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May 6, 2014, 10 a.m.
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What does a design director at ProPublica do? David Sleight on what happens when you engage design with reporting

“The process of doing design is asking questions, and that actually helps sharpen the reporting.”

Last month, ProPublica, the investigative nonprofit news organization, published a nearly 9,000-word examination of the re-emergence of segregation in public schools. Reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones spent nearly a year working on it. The piece was presented online in a slick immersive design that was befitting of the story’s reportorial heft. (ProPublica also published a plain text version of the piece for readers who didn’t want all the bells and whistles of the snowfallesque experience.)

It was a big moment for the nonprofit, which has been built more on investigative chops than the leading edge of design. But with ProPublica’s hire last month of its first design director, David Sleight, it signaled an interest in upping its presentation game.

Sleight previously led interactive design at BusinessWeek before leaving to launch his own consulting firm, Stuntbox. Much has changed in the five years since Sleight has worked in a newsroom. As he put it in a blog post announcing his new position:

A lot’s happened while I was out consulting in startup land. Responsive web design and the maturing mobile/device landscape. A dual resurgence in long form storytelling and art direction. The rising recognition of data journalism. We’ll be dealing with all that and more as we chart new territory together.

ProPublica, as a nonprofit, deals with those changes in a unique way. Hannah-Jones’ story on segregation, for instance, was also published in this month’s edition of The Atlantic. Sleight told me he’s looking forward to working with other news organizations as well to build “an open design community and create tools and contribute them back to the pool that everyone can use.” Sleight also wrote that ProPublica managing editor Robin Fields told him that ProPublica is “a place where everyone is expected to participate in the journalism.”

He and I also discussed the meaning of that and how design can play a role in how ProPublica pursues stories. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation on Sleight’s new role at ProPublica and more general thoughts on web design for news organizations.

Joseph Lichterman: Congratulations on your new position! You’ve been out of news for a few years now — why did you decide to get back into the newsroom, and what appealed to you about ProPublica?

David Sleight: It’s interesting stuff again. When I left the newsroom, it was just starting to have an active sort of developer community around it, but it wasn’t quite there yet. In the intervening years, things really started to pick up again. ProPublica has, in particular, developed an extraordinary data journalism arm that’s really picked up and is part of the community of news developers — and that, in and of itself, is an exciting thing.

So it’s a really exciting time. We’ve seen experimentation on again and off again for years, but it really feels like there’s something there now. The timing was right. They had a sense that they wanted to create this position, and the pieces just came together.

Lichterman: It’s interesting that you mentioned how much has changed in just a relatively few number of years. What types of experimentations and what type of changes really stuck out to you over the years?

Sleight: A few years ago, the experimentation was mainly focused on business models and trying to find new ways to pay for the news — and that’s still very much in play. But I think what we’ve seen over the last year or two is experimentation in styles of coverage. So that’s what you’re seeing like over at Vox — the latest thing over the past couple of months is to talk about explanatory journalism. Although it’s been around for decades, there is now an acknowledgement about data journalism existing, and so you’re seeing new venues — like what Ezra Klein is doing and what Nate Silver is doing — and new players into niches in news. Most of these seem to concentrate more on what kind of coverage they’re going to be delivering and when they’re going to be doing it.

Even ProPublica is a fairly new entrant into that space as a nonprofit investigative journalism newsroom. They all bring their twist on the traditional business model — though it’s less focused on that and instead on what kind of news are we going to be delivering. So we’re actually seeing more diverse things than we’ve seen in the past five years.

Lichterman: Why do you think ProPublica wanted to create your position? This is a new job for them, correct?

Sleight: So there’s an acknowledgment that they have two things going right now: an extremely healthy investigative journalism arm, as well as a very healthy data journalism arm. But it’s a recognition that in order to have a fully formed news product, you need to have a design arm. That’s one thing that they haven’t had in place. They’ve done very well putting together the pieces they have, but this position springs out of a recognition that if they want to have a fully mature product, they need to have this as well.

The purpose of that is figuring out new ways to convey news coverage to the audience that both tap into — I don’t want to say a sense of empathy, but how to create some sort of sense of connection to the coverage. We’ve got these investigative stories, but how do we actually relate this to the average reader or average user? And that’s where design has a lot of space to work on an existing product.

Beyond that, there’s creating a sense of scale around the coverage. A lot of this stuff can feel almost so big that it can be ungraspable by the audience, and therefore they become indifferent. How do you put a human face on it? How do you relate it in terms of showing it’s something that has a direct impact on the user, so they can identify with the issue? A human story should have a face. That’s something that design contributes to. Important stories should look and feel important. Everyday stories should look and feel like everyday stories, and that’s something we’re going to be looking to develop a sense of.

