Playing – the future

Games are not going away. The gamepocalypse is nigh.

 

One of the biggest changes in the way we live and socialise at the moment is the rise and rise of game structures in everyday life. I’m not just talking points, badges and scores here – I’m talking about all sorts of game mechanics, the sorts of rich, rewarding dynamics that can help make reality better.

Games engage people. They provide the sorts of work that people want to do, using feedback systems and carefully structured designs to make for a fun experience. They provide a sense of satisfaction that’s hard to beat, from completing simple tasks to seeing a narrative through to its end. They let you explore and experiment, providing freedom within limits, and they reward players for developing skills or for learning information.

When it comes to journalism, stories – neat narratives with a beginning/middle/end or an inverted pyramid structure – are simply not sufficient for explaining most complex systems. They can explain a linear series of events, even one with complex factors, but they’re not good at really explaining how things work in a way that gets into the reader’s head. Climate change, or tax allocation, or the financial crisis, for instance.

Game design can be used to help create original reporting, as well as being a medium for its distribution. They can be used as powerful polemic or educational tools. And they can even be used to explore the process of newsgathering itself, illuminating its murky logic through the procedural logic of the game.

It’s not just video games that are important here, though they do have a wider reach than many other forms. Alternate reality games that merge fact and fiction to overlay a game onto the real world, or use real artefacts in a game environment, are growing as marketing tools. Board games have always had the widest reach (chess, anyone?) and are enjoying a niche resurgence. What could we do with them?

Journalists with game design skills are going to be needed, alongside journalists with data skills and journalists who can do video and code and take pictures. I believe that, once the nascent newsgames industry stops dipping its toes into the water and jumps in, newsgames are going to take off. Because a good game makes money. If we assume for a moment that engagement is king, not content, then games will win the war for our attention: doesn’t that look a lot like the situation we’re already in?

I want to see what we could do if we treated a printed paper as a site of play. If we made it fun, and thought about it from the perspective of someone exploring, learning, interacting with a game. It’s possible to be shocked, dismayed, distressed, saddened, touched, moved, and incited to action by good games that don’t dumb down their subjects. It’s possible to treat difficult subjects with respect within a game; there are myriad bad and good examples of this, just as there are of TV and of radio and of print.

And despite some assertions to the contrary, games are not inherently geared towards those who can’t pay attention (seriously, current 50+ hour game lengths of major studio titles obviously contradict this). Instead, games can make news harder, more complex, deeper and richer – and they might just be able to do all that while making money.

But news organisations aren’t there yet, and it’s not hard to understand why – MediaShift has a great analysis of the cultural divide between editorial and games design that’s proving insurmountable at the moment. As indie creators are creating games that explore the news journalistically, we’re in danger of missing the boat again.

So what I want to do, this year, is get some news people and some game people in a room, together, to see what we can do to bridge that gap. If you’re interested in being involved, let me know in the comments here or by emailing newsmary@gmail.com. Let’s build something fun.

This is the third of (I hope) four posts coming out of the Powerful Voices roundtable I attended earlier this month. The first was a resource-dump for concepts we discussed there and the second discussed the digital divide.


Driving innovation: pie in the sky

This post forms part of the third Carnival of Journalism – a monthly blog carnival focussing on, well, journalism. It’s my first time taking the plunge to properly join in.

This month, the focus is driving innovation, with detailed prompts looking at either the Knight News Challenge or the Reynolds Fellows programme – both fine endeavours aimed at encouraging journalism innovation. But while I was researching them, I fell to thinking what I might do if I had a vast pot of money and was asked to use it to drive innovation.

These are my pie-in-the-sky idealistic naive ideas. This is what I’d do, if I ruled the world.

Training. Fellowships are great at rewarding the very best and the very brightest – the people who’ve already proven themselves. But there are huge pools of talent further down the ladder, people who are hungry and excited and want chances and learning. I’d offer training opportunities, broker partnerships between educators and news organisations, and champion ongoing education in journalism. And of course it’d run courses, my imaginary magic organisation with infinite funds – it’d help fill in skills gaps for older workers and help hold the NCTJ to account when it came to teaching the skills needed in innovative newsrooms.

