Picking the right tool for the journalism job

If you’re not familiar with the monthly Carnival of Journalism, it’s worth knowing about because it plugs you into a conversation amongst other journalists. The topic for October’s Carnival was about how to choose the digital tools and platforms. (I’m just getting in under the wire, but my travel schedule and moving flat took up more time than we actually had.)

Dave Cohn aka digidave asked:

How do you decide to dedicate time to a new tool/platform/gadget? What is the process you go through mentally? And then later – how do you convince others to go through that process? And, last: How do you ensure that the tools you do adopt are used once the “newness” factor fades?

This really struck a cord with me. My last position at The Guardian was digital research editor. Don’t worry if you need an explanation of what the role was so did most of my colleagues, and I’m not entirely sure that we had the working definition hammered out before I left. Operationally, I moved from desk to desk on a several month basis and helped that desk with their digital projects. For instance, my last desk was politics to help them as they prepared for 2010 UK general election. My job was also to keep abreast of new digital developments and see how we could use them for The Guardian’s award-winning journalism.

Although the job was to be aware of digital tools and platforms, I always approached it in terms of editorial challenges that I needed to meet. The challenge might be to find simple mapping services that journalists could use without having to call on developers, whose time was in great demand, or it might be simple tools to analyse and visualise data. I almost always started out from the point of view of the editorial problem we were trying to solve rather than the tool or platform. Sure, sometimes when a platform got a lot of traction, I would try it out to see how we could engage the audience using that platform, but even then, I looked at things from the point of view of how what they could do for our journalists and our audience. Increasingly, as the cuts took hold at The Guardian, I also thought about the business side of the tools.

Simply put, I asked of tools and platforms:

  • Does it make a journalists job faster and easier?
  • Does it help us make money or save money?
  • Does it help bring audiences to our journalism or our journalism to audiences?
  • Does it allow us to tell stories better, more easily or more engagingly?
  • Does it build audience loyalty and keep people engaged with our journalism longer?

It’s a very similar checklist to Jack Lail’s. As he says, if the tools don’t meet strategic goals, “Learn to say “no” to the rest”. These were my criteria, my personal strategic goals, but it’s more important that the organisation has those goals in mind rather than a particular set of goals. For the next full-time job that I take (and I am starting to look for a more permanent home), I’m more than open to a different set of goals, but I think it’s important for organisations to have a set of criteria.

Moreover, we need metrics. We need to measure against these goals.

My former colleague at the BBC, Alf Hermida, flagged up the Forrester Research’s POST methodology to evaluate new technology. Broadly Alf says, and I agree:

The starting point for this discussion is the public, not the tools. Talking about tools is the last thing we should be doing.

I also think that sometimes it’s about the journalists, helping us cope with all of the demands of the job as staffs shrink. However, very few people in this world use a tool just to use a tool. They use a tool because it’s the best way to solve a problem or achieve a goal. It’s important to know all of the digital tools you can bring to bear on modern journalism problems, but it’s important to keep the goal in mind, lest we become tools of our tools.

When commenting systems go bad

Just recently, one of my favourite blogs moved a new home on Wired and, in the process, moved to the Disqus commenting system. I’ve sat in many meetings where Disqus has been named as the desired commenting system. I have often found myself on the fence, preferring, say, the built-in WordPress commenting system over any third party system, but still understanding that the issues with managing very high volumes of comments can encourage companies to outsource them. Until recently, though, I hadn’t had any real in-depth experience of using Disqus as a commenter.

I have now. And I have discovered that Disqus kills conversation and frustrates users.

The problems with Disqus surprise me, because they’ve been around a while and I would have expected them to understand how online discussions actually work, and adjust their tool to facilitate conversation. Instead, Disqus quashes conversation. Here are the issues, and possibly a few solutions:

Comment display is broken
There has long been a debate in commenting circles about whether threaded comments or flat comments are best. The truth is, neither are better than the other, both have their strengths and weaknesses. But Disqus, or at least the installations of it that I have recently seen, do not provide an option to view comments in a flat, strictly chronological or reverse-chrono order.

When you have a rich and fast-moving conversation in blog comments, threading kills it because it is nigh-on impossible to know where the new comments are in the various threads. An option to show comments in a flat view would allow users to quickly see which comments are most recent. We are smart enough to thread the conversations we’ve read already in our memories, but wading through threads in order to find the one new comment is a chore no one will bother with.

This means Disqus kills conversation in big, complexly-threaded discussions.

Being able to easily switch between views would be even better, so that you can find the newest comments, but then switch to see them in context of their threads.

