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Tech shouldn’t be the only field pollinating “news nerds”

“What can we learn from artists about conveying emotional truths that drive human decision-making? In a world of growing tribalism and skepticism about reported facts, helping people understand the world increasingly means helping people understand others’ feelings as well as their reasoning.”

2019 will be the year we look to more unusual places outside of journalism for inspiration and collaboration.

We’ve learned from software development practices as we transform from newspapers, radio, and TV stations into digital media companies. This has brought audience analytics, project management, and A/B testing into newsrooms.

But as even the biggest tech companies are starting to discover, there are larger issues than just how to reach, monetize, and retain users. How do we convene civic spaces, or ones that further human connection? What motivates learning and curiosity, to ward against disinformation? How do we study and change our own organizational cultures?

These are questions for journalism that technology does not have the answers for. So we must look to adjacent fields: game design, ethnography, theater development, and others. These disciplines have relevant research, tools, and crucially, people who want to help journalism survive and thrive.

Here are some paths to explore in 2019:

Community engagement

What can we learn from public arts about how to connect, represent, and convene communities? How do we move beyond journalism that “targets” and “reaches out to” pre-existing communities, to journalism that builds communities?

Public arts organisations have long grappled with similar questions. For example, Claire Doherty came up with “The New Rules of Public Art” to challenge how public art is commissioned and created.

Engage-ability

What can we learn from game designers about how people become curious and interested, learn, and remain in flow? For example, by drawing from the insights Celia Hodent used in teaching more than 200 million people how to play Fortnite through designing the in-game tutorial.

Organizational change

What can we learn about the digital transformation of newsrooms from policy researchers studying how practices are formed and can be changed?

AnneMarie Dorland, at the University of Calgary’s Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, once reminded me that incentives only affect the activities and performance of work. Changing the social practice of work (e.g. changing what it means to “write” a story when text isn’t primary) requires reassembling the practice itself.

Emotional truths

What can we learn from artists about conveying emotional truths that drive human decision-making? In a world of growing tribalism and skepticism about reported facts, helping people understand the world increasingly means helping people understand others’ feelings as well as their reasoning.

Can we learn from and work with poets, musicians, and theater makers to present journalism through poetry readings, music videos, and live performances?

Reporting

What can we learn about ethnographic techniques from cultural anthropologists like Mike Youngblood to further our reporting skills? For example, the use of observational research techniques to quickly create data sets when doing in-the-field reporting. Or how sociologist Sam Ladner makes consistent effort to return to her field notes to reduce and synthesise them, making them more useful over time.

Fanbases

As subscription and membership models become more popular, what can we learn from sports teams and churches about building, supporting, and growing a loyal following?

Identity construction

What can we learn from fashion designers about our role and responsibilities in shaping people’s self-identity? People buy and carry the Financial Times newspaper in public in the same way they wear clothes to express and communicate who they are. But what about in digital and online spaces?

Transformative experiences

As conferences and events become a growing revenue source, they also become an opportunity to establish deeper connections with our audience. What can we learn from experience designers about how to create transformative and meaningful social encounters?

Trust

What can we learn about rebuilding trust in the media from people who work in conflict resolution and mediation?

Information architecture

What can we learn from librarians, architects, and museum curators about how we design the information architecture and “user journeys” of our news apps and websites?

We enriched our journalism when we invited programmers, digital designers, and data analysts into newsrooms. Along the way, we coined the term “news nerds” to describe people who work at the intersection of journalism and technology.

We now face different challenges and need help from people with different expertise. It’s time we expanded the definition of “news nerds” to also include people working at the intersection of journalism and art, education, organizational design, and many other disciplines.

Robin Kwong is head of digital delivery at the Financial Times.

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