Partnerships. It’s easy to see where the links should be sometimes, but incredibly hard to make them happen. Individuals benefit from being round the same table with people from different industries and with different viewpoints, at all levels of business. I’d develop a sort of “skills swap” fellowship, encouraging organisations focussing on news, web development, technology, gaming, data and other relevant areas to essentially trade employees for a while, so that their guys learned new skills and their teams were exposed to new ideas. I’d aim for it to spark innovative ideas within larger organisations, and the swappers would have to create a Journalism Thing – in co-operation with each other and with their organisations – as part of their participation.

Intersections. Like every industry, journalism needs injections of ideas outside its existing sphere in order to avoid disappearing inside its own navel. There are dozens of areas with things to teach journalism, and journalism has a huge amount to teach – so one of my organisational remits would be to run events to bring those worlds together. Traditional conferences, hack days, foo camps; strategy events for managers and making-things days for practitioners. All aimed at sparking ideas, creating connections and, yes, driving innovation.

Startup loans. The Knight News Challenge is a brilliant way of getting people started – but they build a competition which necessarily means hundreds of fantastic ideas lose out. We need that, but I think the startup ecology also needs finance options when they hit hard times, or when they want to expand. And with a dramatic lack of lending going on right now, a startup loan fund aimed at journalism projects could help provide short- or even long-term finance to help build a successful innovation ecology.

Resources. Legal support and training. Business information. Links to the academic community, to the business community, to investors of various types; research fellowships, practical workshops, hotdesking office space, a “library” of tech kit (camcorders, laptops, software, hardware) for innovative projects to lease at a smaller incremental cost than buying it out. My magical organisation would be a nexus of conversation about and resources for innovation in journalism, and a big part of our remit would be to not only build those resources but also get them to where they’re needed.

So that’s me. What would you do?

The NCE News Practice exam: resources

I discovered on Wednesday that I’ve passed my NCE exams – and did particularly well on the News Practice exam, winning the Ted Bottomley award. (I love the name. Love it. Probably too much.)

The examiner [pdf] was very, very nice about my paper, saying:

A textbook example of how to tackle the Newspaper Practice paper. A comprehensive law answer citing relevant cases and law, followed by practice answers that clearly demonstrate the candidate’s imagination and ability. It is clear from this paper that this candidate is already putting into practice the skills that the Newspaper Practice paper looks for. One of the highest Newspaper Practice scores in recent years. A very impressive performance.

I’ve been trying to find the paper I wrote so I could work out what on earth I did right, but so far haven’t managed to unearth it. I’m pretty sure I arrived home and thrust it as far out of sight as possible along with the other papers.

But from what I remember, a staggering amount of what I wrote for the second half of the paper was about the internet. Specific, useful, relevant ideas about how to use it to move stories on, to facilitate comments and let the community take control of the conversation. I talked about topic pages, context as an integral part of news reporting, data journalism in many forms, visualisations, mashups, maps, timelines, social media, FOIs, online reportage in all sorts of guises and the importance of the hyperlink.

Anyone revising for News Practice exams – my best advice is read the links, think about how you can apply the theory to the practical, and good luck. Oh, and know your McNae’s. Nothing can beat that.

NCE refresher training

I’m on my second day of NCE training today in Wrexham. Tomorrow we’ll be doing a mock NCE day, taking mock News Report, Newspaper Practice and News Interview exams. This is in the lead up to taking my NCE exams – senior exams for working journalists, basically.

I’ve already had my portfolio scrutinised, and – thankfully – there’s not too much more work to do on it before the exams in July. Most of the work I have left is presentation – there’s a 10% presentation mark attached to the portfolio, which is easily the difference between a pass and a fail if you pick up most of the marks. Over the last 18 months I’ve written hundreds of stories, but for the portfolio we have to pull together 36 in total, 2 each in 18 different categories, and present them as they went into the paper along with our original copy. Under the mark scheme the presentation within the portfolio is worth the same as four of those stories.

Let me repeat that. Printing colour PDFs, making sure you put the right piece of paper in the right wallet and sign everything right, and sticking your stories on to black card is weighted equally with writing 4 of those stories. I’m not sure this is sensible.

Along with the portfolio grilling, we’ve done mock exams, including a Newspaper Practice paper that tests your ability to apply media law – that’s actually pretty useful – and then gives you examples of story ideas or beginnings and asks you to lay out how you’d cover them. I find these mildly depressing. Of course you say you’d set up video, live web chats, polls online, forum debates, interactive projects, complex data/FOI-driven follow-up stories – but the reality of my newsroom is that we’d rarely actually do this for anything but the biggest of big stories. There just aren’t enough people, there just isn’t enough time. But it’s good to get a chance to be aspirational, to talk about the ideal world and what you’d do had you the opportunity and kit necessary.