Comment paging is broken
If there’s one thing that drives me nuts about Disqus it’s that there is no “view all” option. On my favourite blog, I have to page through comments in chunks of 40 at a time and, once the thread gets over 80, it becomes very tedious on page reload to have to re-page through to the newest comments if I want to actually see them in reverse-chrono order. My only option is to then view them newest-first, which means I have to then find the join, which is again a pain in the arse, especially if when I last looked there were 100 comments, and now there are 200.

I recently saw a blog post with 900 comments, which were only accessible in pages of 10. If anyone thinks that people are going to bother to page through all those comments, ten at a time, they need a reality check. It’s already hard enough to get people to read comments before they write their own, but this just encourages drive-by commenting, which is very bad for conversation and community-building.

Disqus needs to have a “view all” option. I don’t care if it takes a minute or two to load, I just want everything, on one page, so that I can scan it at speed to pick out the comments I care about.

Other issues:
Login kills comments. On the train into London this morning I wrote a comment, then realised that I wasn’t logged in. I logged in with Google, as I usually do, and Disqus threw away my comment. WTF? Really? That’s how you treat logging in?

Newest first is weird: Newest first also does really weird stuff with within-thread threading which I haven’t get got my head round, but it bloody annoys me.

Page refresh breaks flow: On a lot of commenting systems, if I refresh the page in order to fetch new comments, the browser will remember where I am on the page and all I need to do to continue reading is, well, continue reading. Not with Disqus. Refreshing the page essentially resets Disqus, meaning that I have to re-page through everything and search for my place. A comment bookmarking system might help with this, or they could just offer a persistent single page view.

Just say No to Disqus
I have to say, I would now actively militate against clients using Disqus if they have any desire to create conversation and community. Disqus frustrates passionate readers, drives away interested but less committed readers, and makes genuine conversation difficult or impossible. It seems to be a great system for collecting comments to be ignored, but it’s terrible if you actually care about your comments or your commenters.

Given that Disqus has been around since 2007, the fact that it hasn’t cracked comment display yet is shocking to me. I honestly thought they of all people would have nailed it. Quite the opposite, in fact: Their design can only be described as user-surly.

Scientists should not be given the right to fact check the press

Last week, Dr Petroc Sumner, Dr Frederic Boy and Dr Chris Chambers, all from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, argued in the Guardian that “Scientists should be allowed to check stories on their work before publication”. The only sensible and rational response to that is “No, they should not.”

Sumner, Boy and Chambers argue that scientists should be given veto because:

  1. Scientific papers are peer reviewed so have already been scrutinised by independent eyes, implying that journalists therefore don’t need to be themselves independent when reporting such papers.
  2. There are no political parties in science, ergo there can be no ‘conspiracies’
  3. Scientists have nothing to gain and a lot to loose from exaggerated claims in the press
  4. It’s the only way to ensure accuracy

What utter tosh.

There is no doubt at all that quite a bit of science journalism is appalling, riven by inaccuracies, biases and sometimes just complete twaddle. You only have to read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science to see what a mess journalists get themselves into. The problem is that Sumner, Boy and Chambers are engaging in special pleading on the basis of four flawed premises:

Firstly, scientific papers may well get peer reviewed, but that doesn’t mean that they are correct, it simply means that they have been looked at by some other scientists who either can’t find or won’t find fault. Papers get retracted when problems come to light later on, so peer review is not a guarantee that a paper is correct.

Secondly, the idea that there are no lines to toe in science is utter bunkum. There may not be political parties but there certainly are scientific orthodoxies, and that means lines to toe. The fact that something has become orthodoxy does not, in and of itself, guarantee that it is correct. Prevailing theories do get overturned when new evidence comes to light and, whilst those who make extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence to back them up, science has a rich history of exactly that.

Point three only needs to be answered with one word: Ego.

And point four shows a spectacular misunderstanding of the journalistic process and the factors that cause errors and misinformation to propagate. Let’s take a quick look at some of these (I’m sure there are more, please do add them in the comments!):

  1. Good journalists on tight deadlines have little time and few resources to do comprehensive reading and research on a story, so mistakes,  misunderstandings and inaccuracies can easily creep in to the work even of the most dedicated.
  2. University and research institution press releases, and sometimes even scientists themselves, can be misleading. Sometimes those inaccuracies are picked up by the journalist, sometimes they make it through to press.
  3. Some hacks and editors don’t actually give a shit whether something is accurate, they simply want a shocking or outrageous story that they think will get them lots of readers.
  4. Some hacks have financial relationships with the companies whose “science” they are writing about, destroying any vestiges of impartiality they might once have claimed.

