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Interactive Journalism: Drawing in Readers with a High-Tech Approach

October 1, 2004  |  New Orleans, LA
Presentation supported with a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Speech by Jan Schaffer, J-Lab Director

Hello. Thank you for having me today here in New Orleans, which is always a fun city. You are convening at an important moment in the history of journalism and in a troubled year for the practice of journalism.

We’ve seen more mea culpas apologizing for bad coverage than ever before. And we see, daily, how our industry and our definitions of news are rapidly changing around us (and not in good ways). We also see how our longstanding journalistic conventions are failing to ensure that we deliver good, accurate reports.

So, today I want to start with an example of news — news commentary — that does not originate from what we classically think of as a news operation: AOL.

AOL News represents two major trends. Increasingly more news and newslike information are coming from non-journalists or quasi-journalists. And increasingly these news producers are using new information technologies to disseminate information.

For the 2004 Presidential Elections, AOL produced a terrific 2004 Election Guide. It offered comprehensive voter information and issues coverage and it was available to all online users, not just AOL subscribers; 30 million people have accessed it since the 2000 elections.

In 2004, AOL decided to try to reach out to young voters in a new way, using political humor. So it commissioned a number of interactive cartoons. Here’s one called Minister of Fear.

Now, what would you call this? Do you consider it to be a “news experience?” It informs, it engages, it makes you laugh. I think it’s a new kind of news experience.

AOL Elections, by the way, just made it to the top 25 out of 292 entries from 30 countries in PoliticsOnline’s contest for 10 Who Are Changing the World of Internet and Politics.

Welcome to digital storytelling. It has arrived with a great deal of promise for making exciting new connections to readers in entirely new ways. Will traditional newsrooms be able to stay in the game? Will we be overtaken by new players: bloggers, nonprofit media, citizen journalists, online service providers?

As important: What can we do with our journalism that adds value – rather than simply adding more noise to an already noisy media environment?

We can stay in the game, but it will require a lot of creative thinking to make it happen. Since most of you at this convention hail from some of the most creative departments in any news organization, I want to share with you observations and examples of what I see happening around the country – and let your fertile brains take it from there.

First, some cosmic observations: Usually when we talk about technology and journalism, we use the word convergence. I hate that word. That’s because so much of the emphasis of convergence is on:

  • Speed — Who’s first?
  • Platform — How are we going to deliver it: TV, online, print?
  • Mix — International, national, local, entertainment, infotainment.
  • Revenue — How can we make money off of this?
  • Moving Parts — How many bells and whistles can we add?

When you think about it, this puts the focus not on the consumer — our audiences, but on the supplier — the news organizations. It becomes an exercise in Us vs. Them. The last people we’re converging with are our readers.

In the end, you get a lot of “me-too” news that duplicates what’s already out there. It delivers very little added value, but it does deliver more noise.

Our early work in the civic journalism arena when I directed the Pew Center for Civic Journalism tapped into a public appetite new kinds of news and information. It was distinguished by a higher level of involvement, a more personal stake and lots of interaction: There were town hall meetings, task forces and solutions reports. The readers “got” it — they loved participating. They even thanked their news organizations for probing their opinions. These interactions in the mid ’90’s, of course, tended to happen in real space – a room. Now they are moving into cyberspace.

One example of what you can do with a solutions report online comes from WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, The Purple People Bridge coverage. You not only can read about the problem, in this case revitalizing a run-down side of a bridge connecting Ohio and Kentucky, but you also have 10 different opportunities to contribute to a solution.If you want to pay for a park bench at $750 or a flower planter at $450 — just click a button on line. You’ve just empowered someone to be part of a solution.

How can we build interactive opportunities like this that are more than technological gee-whiz stuff? More than online chats and photo galleries?

Meaningful Information

I suggest that information becomes meaningful when the user develops some kind of attachment to it or involvement with it. Let me repeat: Information becomes meaningful when it is accompanied by attachment or involvement.

So, rather than focus on convergence, we should be focusing on another “C” word: connections and how new digital tools can help us build all kinds of innovative, new connections with our audiences. The potential of new media is not simply more noise – but information experiences and meaningful interaction- and even, I would suggest, entirely new kinds of civic participation.

How many of you are familiar with the findings of Northwestern’s Readership Institute? You can read all about it at This is major research, millions of pieces of data. Big-time reader surveys. The language of its recommendations is fascinating.

The researchers call for a full-bore revolution to forge strong bonds with younger more diverse readers. And they say we have to do more than deliver good reads. We must deliver good news “experiences” that “purposely play to the feelings and values that readers really care about.” They identify eight experiences that are key. Three of these especially resonate with me. They include news that:

  • Looks out for my civic and personal interests — makes me feel like a better citizen.
  • Makes feel me smarter — I get valuable information.
  • Is something to “talk about” — makes me feel at the hub of my social network…

The Readership Institute makes two recommendations:

  • Focus on the experiences you want to create in readers and let your news decisions cascade from there.
  • Tweak less, innovate more.