Lichterman: That’s an interesting distinction, because ever since Snow Fall, there’s been lots of discussion around these big immersive designs — but that’s not really feasible for every story. So I guess there needs to be a way to make the big stories feel important while finding a way to make the everyday stories look good, but serve their purpose as well.

Sleight: The biggest contribution of Snow Fall is not necessarily that we got these immersive experiences, but that it has basically made the case for art direction on the web again. This is something that always existed before, but at the beginning of the web, we didn’t have the tools to do it — or we didn’t have the tools to do it in a way that was production friendly. We do now.

There are lots of places where they are doing this. So those tools have come along, and the mindset generally lags behind the tools. But that’s catching up now. What it’s telling us is that it’s okay to have a story that looks different than the other ones. And that seems obvious now — and that’s part of the favor that The New York Times did everyone in journalism by doing Snow Fall. By having a legitimate player establish a beachhead for this, everyone followed and said, You know, this is viable. This isn’t something that anybody ever said — that all news should look like this.

A lot of the arguments against it use that sort of strawman, implicitly or explicitly, that it shouldn’t all be this immersive. No one is saying that. What they are saying is important stories can now get this extra touch. We have things that are the lean-back experience. You can spend this amount of time on them and also say, You know what, stories across the same site all don’t have to look the same. And that was not a given five years ago, when I was last in a newsroom. We had to really push the case that not every story should look the same, even within our template system.

Lichterman: That seems like it’s easier said than done. In a lot of places, the CMS might not allow you to do that. How do you think you overcome those challenges? With the launch of Vox, there’s been a lot of talk lately about the importance of a good CMS.

Sleight: I think it’s important, but it’s not everything. It was an interesting progression, the history of the web. Essentially, when we started on the web, everything was the toolset that allowed Snow Fall. We were just directly editing HTML and CSS on a server. But then, as things grew, in order to manage complex things, we put a CMS in place. It was often done from the production division of labor on the site. So it wasn’t until years later that people started creating tools that said, Hey, we’re going to do a custom override here.

The funny thing is, at the end of the day, there are ways to get around the CMS. At a lot of newsrooms, you have these CMSes in place and you learn ways to basically jailbreak out of them and how to put overrides in place. The funny thing is that if you really, really wanted to at any point, you could just fire up a production server somewhere and make a story from scratch and connect it to your existing server. The CMS is often used as an excuse to not get into this kind of experimentation, when really if there’s a will, there’s a way to do it.

We have so many tools available to us, and so much infrastructure is available on demand, that saying We can’t do it because we have to do everything inside our CMS — the answer to that is, Well, why? I can conjure up an enterprise-class infrastructure at the snap of a finger now, with a little bit of work. Well, everything is on that CMS, everything is on that server. But maybe we can add a new one at a very low cost if we want to find a way to work outside these structures.

What we used to do at Businessweek is, we had our CMS, which was very restrictive, but at the same time we had blogs and we had blogs running on what was then Six Apart’s Movable Type — so if we really wanted to break out of something, we had a much more nimble system over here on the side. I think the ultimate point is that there are multiple tools available, and they can all produce something that gets put in front of the audience — so that it doesn’t always have to be about pushing everything through the same bottleneck.

Lichterman: That’s a great point, and something I noticed ProPublica did recently with its big Segregation Now piece. It was a beautiful immersive design, but there was also an option for a plain-text design. So that’s applicable not only on the back end, but also toward users. Is there an advantage of presenting it differently depending on what users want? Can you personalize it for users?

Sleight: I tend to be a fierce advocate for the user. An important thing to remember for news right now is that we no longer get to choose the time and the place of the interaction, so it behooves us to provide the user with tools and make our content available in and many places and in as many formats as possible. The idea that we’re going to make this one way and you’re going to consume it in one format, in one place, just doesn’t happen anymore.

I strongly support presenting an option saying like, You don’t want the giant super-polished experience, you would like a trimmed down one that focuses on text — sure, we’ll provide that. Or, at the very least, we won’t get in the way of doing that. Some organizations still want to impede that, and that does them no favors. There’s somebody who wants to use your content, wants to read it, wants to access it — I don’t see why you would ever get in the way of that, even if it’s just because of the ego factor of, We don’t like it when you don’t want to read it in the way we gave it to you.