Which of these scenarios would actually be helped by adding an extra layer of “fact checking” by scientists? In the first case, the journalist doesn’t have time/resource so the fact checking just isn’t going to happen. In the second, the fact checking would be undermined by the very people doing it as they would only propagate their own inaccuracies. And again, in the third and fourth scenarios, facts are irrelevant, so why would they get checked?

There are things that would help, however:

  1. Additional time and resources for science journalism and appropriate training . This is frankly never going to come from the news organisations themselves because they are all struggling to survive and science is seen all too often as a minority sport. It might be that a well-respected science communications charity or NGO could fund training for journalists wanting to cover science, e.g. in how to interpret papers and how to understand statistics. They would also need to fund the journalist’s actual work, ensuring that they had the time and resources required to do a good job.
  2. News organisations need to take complaints about inaccuracies more seriously. Even the so-called quality newspapers don’t always pay any attention to readers who point out problems in science stories. Often, then will officially stand by the most egregious bullshit because they’d rather not have to deal with the fact that they got it wrong.
  3. Some sort of standards commission with real power should hold all news organisations to account, forcing them to make corrections and imposing significant fines for the most egregious misbehaviour. I’d say “Maybe the PCC could do this sort of thing”, but they’re a spineless, toothless waste of time. If there was any censure at all of misinformation in the media, some of which is actively harmful to the reader’s health, maybe this conversation wouldn’t be dragging on and on for years, as it actually is.
  4. Oh, and here’s an innovative one: Maybe university press departments should stop sexing up press releases, liaise more tightly with their own scientists to get their facts right, and provide any relevant photos, graphs, graphics and data in reusable formats with a clear and concise explanation of what they illustrate. Of the press releases covering scientific topics that I’ve had to work from, none gave me even half of what I needed.
  5. Scientists should be responsive to press enquiries, and should prepare FAQs, lists of relevant links and re-usable quotes about their research up front. Their papers should be available, along with a proper bio and even photos, just in case. Whilst most of the scientists I’ve dealt with have been very responsive, none have sent me a link to a website with background info and relevant resources on it that I could use to quickly bring myself up to speed before asking them specific question. It would have saved everyone’s time if they had done that. (Plus it’d be a great thing for me to link to in my articles!)

Science journalism isn’t actually a collaboration between scientist and journalist, it’s a process of interpretation which depends on both sides being independent of the other.

So what would happen if Sumner, Boy and Chambers got their wish?

Well, where there’s orthodoxy there’s the opportunity for new ideas and voices to be suppressed when they come into conflict with established bodies. Although science is supposed to be immune to this, it does sometimes – thankfully rarely – happen. If there are no independent science journalists, there’s no opportunity for new voices and evidence to be heard.

When scientists get it wrong, which they do, we need science journalists like Goldacre need to be able to criticise their methodologies, assumptions and conclusions free from interference. If Goldacre had to pass everything he wrote past the people he was writing about, he would get almost nothing published.

In short, we would see the wholesale marginalisation of dissent, and not just dissent from the journalist, but from opposing scientific voices too. It would be, in short, a disaster for science and science communication.

(Hat tip: Glyn Mottershead.)

Visualisations aren’t the only end result of data journalism

My friend and former colleague Simon Rogers, editor of the Guardian’s Data blog, has posted a defence of the increasing use of data visualisation. I agree to a point, but I also think it’s really important to remember that visualisations are not the only product of data analysis. They can help readers see patterns in complex sets of data, but I also think that sometimes we’re missing other opportunities with data analysis by focusing on data visualisation. Sometimes, the result isn’t a visualisation but a key insight that underpins a story. I often worry about the problem of seeing a world as full of nails when you think all you have is a hammer. Sometimes, visualisations are just not the right end product of data journalism.

I’ve heard statisticians grumble about information being seen as simply beautiful instead of being, well, informational. Good data visualisations hit a middle way being being beautiful and simplifying complex concepts. I’ve heard designers grumble about data visualisations that aren’t beautiful, and they rail away against the lack of aesthetic of some of the publicly available tools. Sometimes people are using the wrong chart or visualisation to visualise their data. When it comes to charts, I often show this simple chart during training, which really breaks down what types of charts or visualisations are appropriate for what kind of data you’re working with.

I am always in favour of the democratisation of tools, but when it comes to digital story-telling, editors need to remember all of the techniques available and have a clear way of deciding which technique is appropriate.

Emily Cummins – my Ada Lovelace Day Heroine

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, the annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, tech, engineering and maths. As the Tweets flow thick and fast and the new website holds its ground, it’s time for me to think about my own contribution.