An experience is usually something you participate in, right? What if we substituted the words media participation for convergence as a goal of journalism? It evokes various levels of interactivity, various experiences. Think of the possibilities – and these are early observations:

  • Story making in addition to story telling. And there are two ways to “make” a story:
    • Consuming the stories we make (Content consumption)
    • Making the stories we consume (Content creation)
  • Deconstructing in addition to constructing stories
  • News exercises in addition to news stories
  • Civic participation in addition to news and information

MIT Professor Pablo J. Boczkowski recently published a book, Digitizing the News that makes an assertion that resonates with me: “News in the online environment is what those contributing to its production make of it.” He reports that news is moving “from being mostly journalist-centered, communicated as a monologue, and primarily local, to also being increasingly audience-centered, part of multiple conversations and micro-local.”

I would add micro-personal. Digital storytelling allows us to introduce a level of interactivity into our story telling. We can build in entry points for ordinary folks to converse, participate, experience something, and then let that interaction improve the journalism — and also help create it. Think about the 2004 presidential election cycle: Look at how people used new media tools to create their own news experiences and then shared them with others. All the while, by the way, they were circumventing mainstream journalism. In addition to AOL’s cartoons, we saw:

  • Truthsquading at
  • People creating ads, like Bush in 30 Seconds, at Here’s the winner: Child’s Play.
  • Full-blown movies: “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Outfoxed.”
  • Creative e-mails: We seen Howard Dean’s scream, not only rippling nationwide via e-mail — but it’s been mixed and scored to all kinds of music.

Is this journalism? Not as we’ve defined it. Are these “news experiences?” That’s an interesting question.

I think they are news experiences.

Opportunities for interactivity really distinguish what journalism can offer in a digital age. Participation gives consumers some attachment – and ultimately some ownership of the information.

It’s just like anything – once you get involved in something, you tend to form some attachment, care about it and want to learn more about it.

These new digital opportunities change the construct a bit from what journalists have traditionally done.

You could think of it this way: Future News might well be less about story telling — the stories we journalists want to write, produce or tell — and more about story making.

Less about storytelling — and more about story making.

Think about it: People nowadays are able, thanks to new technology, to co-author or co-produce their own stories from various news experiences. In the new media world, I’m seeing two ways to “make a story.” One involves consuming the stories we make. One involves creating the stories we consume. One way is internal; the other is external.

Now, how do you get your daily news? Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you read you daily paper front to back? Be honest now. Is it a full meal or are you grazing?

Internal Story Making: Individuals as News Aggregators

Daily, most people are constructing their own internal master narratives of that day’s events or issues by assembling information from a variety of sources. Each one of us is an individual news aggregator. We find out what’s going on from:

  • Traditional newspaper stories, headlines, photos
  • Drive-time radio
  • Internet news sites
  • Blogs
  • E-mail newsletters and news alerts
  • E-mail from friends
  • White-noise TV, playing in the background of our offices
  • Cell phone news alerts
  • Late-night TV comedy from the likes of Jon Stewart, Jay Leno or David Letterman

As we sift through this onslaught of info-bits, we come up with our sense, or sensibilities, about the day’s developments. Because of the explosion of new media sources and the choices people can make in accessing the news, they are much, much more involved as aggregators of information. Sure, Yahoo can do this for you, but, informally, you are really doing this for yourself all day long.

External Story Making: Citizen Participants, Citizen-Created Content

However, another form of storymaking is also going on. Access to easy-to-use publishing software is increasingly making it easier for people to create and publish their own news. This is happening in various ways:

  • Through blogs. Technorati now tracks nearly 16 million Weblogs.
    • Blogs as breaking news. Bloggers played big roles in unseating Trent Lott, in exposing the lack of verified documents in CBS reports about President Bush’s National Guard duty, and in scooping the national media to report that John Kerry picked John Edwards as his running mate.
    • Beat reporter blogs. Around the country, reporters are using blogs to report information that doesn’t rise to the level of a full story, to add links to research that relates to their stories, and to tap reader expertise. The Spokesman Review in Spokane, WA, is a leader in this arena.
    • Blogs as niche news sites. Whether reporting on the arts, on the media, on politics or on technology, blogs give individuals a way to aggregate news, opinion, or expertise on a particular subject.
  • Through news exercises and games that allow people to interact with information. I’ll talk about these more in a minute.
  • Through citizen journalism efforts, such as in South Korea or in Bakersfield, CA. Stay tuned: I’ve just received a $1 million Knight Foundation grant to seed 20 hyperlocal citizen media projects in the next two years.
  • Through e-mail newsletters, such as The Washington Post’s Lean Plate Club. The Lean Plate Club e-letter comes out every Tuesday, followed by a Web chat on Wednesdays. It started in August, 2002 with 3,000 subscribers. I recently interviewed its writer, Sally Squires, who’ll be here later today, and she told me that when the Post required online registration in February, 2004, she feared that would be the end of the newsletter. There were 16,000 subscribers then. Today, there are 122,000. And 75 percent of those who subscribe, open it.

    “The biggest surprise to us is the community that has grown up around it, ” she said.

