Journalism as problem solving. How to see the world differently

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Helena Merriman (@helenamerriman), an award-winning BBC broadcaster, has just produced a podcast Tunnel 29 to great fanfare at The Steel Yard in London, bringing together names from the BBC and industry.

As reported in the Evening standard “Break the airwaves: Why podcasts are the new blockbusters” the producer approached her project by working “out what to focus on, how to structure it, where to put the cliffhangers. I thought about it like it were a film — or a Netflix series.”

This strategy is symbolic of a revitalised storytelling form, Cinema Journalism (Direct Cinema), which made an indelible impact in the 1960s with zeitgeist films Salesman and Primary. It was journalism storytelling as unfolding drama and a director’s canny eye of motive and structure, breaking from form mainstream’s corporate journalism.

Structural story analysis and producing immersive flows has become an increasing modus operandi in digital journalism and hacks (see BBC Hack) particularly in interactive factual storytelling and podcasts eliciting pre-planning mind maps and story boards. By the way it’s imperative in fictional cinema.

Superstar psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who pioneered studies on flow equates this sensory perception to when an external source is in synch with an audience’s absorption, triggering amongst the user a loss of awareness and time.

Whilst mapping and storyboards are helpful for idea generation and how to unfold a potential future, it’s useless says John Bicheno and Matthias Holweg of the phenomenally successful The Lean Took Kit, “ unless it leads to action”.

Implementing its outcomes is one thing, but also as a constant visible piece of work it serves as a collective piece of epistemological journalistic art and a pragmatic ongoing research canvas to show thinking and update data.

STORY MATRIX

Pull back on Merriman’s camera lens on “what to focus on and how to structure it” and on a macro scale you’re underscoring a lean approach to setting up a new journalism operation. In a market where everyone’s a potential journalist through blogging, writing and creating videos because of an essential internal desire, negating supportive data impales the following core questions.

  • What’s the story?
  • Why ought the audience care?
  • What’s the plot?
  • Where are the arc points?

All the above require further conversations, which I’ve posted here .

Furthermore, in terms of quick mental judgement and reflection what patterning or convention of storytelling is being adopted, because, as research has shown, there are different story shapes around the world. It’s globalisation that has eroded some boundaries. Also, each generation generally throws off established forms of narrative and styles, and often there’s a circularity to forms. This has led several sources to cite it’s the 1920s all over again.

At @Jomec Masters students acquire matrix data that helps them build an audience profile. It’s a systematic process that crunches figures based around demographics and pertinent parameters e.g. disposable income.

They’re also made aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion outside of the primary audience. Stories, soft and hard, too transcend cultural barriers. A story about the government’s hostile environment policy towards Windrush settlers, told well through characters is about humanity and the dishonesty of governments.

Strategies by social media analysts in user behaviour, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which can be configured to Buzzfeed stories and the so called OCEANS test provides an insight into new media practices drilling into character traits of audiences.

The session starts with a thought experiment. In my previous post, “Training in foreign news reporting in the digital noisy age”, I used Oana, a former student reporting from Ukraine as a case study.

You land in a foreign country from where you want to report. But this time you plan on setting up a journalism operation. What do you do?

The methodology involves a series of planned katas or routines. Following on from the breakdown of the audience persona, analyse patterned trends in your competitors’ output.

What type of stories are prominent? Which ones appear seasonal? What’s the style and length of articles? This data correlated against your audience profile provides a powerful map where to land and in line with successful outfits such as Buzzfeed, Vice, Now This, how to be creative and exploit gaps in the market.

Imagine then data collected from 80 proto journalists displayed on a white board revealing a spectrum of valuable information, which leads to story ideas.

Amongst the eight different groups, the interpretation of the same sample dossier reveals an array of intelligence gathering with different target groups and logically therefor diverse ideas.

That’s a good thing. But perhaps for the first time, seeing the panorama of different proposals new questions should be asked.

It’s easy to become fixed on your own researched themes; that’s instinctive. It has its merits, but it’s something in the ideas phase you’ll want to be less restricted by. Firstly, look at the collective evidence with an open mind, rather than a closed one which pre-determined your initial idea.

As illustrated in previous posts all sorts of biases e.g. confirmation bias are first brought to the creative process. This in many ways is natural as written about in Daniel Kahneman’s Think Fast and Slow. However new knowledge that becomes available, that everyone is privy to should facilitate, ‘swimming across lanes’.

  • How did different groups arrive at their audiences?
  • What evidence can they offer to support their findings?
  • And what are the journo-teams looking for in their stories? Put bluntly, what problems are you solving?
  • How can I learn from them? Start a conversation,

This is design thinking or to coin a new word human centred journalism from Human centred design, which looks on tasks as a series of katas or smaller individual issues in which the input and impact of the audience or users is central. From often a series of experiments their insights as consumers is used to mould the product.

The nominal approach to journalism is to grasp the technical basis of writing and decide as the architect how to move forward. This can work in the long run, by trial and error, but it’s hit and miss. Deep craft knowledge is necessary, but shouldn’t rule out a civic approach to understanding the audience’s involvement. In China, working with a student, we hypothesised about the story and its journey and kept asking different groups along the way. What turned out was a completely different story to the one we’d originally envisioned.

Design thinking requests an understanding of the value and resonance of the user, whilst placing a moral obligation on the creatives. It is “‘Experiment First. Then design’, rather than design and trial” say John Bicheno and Matthias Holweg of the Lean Toolbox — a phenomenal book in transformation.

Modern journalism stories without a design approach is akin to creating a well designed suit without any knowledge of who might fit it.

And while the use of mind maps is nothing new within team building ideas, creating a super map with different teams working of similar data reveals new intelligence and patterns. It facilitates intra competition between teams as well as the Wisdom of Crowds — the notion that a group of informed people know more about a subject than one individual.

In focusing on the story itself, who also becomes the protagonists and key figures in the narrative? Normative journalism generally suffers from paralysis here, which is why when you put on the television or read the newspapers the same spokesperson crop up time and time again on an issue. Imagine now having thirty, forty or even eighty researchers start an intensive research looking for new voices and creating a new database?

Imagine now taking one big story, like:

  • How does #Climate Crisis affect Wales in 2000?
  • How will #Brexit socially and economically affect people (of x age in x area)?
  • How will #senior citizens from X fare economically in a post Brexit world?

And then set in train a design thinking approach? A month ago, I was introduced to an incredible man, Arthur, in Taff Wells near Cardiff, whose shed is a historical museum of his life stories spanning the war and the industrial development of Wales.

Imagine now eighty researchers at work to build a grand story strategically eking out fresh information and imagine Cinema Journalism playing a role in the output? And before you pitch the idea run it through an AI headliner.

Helena Merriman (@helenamerriman) podcast Tunnel 29 can be heard here.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is an expert in cinema journalism. His career spans thirty years across the BBC, ABC, Channel 4 News and dotcoms in innovation journalism which include Radio 4 documentaries, interactive documentaries and videojournalism. He’s currently working on A.I centred journalism projects and is on the editorial board of the British Library’s news exhibition. He’s is one of @Medium’s top writers in Journalism and lectures at the University of Cardiff.

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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