This year I have chosen Emily Cummins as my Heroine. At just 24, Emily has already won a number of awards and accolades because of her work on sustainable tech. She was named one of the Top Ten Outstanding Young People in the World 2010, won the the Barclays Woman of the Year Award in 2009, and was Cosmopolitan magazine’s Ultimate Save-the-Planet Pioneer 2008.

One of Emily’s most notable inventions is an evaporative refrigerator that doesn’t need electricity, for use in developing countries for the transport and storage of temperature-sensitive drugs. But it’s not just her inventiveness that makes Emily a great role model – it’s her willingness to tinker, try things out, and invent. And that is something she puts down to having been supported in her tinkering as a child. She said in this interview with Female First:

I had a really inspirational granddad who gave me a hammer when I was four years old! We used to spend hours together in his shed at the bottom of the garden, taking things apart and putting them back together again. By the time I started at high school it meant I already understood the properties of different materials and how certain machinery worked. I’d always had a creative spark and because it was encouraged from an early age I suppose I had the confidence to take it forward and start inventing for myself.

There’s a very valuable lesson there to anyone who has daughters, granddaughters or nieces: Give them hammers, screwdrivers and, when they’re old enough, power tools. Encourage them to spend time in the garden shed or the garage with you, learning not just how to take things apart, but how to put them back together again. It’s through playing with technology – both hi-tech and lo-fi – that we learn how it all works, and once we know how it works, we can invent.

I don’t have a daughter but I do have a niece, and I love buying her the science and technology kits and toys that no one else thinks to get for her. I know she loves her chemistry set and her electric circuitry set, and she knows that she’ll get more fun things to play with from me that she can’t yet even guess at. I hope that that, as she gets older, she’ll remember how much fun she finds them and will carry on thinking of herself as someone who can do science and tech, and won’t give in to boring gender stereotypes.

Emily makes a great role model for girls like my niece, and young women, but also for those of us who are a little older, who deep down, just want to get out into the garden shed and start tinkering. Emily shows us just what women can achieve, given the room to experiment and invent. And we all ought to remember that it’s not too late to get ourselves a hammer and start making stuff.

In memory of the vision of Steve Jobs

I woke up this morning where I wake most mornings these days, in a hotel room, and flipped on CNBC, one of the few English language TV stations I can get on the hotels 1500 channel satellite system. They were playing what I thought was an Apple retrospective, but I had missed the beginning. I was looking at my email and saw a message from the editor of FirstPost.com, a site that Suw and I helped launch. Suw is now the contributing technology editor for the site, and I have the grandiose title of writer-at-large, apt for the roving reporter that I am. The email just said get in touch when you’re up. Before the piece on CNBC was finished and I had read another email, I realised that Steve Jobs had died.

I never met Steve Jobs, although I did get close at MacWorld in 2000, which I covered as Washington correspondent for the BBC News website. It was MacWorld New York when he introduced the ill-fated Cube, one of the few flops of his storied second coming. I wrote this of my brush with Steve Jobs:

I was trying to make my way through the crowd of people swarming around the new sleek offerings from Apple at MacWorld when suddenly the crowd split.

It was as if Moses had parted the sea of people.

There he stood in signature black shirt and jeans, the man who made and later saved Apple: Steve Jobs.

For a man I never really met, I was caught off guard by how much Steve Jobs’ death affected me. Working on the piece for FirstPost, I found myself tearing up on several occasions, especially after watching the Think Different advertisement that he narrated, one that was never shown. It felt as if he was narrating his own eulogy.

In all the tributes and reminiscences rolled by today, a 1985 Playboy interview with Steve Jobs (might not want to click on that link at work – Steve’s clothed but the women in the ads aren’t) was making the rounds, and as I read it, I was struck several times why he deserves to be called a visionary. On the information revolution, he said:

We’re living in the wake of the petrochemical revolution of 100 years ago. The petrochemical revolution gave us free energy–free mechanical energy, in this case. It changed the texture of society in most ways. This revolution, the information revolution, is a revolution of free energy as well, but of another kind: free intellectual energy. It’s very crude today, yet our Macintosh computer takes less power than a 100-watt light bulb to run and it can save you hours a day. What will it be able to do ten or 20 years from now, or 50 years from now? This revolution will dwarf the petrochemical revolution.We’re on the forefront.

What was really interesting in the article, written in 1985 is that it’s quite clear, at least from the point of view of the interviewer, that the case for having a personal computer hadn’t been made yet. Jobs gave him a reason from his insight into the not so distant, and he really hit the nail on the head.

The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people–as remarkable as the telephone.

We still are moving through the early days of this revolution, but Steve Jobs saw it coming more than a quarter of a century ago, when he was only 29-years-old. He didn’t make it to see another 29 years. The world lost a visionary, but his inspiration lives on.