At a conference last year, I said that prognostication is a mug’s game, and I suspect it’s probably true. I’m going to try to limit my damage by sticking to two things that have blossomed in the last year and look likely to continue, and one that I hope in my optimist’s heart to be true.
2012 brought us dozens of news-org-sponsored hack days, the launch of The Data Journalism Handbook, and the arrival of the second year of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellows, who will be bringing their hacker-journalist skills to newsrooms in 2013. Maybe even more importantly, we saw “news apps” teams flourish all over the world: Their investigative journalism and coverage of emergencies and disasters, civic data releases, the 2012 Olympics, and the U.S. elections won richly deserved attention. As the tools of news code get stronger and the community itself gets more chances to show its work and learn from one other, we can expect to see more projects, more efficient approaches, and less overlap between newsrooms, as designers and developers seek to differentiate their teams by making tools and features that offer new insights and richer contexts for news.
The emergence of data journalism and journalistic code is exciting to me not only because it’s a relief to see aggressive hiring anywhere in journalism, but because this work enables active reading, in the sense Bret Victor illustrates on worrydream. When journalists produce narratives with useful interactive components and explorable data sets, readers get the chance to handle, sort, and manipulate information, instead of reading only a single interpretation. Point-of-view is embedded in data journalism and interactive news apps as much as it is in “traditional” reporting, but multiplicity and polyphony are harder to exclude when you offer full access to data and let readers play with math and scenarios themselves. In projects like ProPublica’s reader-sourced investigations, news “consumers” get even closer to the process of parsing and interpreting data.
The mainstreaming of this work allows journalists to tell stories that don’t fit neatly into a traditional narrative frame, and to tell other stories more effectively. The tools of journalism are broadened and deepened.
After years of getting more and more comically horrible, the experience of reading news made enormous progress this year, and I expect to see it improve even more next year. Tablet and smartphone usage has spiked and the sleek design of read-later tools has helped push more news organizations toward visual choices that help mobile and desktop readers alike: responsive design, bigger type, more generous leading, and above all, much less clutter. But to call this a move toward “app-like” design, or to assume that it stops with better layout and typography misses the point: On the web, a good reading experience accomodates active readers, and that’s just as true in apps.
Quieter reading experiences are necessary for immersive reading, but to end there is to give up our burgeoning ability to read together. Real “sharing” isn’t about a row of buttons. It’s about giving active readers the handles they need to use information in the way that makes the most sense to them — via Twitter or Facebook, in emailed links or chunks of copied text, or in info-storing tools like Evernote, Findings, or Kippt. These behaviors require certain affordances whether you’re on the web or in a native app: live text you can copy and paste, unobscured direct links to content, and thoughtful handling of paywall permeability. A shift to slow-downloading, image-based native apps that exercise strict control over sharing is the opposite of good reader experience. In 2013, we’ll see more and more smart news organizations foreground a respect for their readers, and demonstrate it by offering kind interfaces and paid access schemes that don’t break the web. (Sadly, we’re also going to see some organizations continue to go the other way, and continue to lose readers to competitors who offer a better experience.)
Beyond these tightly bounded areas, there is a larger question about the shape of journalism for which I hope 2013 brings interesting answers. In cooking, over-boiling produces bland, textureless food — but a careful simmer concentrates flavor. As the pressures of crashing ad revenues and changing reader habits force news organizations to adapt — and often, to shrink — it’s my hope that our journalistic institutions will manage to distill and protect their animating principles, and that they’ll emerge from the ongoing transformation changed, but more potent.
No, I’m serious. More GIFs. Count on it.