me of things which make a successful blog post: do I have a photo? Are my paragraphs too long? Have I referred to the Kardashians at least twice?
  • Link to source material from profile pieces. Of course it’s messy and impressionistic. Of course hiding the transcripts shields you from a lot of risk. But if more journalists are transparent online about their work practices, they are more likely to gain the positive advantages of reflective practice, and members of the public can become more familiar with the journalistic norms. In principle, a transcript mashup editor would make it easy to publish this material.


Let’s look at the transcript editor. I don’t have time to make it tonight, since it’s 11pm and I still need to edit the music video from my recent cover of Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” So here’s a drawing.

Transcript Mashup Editor
Reflecting on this design, I really like it. The browser seems like a much better place to put these tools than individual websites. Writers will love it, and it can scale to many users rapidly without needing a sales team. Imagined broadly, a browser plugin for bloggers could also meet many other needs:
  • Liveblogging macros
  • Saving backups of material in browser text boxes
  • Word count
  • Flesch-Kinkaid readability checker
  • Collaboratively edit any form with friends I choose
  • Automatically insert HTML links back to a server which holds transcripts

Continuing the Journalism Innovation Spiral

In the previous example, I committed an act of journalism, reflected on the process, and imagined some solutions. One of those proposals is a software design, so I articulated it further with a diagram and some feature ideas.
That’s not enough. To complete the Journalism Innovation Spiral, I need to make some kind of prototype of this software, no matter how low-fi. I need to play with it and share my work with an audience. And then I need to collect feedback from the experience of others to continue a cycle which may well lead to a completely different design.
I think this is a viable process for journalism innovation. In total, it took me around five and a half hours, from the moment I started to research my story on Eric, through our interview, to the end of this blog post. While I certainly can’t call myself a journalist– I didn’t even finish writing my piece– I did produce a disruptive process, a media format proposal, and a credible software design within that time.
I’m also planning to refine this design process during Ethan’s class. Next time we are given a writing assignment, I’m going to leave time to run through this process entirely. In future assignments, I may try to conduct more than one iteration.
In a sense, this blog post has itself been an opportunity to imagine, create, play, reflect, and share my ideas about journalism innovation. I would love your comments on how I can improve the Journalism Innovation Spiral.