An oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology, 1980 to the present

A project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

Archive for April, 2015

Vol 2 — The Tech Beat and Site Changes

Writing the second act, when you didn’t write the first is always a challenge but I got lucky on three counts.

The tech reporters I talked with were, as the interviews show, uniformly chatty, fun and open. Tom Silver, my research assistant, was a superb teammate. And I was able to develop some new storytelling wrinkles, giving readers tools that let the interviews be read horizontally, if you will, by topic. The results were so encouraging that we went back and applied the same tools to the interviews that were done more than a year before.

My approach was fueled in part by the need in this digital age to build trust in quality journalism’s reporting and newsgathering techniques and processes. The cacophony in our new ecosystem where anyone can be a publisher can leave even a well-informed audience at a loss as to who has a credible voice.

Last fall Richard Gingras and Sally Lehrman argued that this trust, at its best somewhat tenuous, is eroding at an ever-quickening pace. They founded The Trust Project to push for greater transparency and new initiatives including a wider promulgation of ethics policies, detailed disclosures about the expertise of the journalists involved and a fuller discussion of the reporting methodology used.

One place to start might be by building on that most basic and essential journalistic tool – the interview.

Too often we’re accused of cherry-picking interviews for the most salacious quote. Too often we’re told we didn’t give the full story. Too often it isn’t apparent to readers where information comes from. And we need to be prepared for a world in which a gain in the value of our brands comes from getting more “on-the-record.”

Within the next few years, instantaneous transcription will be widely available. Why not recognize that and begin to develop tools and workplace disciplines to exploit that development for the good of the craft and our common weal? It is something we should be doing now. One reason to do this is because so much of an interview is wasted. I’d argue 97% of any interview is left in the notebook, never viewed, seldom re-used. Isn’t there a better way to do this, enabling others to see what’s been said and have it used in various narratives, to provide greater depth and validation for the storytelling?

Of course, putting up gigabytes of transcribed interviews in the cloud is not the answer. We have to accompany those records with easy-to-use tools to allow readers to mine those transcripts, to separate the wheat from the chaff while leaving the chaff visible.

“Tagging” passages in interviews is a way to enable transparency in our reporting and create added value in how we present it. Additionally, the potential for involving our readers in the tagging process (or “TagTeam” in the words of one open-source aggregator) shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of yielding an involved and loyal following.

Tags aren’t new. They’ve been around for a decade or so and have been used on everything from recipe sites to video sites to being used by various blogs. They’re a bottom-up way to organize information across a site, a discipline or a body of work. They are best used to categorize broad themes rather than narrow specific bits of information like names or titles.

In this new digital age, we need to pair tagging more rigorously and intimately with journalistic endeavors if we’re going to separate our voices from the less disciplined ones around us. The skill of the interviewer, the willingness to disclose an interview’s contents and to show our primary source material is something that should yield a return on credibility and allegiance.

My colleagues and I produced this updated and expanded version of the Riptide project at Harvard hoping to model this idea by showcasing the interviews with new and more robust tagging and presentation techniques. The four of us talked to some great people and wanted to give you, our readers, a choice in how you can approach this oral history – you can wade, swim or dive in!