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Dec. 17, 2012, 12:31 p.m.

Easier interactive documentaries, building for social, and learning from MOOCs: Some of Spark Camp’s big ideas of 2012

Andrew Golis, Cyndi Stivers, David Gehring, and David Karger share some of the big ideas they’ll take away from the year.
Editor’s Note: What were the most interesting and provocative ideas in journalism in 2012? We’re partnering with Spark Camp to produce a special end-of-year series to ask a group of smart people — Spark Camp’s alumni — that question. (Learn more about Spark Camp at the first post in this series.) Here are thoughts from:

Andrew Golis, director of digital media and senior editor at Frontline.

David Karger, professor at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Cyndi Stivers, editor-in-chief, Columbia Journalism Review.

David Gehring, news content partnerships manager at YouTube.

Andrew Golis

2012 was the year of the GIF and the ’gram.

But, as big as those two forces themselves seem at the moment, I think they’ll most likely be remembered in retrospect less for memorializing Joe Biden reacts and beautiful meals than for signifying the baby steps of a new, more visual web.

What started with lo-res, 2-second looping videos and framed, color-corrected photos won’t stop there. New tools and platforms will emerge that allow us to easily create even more complex forms of visual media. Tools that launched this year like Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker and Zeega suggest a future in which longer visual interactive stories will be possible without a team of developers building the tech that underlies each project. As we saw with blogging software’s effect on text-based media, as those barriers come down, the possibilities will go up exponentially.

Tie that trend to the explosion of tablets and the web’s inevitable invasion of the television and you have the simultaneous emergence of tools to create more complex visual experiences and devices that lend themselves to consuming them.

So in 2013, I’ll be watching closely to see how far along tools like Popcorn Maker and Zeega get.

Right now, building complex interactive experiences is expensive, and that cost creates a catch-22 for interactive storytellers: You don’t have the money to experiment enough to figure out how to make your interactive experiences work, and until they work, audiences won’t flock to them to make them worth the money you spend. (The National Film Board of Canada seems to be the one exception to this rule. A socialist paradise for interactive media is just to our north!)

New tools could break us out of that rut and enable enough experimentation that storytellers and audiences start to understand what’s possible and what works. We’ll see how good they get (in terms of production output and usability) and how fast they get there.

David Karger

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are widely believed to be revolutionizing education. But I think they also suggest some really interesting futures for journalism. In particular, I’m excited about the online discussion forums that accompany the MOOCs. These forums transform students from passive consumers of information into a community of inquiry who are actively engaged in asking questions and collaboratively working out answers. We need the same in journalism.

Too often, the forums hanging off news sites are troll-filled wastelands, where the best content one can hope for is a particularly well crafted putdown. In contrast, the MOOC forums exhibit high quality discussion where questions are asked, answers proposed and critiqued, and conclusions drawn in a style that supports and encourages other students. We’ve even seen the emergence of student leaders who are particularly adept at guiding others to find or construct needed information.

For most people who’ve finished school, journalism is probably the primary source of new information. What can we do to improve the news consumer’s “education”? Can the news “anchor” become the course “teacher”? With current events as the source material, what kind of MOOC in foreign affairs or government policy could be taught by a big-name journalist? Driven purely by interest in learning, thousands of MOOC students are doing “homework” to improve their knowledge, exercises that are graded by the computer and essays graded by peers in the class. What assignments could the journalist create to enhance a student’s understanding of a foreign country or a difficult budget or policy question? What would it be like if readers could submit peer-graded essay responses instead of grouchy complaints about biased media? Could this student-authored content actually start contributing to the news?

Journalism and education are siblings: if you’re informed but not educated, you have no context to interpret the information you’re getting; if you’re educated but not informed, you’re living in an ivory tower. In MOOCs I see the beginnings of a trend that might draw these two information-delivery mechanisms together in a powerful way.

Cyndi Stivers

I’m fascinated by evolving media business structures, and one that I haven’t seen widely discussed is The Conversation, an 18-month-old nonprofit Australian site that draws on the expertise of some 4,000 academics to present and analyze current news. It claims more than a half-million monthly users in Australia, and it’s anything but dry and professorial. According to a 2012 stakeholder report, 15 editors help spruce up the content, which is available for republishing under Creative Commons licenses. I’d say it lives up to Its tagline: “Academic rigour, journalistic flair.” I wonder whether this model could work in America — perhaps with advertising. The Oz demographics are certainly enviable.

I’m currently obsessed with how young people get their news — apparently on their phones, via social referrals from their friends. So how will they know what information to trust? And then how will content creation be funded? Probably not by advertising revenue: We’ve all heard how print dollars dwindled to digital dimes, and now, presumably, mobile pennies. With fewer legacy players cranking out good stuff to comment on, the social sphere will likely fragment even further. I’m also fascinated by the experiments in “subcompact publishing” (shorter/smaller editions such as Matter and The Magazine), new ways of assembling information into stories (Circa, Storify, et al.), and innovative filters and discovery mechanisms (Upworthy, Evening Edition, Jason Hirschhorn’s Media ReDEFined,, etc.). They’re all basically editing, presenting good work at a much lower cost than previously possible. So how will the young’uns choose to find their way through the onslaught of chatter and data? That’s the future of media, seems to me.

David Gehring

I think the role social plays in the perpetuation of digital media gained some focus this year. I don’t mean the role social networks play per se: I mean the laser focus on creating content built to share seems to have come into more acute relief. And it makes sense to me. Media as “presentation” is best suited for traditional forms of content distribution. Media as “conversation” is something that leverages the innate qualities of the web. Generally speaking, people go to the web to engage with humanity. People sit on their couch to escape it for a while. Conversations are social. Presentations are individually consumable. The more digital media is actually a conversation, the greater the sharing potential and thereby the greater the audience. This distinction seems to have gained definition this year.

If I could note a second trend from this year, it would be the rise of socially curated, user-generated source video for news. Companies like Storyful are succeeding in developing robust methodologies for using social to discover content that matters faster than can be done with search. And then using those same global social networks to verify the content in a way required for authenticated news reporting. This powers the democratization of news while at the same time maintaining the journalistic integrity expected of the news institution. It got a kick start in 2011 with the Arab Spring; 2012 was about the scaling and institutionalization of that trend. We’ll look back and see the world changed this year as a result.

The traditional role of the journalist has been to give the population the information we need to be free and self-governing. I think the role of the journalist in a digital framework is to facilitate a conversation about the information we need to be free and self governing. I’m going to be on the look out for who does a killer job of that!

POSTED     Dec. 17, 2012, 12:31 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Spark Camp's Big Ideas of 2012
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