Lichterman: Right — I feel like that ego factor is a big thing. You spend so much time and resources developing these, and you want people to appreciate your work, but at the end of the day, you really just need to get the content out to the reader.

That sort of plays into the blog post you wrote announcing your new position — you wrote that Robin Fields told you that “everyone is expected to participate in journalism” at ProPublica. From your perspective, what does that mean, and how does that impact how you approach the job?

Sleight: That was actually one of the major attractions involved. In my previous experiences in a newsroom, the most gratifying work was when I, as a designer or creative director, was basically working side by side with a reporter and editor right from day one, and crafting design deliverables that were set out and recorded as they were doing it. So the reporter has an idea, and they come to you or you come up with the idea together. They’re out doing the reporting and they bring you along as a photography resource, or they come back and you talk about, You know what, we can’t do this way of doing this map, but I was really thinking about your reporting in progress and there are these other fine options that we’ve never tried before.

I would primarily be the only one who would know it because, as a designer, Why don’t we try experimenting with this, and this is going to influence the kind of information you might be gathering or help you look at it in a different way? And that’s the soul of good design. The stuff that I’m not attracted to are places where they have heavy divisions of labor and they still have the notion of like a graphics desk, where you come up and you bring your request fully formed. You drop it off at the desk, and it’s like a black box, and a day later the output comes back at you and there’s no response, question, or answer time — no time to really engage about it.

That doesn’t interest me. And it’s not a good way to do anything, to be frank, but it’s a particularly bad way to do design. So the idea that design will be there from day one at ProPublica, working on stories just like the developers and just like anyone in editorial, is a huge attraction. I think it’s a way to do design for news right.

Lichterman: That seems to speak to the fact of how important design is and really be able to tell a story. It’s like you said earlier — these well designed big stories help put a human face on it and drive home the importance and what the reader should take away from it.

Sleight: Frankly, it’s also much more efficient. At ProPublica, you’ve got developers who have an editorial mindset. They’re not just a pair of hands. These are very smart people, and design should be playing the same role of knowledgable people who are experts at the editorial, so that everyone is able to put their hands on the oars and row the ship a little further and a little faster in the same direction.

If I’m there in a meeting, I’m looking at the problems with a design hat on, from a slightly different angle, and I can actually put forward a question or two to the reporter. The best role that I see in my experience, watching really good senior designers in the newsroom, is they really do generally contribute to the reporting, because they actually help clarify in a lot of places. We watch an interaction where a designer is sitting there and saying: I have to come up with an explanatory graphic for this, and you’ve a got a fascinating concept here — can you explain it to me? And the reporter explains it to them, and then they say, I’m not quite clear on a part — can you clarify? And he asks more questions.

The process of doing design is asking questions, and that actually helps sharpen the reporting, so the reporter will go back out in the field and try to take those questions and apply them to the work they’re doing. That’s how everyone can contribute. Developers are doing that right now at ProPublica, and it’s great to know that design will be added into that, and the end result becomes more refined and sharper.

Lichterman: Looking ahead, what do you plan to do at ProPublica? You’ve talked a lot about experimentation, but do you have any plans that you can discuss for things you’d like to experiment with or try?

Sleight: The first order of business is creating a first-class presentation for the news product online, and that’s going to stand across the longform content and also the everyday content.

Then, looking at all the places that ProPublica’s journalism is presented right now, there’s stuff that they’re the primary holders of. And one of the things we’re thinking about is, the very unique approach of ProPublica is that they share their journalism. Most of their high-level work is in cooperation with other major news organizations, and part of it will be designing with partner organizations. I’ll be helping create tools for them in terms of design. And I’ll be creating so we can contribute back to the news community.

I have a couple of ideas kicking around in the back of my mind right now. It’s still very early, but like news developers and the open news community, we could have an open design community and create tools and contribute them back to the pool that everyone can use. That’s part of ProPublica’s mission, and right now we’re aimed at editorial development, but I’d love to get design into that mix as well.

Lichterman: It seems like that mindset would be different at a place that didn’t share content or partner with other organizations, as ProPublica does already.

Sleight: Oh, absolutely — there’s the competitive urge across news agencies and companies. But the fact that ProPublica benefits more the more open it is was also an attraction. If I come up with a really good tool that’s designed in some way, and I want to make a positive dent in journalism, I want to work at a place like ProPublica that’s going to put it back in the common so other people can use it. But other people can expand on it and make it better than I alone working at a desk — or I and five developers — can. The fact that that’s not getting in the way is pretty awesome.

Photo of David Sleight by Jeffrey Zeldman used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 6, 2014, 10 a.m.
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