Since September 2010, Zoe has worked with Studio 20 as we try and solve the big puzzles in journalism. In Studio II, She introduced us to the skills and tactics we need to execute our long-term project with ProPublica. Zoe taught us the value of iterative project management and agile development, and also lead weekly workshops on everything from photoshop to public speaking. This semester in Studio III, Zoe is working with each of us to make sure we’re on track and prepared to deliver our final projects on time and with confidence.
Zoe has been a resource (even a life saver) for the last year and it’s about time that we give her a proper introduction.
When she’s not at Studio 20, Zoe is either at ITP (where she teaches a class on interaction design) or at General Assembly, where she manages Squishables, one of her many companies. (And yes, I am talking about these giant stuffed balls of fuzz).
Zoe is not the typical journalism prof and that suits us just fine; Studio 20 is far from your average journalism program. We asked Zoe to tell us herself about what it’s been like to transition from working with programs and code to stuffed animals and journalists.
S20: How do you see your role in Studio 20?
My job is to make sure everyone involved in Studio 20 has the skills and connections to do any kind of innovation they can dream up, without regard for technical issues or inexperience. Journalists stereotypically run the risk of fearing change - I can’t fix that but I can prove to them that change is a lot easier than they thought (and also a giggle).
S20: What did you do before joining Studio 20?
Most recently I was at ITP, NYU, and these days on top of the teaching I do a lot of consulting work for existing Media Outlets, news startups, and nonprofits involved with freedom of speech. Usually they’re projects involved in Data Visualization or Meme-Tracking (in one instance, both). And of course I also run the ecommerce startup Squishable (Snurfle us on Facebook).
Before then I was doing web architecture at a large financial regulatory institution, and before then I was consulting for a company involved with running free elections in unusual places. Prior to that….the US Department of Labor, and also did a stint for the US Postal Service. Going way back in time, I was a briefly a researcher in Human Computer Interaction at Brunel University, a Runner at the BBC, and before that I worked for a nonprofit on creating eBay’s Giving Works Tool. Before that, like everyone else in the early 00’s, an internet startup that went under. And before that I worked for the Hubble Space Telescope.
And at one point in 2005 I worked for a couple weeks on a kangaroo farm in Australia. So there’s that.
S20: What attracts you to working with journalists/journalism students?
Folks involved in startups often come at life from this POV: I have a cool idea and if I develop it a bit I bet I can get some people who want to use it. But journalists have this amazing situation going on right now: A lot of people want to use my product, if only I could think up a cool idea how to let them. It’s just a more powerful, more rewarding way to think about the world. More fun too.
S20: What has surprised you about Studio 20?
Surprises on working with Studio 20 - hmm. I didn’t necessarily expect the level of dedication I found here. Because of the three-semester layout it seems like the students are incredibly involved and supportive of each other. It’s amazing the advertising agencies aren’t banging in their door demanding to know how they do it.
S20: How do you compare your work at ITP with your work at Studio 20
ITP and Studio 20, they have very different institutional feels, but it’s interesting to notice how convergent evolution has kicked in here. From originally coming from such divergent POV’s, the drive for innovation and experimentation has linked them up in a way I’m not sure anyone expected. It would be as if Birds and Butterfly’s suddenly realized they were both good at the same thing. And decided to help each other modify some wing structure. And hold races. I can keep going with this metaphor if you want.
The Redistricting Song is Dave’s third music video explainer and the second he’s created in partnership with ProPublica. As he’s done before, Dave has combined clever lyrics with a catchy beat and awesome animation to bring users into a highly complicated subject: redistricting.
ProPublica’s most recent investigation, “Redistricting: How Powerful Interests Are Drawing You Out of a Vote” examines the opaque methodology behind the process and how its effects can hurt voters. ProPublica has created a “Devil’s Dictionary” to break down the complex jargon and a primer, “The Story so Far” along with the song, to bring users into the investigation itself.
“The song isn’t going to tell you everything you need to know about redistricting. But it is a gateway. It’s catchy; it has the potential to go viral. Because of all that, it has the potential to draw people in,” Dave recently told The Nieman Lab.
As we learned last year, the best explainers give users what they need to understand the latest news. The Redistricting Song definitely does that, with a backbeat.
In its second year, Studio 20 is again embarking on a big collaboration with a major media partner. In 2009-10 it was The Local East Village with the New York Times. In 2010-11 it’s the Building a Better Explainer project with the investigative journalism non-profit, ProPublica. The project will focus on the art of explaining the sort of sprawling complicated stories that ProPublica covers. The new site students built for the project, Explainer.net, launched last night.
Studio 20 Director Jay Rosen’s students, consulting closely with the editors of ProPublica, will:
We will start by researching what’s working now, and by going beyond journalism to fields that might know something journalists should know. In the spring of 2011, we’ll devote a whole graduate course (18 students, two instructors, plus consultants) to producing explainers that we hope ProPublica can publish, as well as a kind of tool kit to make the task easier. At the project site, explainer.net, we’ll post highlights from our research, solicit help, and publish interviews with thinkers and do-ers who are pushing the practice forward.
Recently, Nieman Journalism Lab’s Lois Beckett visited Studio 20 to speak with students about the project. She writes:
Students will divide into three groups tasked with exploring different elements of explanation. One group is interviewing the members of ProPublica’s news team, from reporters to news app builders to the managing editor, in order to understand the organization’s workflow, what it does with the data it collects, and how its reporters explain what they’re learning to themselves as they report a story.
Another group is building Explainer.net’s WordPress website, which sometimes means teaching themselves and each other skills on an ad hoc basis.
A third group is researching the different “explainer” genres. They’re starting with examples of good and bad explanatory journalism, from maps and timelines to more specific visualizations like The National Post’s chilling illustration of how a stoning is carried out in Iran. But they’ll also be reaching far outside the media world to research techniques used in many different fields. Rosen suggested that they focus on situations where people “can’t afford to fail,” like people fixing combat aircraft, or NFL teams explaining complicated plays. The students are also looking at the “For Dummies” book franchise and the language-learning software Rosetta Stone.