Then there’s the News Report and News Interviews exams. Honestly, bits of them are bizarre. We get a paper brief full of facts and figures, which is fine; someone reads a mock speech, designed to test our shorthand speeds and accuracy, which is fine, or we go and do a 20min mock interview, which is artificial but fine; we then have to write a story. Ostensibly it’s for the web but we’re told to use the same style we would use for print, and the word count is frankly brutal. Either 300 or 400 words, with only a 25-word margin on either side before we start getting penalised.

Even if we were writing for print, we’d have more margin than that. There’s flexibility in headlines and picture sizes – not loads, but more than 25 words. But that sort of brutal length limit for the web is mind-boggling when you can literally write as much or as little as you think you need.

I know, it’s an exam, it’s not meant to be real, it’s just testing skills we’re meant to be able to use in real-life situations. It still feels incredibly counter-intuitive to limit word counts so harshly. I’m not sure it’s actually testing anything useful any more. Each of the stories in these mock exams has been worth more space than we’ve been given, so I find myself pruning single words, rewording sentences over and over again to shave the last few clauses out, and – occasionally – omitting perfectly good, useful, interesting, humanising details. Essentially, making my stories worse in order to fit painfully artificial limits.

I’d love to know what the rationale is for such draconian strictness when it comes to word count. Anyone have any suggestions?

JEEcamp thoughts on data journalism

Information VisualizationI spent some time talking to Martin Belam (@currybet) about data journalism and the importance (or otherwise) of journalists learning to code.

He said, as he’s said before, that it’s more important for journalists to know whether something is or isn’t possible than for us to necessarily be able to do it ourselves.

And for working journalists whose day to day job doesn’t carry a coding requirement already – and particularly those of us who are lucky enough to be in a workplace where there are developers or programmers who can take our ideas and make them flesh (ie. not me), he’s almost certainly right.

Those skills are becoming more and more important. With the birth of data.gov.uk and the increasingly open approach to information that the new coalition government is likely to take, sifting and analysing data to find the stories is going to be a vital skill for a lot of journalists.

We need to know our way around a spreadsheet. We need to be able to spot patterns in data and understand not only what they mean but also how we can use them to reveal stories that are not only relevant but useful.

We need to know where our skills can get us. We need to know our capabilities and our limits – and, crucially, we must be aware of what we don’t know. That’s not just knowing that there are holes in our knowledge, but knowing the shape of those holes so that we can try to get our problems a little closer to a solution.

Journalism is about asking the right questions. We research stories before we interview subjects so that we can ask pertinent questions whose answers will illuminate the subject. We need to be able to do the same thing with our data – we need to know what questions to ask and how, so that even if we can’t make the tools ourselves we can hand over the task to someone else without asking the impossible or wasting their time.

But most of the time, certainly for journalists on regional papers and I would wager for many in other areas, those people who know how to make the tools just don’t exist. I have friends who code, but I can’t ask them for a favour every time I want to create a news app, or diff two versions of a stack of documents, or visualise a complex dataset, or tell the story of 100 people’s losses from an investment fund going bust in a way that conveys both the scale and the humanity of the problem.

Regional journalists work on hundreds of stories that could be made vastly easier or more beautiful or more accessible through a touch of computer work (spreadsheets, maps, things that aren’t quite coding but sort of almost are and look like it to the untrained eye). A few of us can create those additions; the rest just write the story, and our papers and websites are poorer for it.

We work on a few stories – and the number is increasing – that are perfect for news apps, web coding, multimedia packages or other more complex solutions that very, very few of us can create. But no one else will do it for us.

On top of that many of us struggle with inflexible content management systems that penalise or make it literally impossible to display data-driven work online. Faced with that problem, some budding computer-assisted-reporters give up before they’ve even started.

So I’m not going to stop learning Python. It’s not a complete solution to the problem – for that we need real, systemic change so that the businesses we work for all value data work, understand its increasing relevance, reflect on current practice and support training journalists to do an evolving job.

But for me, it means that in the future I might be able to create better stories, automate processes within series or campaigns or multiple follow-up stories, make my job easier and make a better experience for the reader all at the same time.

At least, until we all have newsroom developers.

