Klein heads a team of programmers and journalists who create new software that allows users not just to read stories, but to interact with them and find out how national trends are relevant to their daily lives. Projects range from The Opportunity Gap, a database where users can compare how well states provide richer and poorer schools with the same access to advanced classes, to Dollars for Docs, a programme that readers can use to find whether their own doctor has been paid money by drug companies.
Klein will be speaking at the 18th World Editors Forum, from 12th - 15th October in Vienna, about how news organizations can look beyond traditional forms to create more interactive methods of story-telling.
WAN-IFRA: What are the most important things to bear in mind when designing a news application?
Designing a news application is like editing any news story. You need to know what your story is, you need to know what your nut is, what point you’re trying to make. So the most important thing is, it’s still journalism.
WAN-IFRA: Projects like The Opportunity Gap and Dollars for Docs are databases that contain a vast amount of information. What is the key to making this data accessible to users?
“Journalism is about helping people figure out how to live their lives” (not my quote, I don’t remember who said it first!) News applications help people see what’s relevant to them in a large, complex world. For The Opportunity Gap, what we really focused on was giving people the ability to find their own school, which is a very small part of the process, but it anchored the story into their life for them. They were able to pivot from their school to schools near them, and then also to rich and poor schools, the extremes in their state or in their district. So they were able to tell the story themselves using their own experience and their own situations.
WAN-IFRA: So is it crucial that the story within the news app is ‘anchored’ with individual readers?
Absolutely. That is absolutely core to the news app. Amanda Cox who is a designer at the New York Times, an absolutely marvelous statistician and news graphics designer, says that graphics should tell a story. And I like to say that the news graphics tell a story, the news apps tell your story. You’ll be able to come to a new understanding not just of a national trend, but of exactly how it relates to you.
WAN-IFRA: You said that creating a news app is like lots of other journalistic work. How do you strike a balance between creating a journalistic narrative and providing access to raw original sources?
We don’t see what we present as really raw: everything that’s in one of the news applications that we create has been analyzed and cleaned. The real question is that how do we make it so that you’re not overwhelmed with the volume of data that’s available? This can be a struggle. Sometimes we’re really good at it and sometimes we’re not as good... It’s about focus, and it’s about traditional editing; "hey this whole column of numbers is not germane to what we’re trying to tell, it will just confuse people, let’s cut that whole thing out."
WAN-IFRA: How do you decide what sort of stories will make a good subject of a news application?
Well obviously the first thing is the availability of a large data set. And also a story where there is both a big national trend but that is made up of a lot of little local stories. We have had a tremendous amount of success doing things like that. One of the things we’ve found that’s been fascinating and really gratifying is that when we do a big national story local news organizations will actually pick up their locality. For The Opportunity Gap, we had lots of local news outlets doing stories about access to education in their area.
WAN-IFRA: Were you inspired by other sites in your creation of these applications?
The New York Times is always a huge leader in this. But there’ve been lots and lots. One of the very finest pieces of ‘news-appery’ was the LA Times’s ‘mapping LA’ project. They realized that there is no canonical neighborhood map in LA that everybody agreed on and it ultimately made it very difficult for them to do neighborhood stories: which neighborhood has the best schools, which neighborhood has the worst crime, because nobody really agreed on where x neighborhood ended. So they crowd-sourced a map of LA and invited people to draw the boundaries of the various neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The project ran for quite a while, and eventually a consensus was reached. Then the LA Times had in its possession a canonical map of the neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and this generated stories. Now the LA Times can offer crime statistics for Los Angeles with angles like ’what’s your neighbourhood like?’
WAN-IFRA: Something that makes your applications stand out is their appearance. How important are graphics to the success of a news application?
They’re absolutely crucial. Appearance is one thing but with each news application we think deeply about user behavior that we expect; in other words, what information might they want from this, and how can we pave those paths really cleanly so that they can get to it first.
But also, what behavior do we want? Do we want them to take this information and share it on Facebook? Do we want them to take some sort of action? We might really want them to go and look at a ranking of states. Or do we want them to look up their particular doctor, for Dollars For Docs? If so lets make the ‘search your doctor’ the biggest, brightest thing on the page.
WAN-IFRA: The Opportunity Gap encourages users to share results and comments on Facebook and Twitter. Has this integration with social media been a success?
It is. I think that we took some of our cues from the New York Times’s Oscars app. For a week or two before the Oscars you could make your own ballot, pick the things you think are going to win, then share it with your friends and start competitions with your friends on Facebook.
So we took that as our inspiration. We said, well, how can we apply that to a big national education story? So we let people find their school, find the schools in their state that are outliers or find schools in their state that are interesting to them. It’s easy for them to collect them all into one page and just share that page on Facebook.
We didn’t really have any number expectations and so I can’t really quote you numbers. It was much more an experiment to see how we could do this both for this app and going forward.
WAN-IFRA: So you’re still at the dipping-your-toe stage?
Absolutely. There’s no doubt, we are in the infancy of news apps. We’re kind of learning as we go, and consequently there’s sort of a culture of sharing a bit with news apps. There are few enough of us that we all know each other, we’re all kind of on the same mail lists, we see each other at the same conferences, we’re all on Skype with each other!
WAN-IFRA: How big is that community?
Fewer than 50 people. We’re very much at the beginning: I can see that probably doubling in the next year. I hope newsrooms everywhere start taking this up.
WAN-IFRA: Obviously it generates a lot of reader response.
Oh, they’re huge. They are the most popular things on the ProPublica website. The search your doctor feature on Dollars For Doc is the single most popular feature on Propublica ever: bigger than any story, bigger than any other news app.
WAN-IFRA: Propublica was founded because ‘the business crisis in publishing and – not unrelated – the revolution in publishing technology’ was squeezing the resources of investigative journalists in the mainstream media. Do you believe that new technology can now be harnessed to preserve investigative journalism?
Oh absolutely. I think that news applications are very much an answer to that question, right? Everything we do in my department here at ProPublica is investigative and accountability-focused just as much as the long-form stories. Everything that we do is mission-focused. But it exploits technology that five years ago didn’t exist. A whole new ocean of investigation has become possible because the tools you can use to scrutinize big powerful systems are becoming more and more sophisticated and at the same time cheaper and cheaper.
WAN-IFRA: Do you have any thoughts about what the next big innovation in news storytelling could be?
Something that we have not yet started thinking about is the story form itself. We still write stories and produce stories and the technology still understands stories in the same way that it did fifty years ago, a hundred and fifty years ago. And the story is kind of a monolithic element. But to some extent the story needs to be broken up a bit more and treated both as a story in the traditional narrative sense but also as a collection of pieces of data.
For instance Politifact. They have a system where it’s not just a big long news story, but they break it up. Who are we talking about? What are the comments they made that we’re assessing? Were they true, were they not? What state is this associated with? And then they can do deep introspection into this. They can say, let me just see what are the facts in Florida. Let me see just the facts or non-facts said by President Obama. And there’s an incredible amount of interesting stuff that can be unlocked if you start treating stories both as stories, because no one wants them to go away, but also as complex collections of data.