Deconstructing News Stories

Now, whether the process of story making is internal or external a lot of it involves consuming not so much full stories but often pieces of stories – components, such as a headline, a photo, a graphic, a caption, a snatch of TV news, a push e-mail, an online exercise.

Now, here we are journalists and we spend all this time on craftsmanship, right? How can we produce a beautiful story package? And our consumers are sort of grazing and snacking on morsels here and there – what I call components of news.

So I’d suggest that future news will, in part, be about building the components that help users co-produce their stories – internal or external.

What are the components that will deliver news and involvement, attachment, connections, experiences? Now the process of assembling components involves deconstructing a story more than constructing – dividing it into its various parts (parts that can, of course, be re-purposed in a multimedia world).

This doesn’t mean that we don’t produce nice story packages. It’s not an Either/Or. It’s an AND.

Digital storytelling, as we see around us, is increasingly relying on such components as visual information, interactive databases, games, simulations, news bits, slide shows, streaming audio and video, polls.

These news components open up all kinds of possibilities for creating news experiences in addition to new stories – news experiences are components that accompany, embellish or add interactivity. This suggests that a news organization’s Web site becomes:

  • Not just something you READ.
  • But also something you DO.

It provides you with some ways to engage more actively in the news – consuming it, learning more about, reacting to it, creating it. What we see developing around the country is an appetite for a level of interactivity that is very much informing the nature and level of story telling.

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press recently reported that 44 percent of survey respondents had provided online content in various ways.

So, instead of thinking of our audiences as users, readers, viewers, customers or consumers, we need to think of them as co-authors, co-producers, active contributors – even active citizens.

Journalism therefore becomes not just a one-way pipeline for us to disseminate what we think people need to know. Rather it is a two-way conversation – for people to react to what we report, add to it and tell their own stories. People now expect this level of participation – they have gotten used to being part of the conversation simply because they can: They can e-mail, fax, voicemail, instant poll. And they like it. So how do you involve people?

  • By showing as well as telling.
  • By providing knowledge as well as news.
  • By providing entry points.
  • By not just providing space for the stories we want to tell them, but also providing space for them to tell their own stories as well.
  • By inviting participation.

When people have some participatory stake in a story, you get intelligent interaction. We are now seeing the creation of entry points that connect with news audiences in new ways.

One of them is the creation of news experiences in addition to news stories. When I think of news experiences, an old, reputedly Chinese proverb comes to mind. It was sent to a Seattle Times editor overseeing a news game that engaged people in how to solve Seattle’s gridlock woes. The reader told him:

  • I hear and I forget.
  • I see and I remember.
  • I do and I understand.

Let’s look at some of the various news experiences we’re seeing around the country. They take some of the following forms.

Several of these early interactive journalism projects – from state budget calculators in Minnesota and California to a downtown revitalization game in Rochester, N.Y., to gridlock exercises in the Pacific Northwest – have impacted public issues. They have served as surrogate public hearings, prompted public officials to alter tax plans and changed waterfront redevelopment projects. They have created new public spaces for ideas and contributed to the understanding of difficult tradeoffs.

So we see that one outcome turns out to be not just news to be consumed, but civic/public life to get involved with.

Civic Participation as Media Participation

This leads me to close with the suggestion that we are on the cusp of a new opportunity for media and I think it’s very exciting.

It’s redefining civic participation.

We’ve always measured civic engagement by voter turnout. But participation in civic life as measured by voting has been on a downward spiral for nearly four decades. Voter turnout has dropped from about two-thirds of eligible voters to slightly more than half as of the 2000 general elections.

And, of course, news viewership and readership have been on a downward spiral as well. Yet, citizens’ use of media, especially television and the Internet, has steadily risen. All through 2004 we have seen important examples of how civic participation in the presidential elections was becoming a new form of media participation.

People used new media tools to fundraise, fact check, network, mobilize, blog, match issues, follow the money, play a game, design an ad, watch a video clip – and even score it to music. Howard Dean was just the beginning.

The important question for journalists is: Are people are not getting what they want from mainstream media and so are using new media tools to create their own information pipelines?

This moment is every bit as redefining as the impact of television on the political landscape of the 1960s.

The difference, though, is dramatic: Then, television empowered a small cadre of the powerful, who broadcast one-way candidate messages to mass audiences. Ordinary people had limited opportunities to respond: They could click the “off” button or cast their ballot. Now, ordinary people have almost unlimited opportunities to participate.

I hope new organizations don’t let this creative participation stop with the November election. We should look for opportunities to apply it to other issues – community issues, environmental issues, spending priorities and legislative proposals. This, and not convergence, is the real promise of a digital democracy.

News media can establish important connections to audiences by developing these participation opportunities. The participation builds attachments. The attachments build relationships. And the relationships build audience.

You can see most of the interactive news games at  Now in the few minutes we have left: I want to try to go hot and show you a couple of examples of interactive storytelling where I can demonstrate genuine interactivity. Choices exercises – KQED’s “You Decide” Nonlinear storytelling – P.O.V.’s Borders Features coverage –’s “Sing my Song”

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