Online games as training tools

Second Life: Porcupine: Autism Memorial

Porcupine Autism Memorial in Second Life

Today via @jayrosen_nyu I came across a post by @brad_king arguing that journalism has a lot to learn from the history of online games when it comes to online community management.

He makes some great points about hands-off community modding, and I’m a particular fan of the idea that online news communities could benefit from something like Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of gamer types (which splits gamers into four rough categories and helps game designers cater for all types).*

But I do have to disagree with this paragraph:

MMORPGs don’t have much to offer in terms of developing the traditional journalism skills. These games can’t teach students how to vet sources, how to interview, how to copy edit, how to hit the streets and find stories.

Wait a minute. Why not?

These communities aren’t just there to be managed – they don’t just have histories that can be dissected as useful examples. They’re living and breathing today. They are audiences, readers, participants, and they could be a great training tool for new journalists.

I mentioned that Second Life – one of the biggest and most influential online environment ever created – has three online newspapers with hundreds of thousands of readers.

They cover topics ranging from issues in the real world which affect the game – server outages, technology changes, ToS issues – to in-game gossip and affairs. This sort of information is valuable, and you can get it by employing all those traditional journalism skills that King mentions.

Sure, the rules of these communities are different. They present unique and diverse challenges to reporters trying to hit the street cold and generate stories. But they’re no more unfamiliar or hard to learn than Afghanistan is to a Geordie, or a Norfolk seaside town is to a young woman from inner-city Birmingham. And surely part of the point of j-school is to train us in how to learn the community rules and structures, how to work it out for ourselves, and how to engage.

So why not include a bit of MMO training for budding reporters? Lessons in:

  • interview technique via in-game chat and email
  • fact checking and how to spot a scam or a rumour online
  • vetting sources for legitimacy
  • editing copy – perhaps by crowdsourcing folks to tell them what they did wrong
  • engaging with readers as equals
  • learning a patch – getting to know the movers and shakers and the big issues, who to talk to, where to get quotes

All that and community management too. Bargain.

* Incidentally, I’m 67% Explorer, 67% Achiever, 40% Socialiser and 27% Killer.

NCE results

Exams - AlexFrance on Flickr Today, like a fair few other British journalism trainees, I ended up on Hold The Front Page, glued to the examiners’ comments on this season’s NCE results in the vague and desperate hope that there would be some magical alchemical formula there to help me pass the exams.

There wasn’t (that won’t stop me doing it again in three months’ time) but there were a few interesting points in there that gave me some pause for thought.

Apparently, the pass rate has fallen by 16% but 50% more people are sitting the exams. Because of the way the exams work – they are supposed to come after 18 months of training – that makes me wonder what started to happen 18 months ago that prompted the massive upsurge in trainee numbers.

It also makes me feel sorry for those that aspire to print journalism, because for most, if they aren’t already working, they probably won’t get work in print any time soon. Most of them will be going it alone, and while that has its advantages it’s not easy or cheap.

The examiners’ comments, though, are fascinating. According to the senior news report examiner:

Those who did not pass should take note of the skills needed by a reporter in a 21st century newsroom. Publishers quite rightly have a focus on changing technology but core journalistic skills must not be forgotten. It does not matter what platform is being used to tell a story, the basics must still be there.

In today’s crowded market where there are so many news outlets, it is important to get the best story, the story that will make your publication stand out and be the first that readers will trust.

Another comment from the newspaper practice examiner:

Anecdotally we hear that reporters are increasingly tied to their desks and unable to get out to cover stories. If this is the case it may be that they are not amassing enough experience to do themselves justice on the practice questions.

I understand that the NCTJ has standards to uphold, but it’s difficult to reconcile the newsroom reality with what the examiners are saying.

We’re told to write for web first, print second, and time is paramount – it is more important to have the first story on the web, the most SEO-friendly and up-to-date, than it is to have beautifully crafted prose. Some of us are learning to report for the web, not print, and it requires a completely different writing style that doesn’t seem to pass muster with the examiners.

Many of us write many stories twice or three times or more, in multiple styles for multiple platforms and papers, and that ties us to desks – spending more time writing leaves less for reporting. And redundancies are forcing us to write more stories and report in person on less, so we have to do phone work and pick up stories that not long ago we would have staffed.

I’m glad the examiners have noticed this, but I’m confused about how we’re meant to get the skills we need to pass – and whether it’s worth it.

If the newsroom priorities have changed, what’s required of us has changed, the skills we need and the training goals and methods have changed, why aren’t the exams changing to reflect this?