faculty | pedagogy

Why Journalism + Design?

Some of the most Frequently Asked Questions we’ve received — and that we’ve been asking ourselves:

What’s going on here? Why should journalists care what designers have to say?

Let’s start with the context. As journalists, we’re trying to stay alive — and, preferably, flourish — in a media ecosystem that’s become vastly complex. We’re no longer just competing with each other, or with the entertainment industry, but with what people create themselves and their communications with one another. Design is about systems thinking, and journalists need to become better at this. Game designer and author Eric Zimmerman writes in this essay, “A systems point of view means understanding the world as dynamic sets of parts with complex, constantly changing interrelationships — seeing the structures that underlie our world, and comprehending how these structures function.”

That feels very meta. Why does that matter on a concrete level?

If we don’t understand the system in which we’re operating, how can we create journalism that will compete in it?

So design can help with the creation part, as well as the understanding part?

Remember: the newspaper was once a new idea. Or think about Charles Chapin of the Pulitzer paper, The New York World, around the turn of the last century. In fierce competition with his Hearst rival, The New York Journal-American, he came up with the crazy idea of assigning his reporters to work in geographical “beats,” covering specific areas, then calling in what they found to the newsroom using a new technology: the telephone. That gave him a leg up on Hearst, and changed the way journalism was done. Today, we also need new strategies. And while I hate to use business jargon, we need to be thinking about the journalism “products” of the future. Design offers methodologies for coming up with new ways of doing things. Design can help us do what we need to do.

What do you mean by the phrase “human-centered journalism?”

This is a term coined by my partner at Parsons, Irwin Chen. Good design — whether in architecture, software, video games, furniture, or anything else — starts with understanding the person for whom you’re designing. Good design relies on feedback from those people. For journalists, this means acknowledging that journalism is a participatory activity. It means putting the people we serve at the center of our work. What are the actual information needs of our community, and how can we best meet those needs?

What if the members of your “community” are embezzling funds, molesting children or starting wars based on dubious documentation?

This is not about turning journalism into touchy-feely BS. To me, informing people in an effective way about what’s happening in their communities and the wider world is an act that’s inherently challenging to the establishment. There’s a reason that repressive regimes always clamp down on the press. An educated and informed citizenry is hard to dupe.

Do you have any examples of these ideas in action?

I’ve been inspired by Andrew Donohue’s work, first at Voice of San Diego and now at the Center for Investigative Reporting. For the 2012 San Diego City Council elections, for example, reporters at Voice of San Diego each spent a week in a different district, finding out what people felt really needed fixing in their communities — instead of focusing on the agendas of the politicians running for office. They discovered all kinds of things, like a district that had no trash collection. Then they took what they found to the politicians. Andrew later described the process in an article for Nieman Lab.

You covered video games for a long time, and you talk a lot about how that’s informed your thinking about journalism. What’s that about?

I got interested in video games because I was taken to an alternative games festival when I was a kid. I never forgot the idea that games function, in part, to prepare children for the roles they’ll play as adult citizens. I realized that games could be a way of understanding the future: show me the games of your children, and I’ll show you the next hundred years. So in the 12 years I was covering games, I really felt like I was studying the future. Then the MacArthur Foundation started its Digital Media and Learning initiative, which took games and digital culture really seriously, and I got involved with that.

Yes, but what does play have to do with journalism?

Play is how mammals learn. When you’re playing, you’re testing boundaries. You’re testing different strategies. You’re asking, “What if…?” Play is an open and inquisitive psychological state. In a white paper for the MacArthur Foundation, published by the MIT Press, media scholar Henry Jenkins defined play as “the capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving.” He listed it as one of the crucial skills of the 21st century — a critical skill for navigating change. I want Journalism + Design to be predicated on an ethos of play.

Does journalism education really need another program?

I don’t want us to be competing with or replicating what’s already out there. I want to complement all the work being done with data journalism, all the programs exploring insights from computer science and engineering. We’ll be looking at the intersection of journalism and design — we’ll be a place for playful experimentation, deliberately situated on the edge, because the edge eventually influences the center.

You’re not even a graduate program. Is it really worth teaching journalism to undergraduates?

We may add a Masters program. But I love the fact that our students are undergraduates. We’ve brought in some amazing people to teach (even before we were officially a program): Aron Pilhofer of The Guardian, John Keefe of WNYC, and Scott Klein of ProPublica. What they tell me is that our students are super-smart and up for anything. In an era of journalism as mass participation, it’s about time we start teaching journalism at the undergraduate level. Some will become professionals; others will be rigorous and creative participants. And some will go on to invent journalism’s future.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://journalismdesign.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Heather-Chaplin.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Heather Chaplin is an assistant professor of journalism at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, and the director of the Journalism+Design Program. [/author_info] [/author]