In the 10th episode of the TV drama “Rectify” on the Sundance Channel, a man named Daniel Holden, who had just been set free from 20 years in prison and death row after a wrongful conviction, peers at a painting at a gallery in Atlanta.
A woman steps to his side and asks what he thinks. He says he’s disappointed. He’d stared at a reproduction of the painting in a book for so long that his brain had trivialized it. The two spend a moment talking about the concept of awe — “I think the brain’s afraid of being in a state of constant wonder,” she tells him — before she drops a line that has stuck with me since the episode’s premiere in 2014.
“I think we should reinstate wonder! Banish expectation!”
My life, and probably yours, revolves around templates and routines of all sorts. Our websites are built to look a certain way, allowing for varying but limited degrees of flexibility. We use established workflows and processes and routines to move projects from ideation to completion. Those systems can have an inordinate amount of control over the work that we publish.
Count right now. How many different ways do you have to publish a story?
In the digital realm, most of us are working with regimented blocks of static images and text. Some of us have audio or video, both of which are often heavily templated, too.
There are plenty of great reasons why journalists and communicators of all types employ these templates in our work. They’re faster, which is necessary for breaking news and quickly satisfying consumers’ addiction for something new. They make it easier to publish, saving our mental energy for the rest of our work. And they allow us to work together better.
But what would it look like if we banished our expectations for how we publish the news? What does a wondrous news product look like? I have a few examples.
Robin Sloan, who once worked at Poynter, doesn’t know that he’s my mentor in breaking the mold. But he his. Known first for “EPIC 2014,” a Flash video from 2004 that predicted a world in which tech companies do battle with media and algorithms control the world, Sloan doesn’t just seem to think outside the box — it seems like he doesn’t realize the box even exists.
“The Truth About The East Wind” is a long, scrolling fiction story that blends Greek mythology and foreboding horror. It was published more than two years before The New York Times released “Snow Fall” and popularized that long, scrolling format. Sloan’s “Fish: A Tap Essay,” is an app with no navigation buttons — only forward — that forces you do think about how the Web never stops moving you. Database, Sloan’s latest, is a series of zine-like essays that he will personally mail to you for free. It 2019, that feels like a wondrously subversive act.
There’s also “True Blue,” a short fiction story, built of text and illustrations, that has to be one of the prettiest things I’ve seen online. There’s “17776,” also known as “What Football Will Look Like in the Future.” It melted my ideas about what a sports story could be and how I thought about SB Nation as a publisher. It’s awesome, in the traditional sense of the word, in both scale and imagination.
Breaking the mold doesn’t have to be so weird (though I admit that I strongly prefer weird).
It’s possible to display the population of cities with visualizations that look like mountains. It’s possible to make an interactive database of uses of force by police in one state. It’s possible to tell a spellbinding and Lovecraftian true story about Amazon fulfillment companies in a format that looks (purposefully, in this case) like it fell out of Geocities in the mid-2000s.
Inspiring wonder doesn’t require a massive rethinking of how we do things, either. The Now I Know newsletter shares an interesting fact or story in plain text five times a week. Slate rated the scariness the movie “Us” by creating simple charts that compares it to other films. Low-tech Magazine, for critics of technological process, offers a low-tech, low-fi website that uses a fraction of the energy that normal websites require.
I hope these weird and wonderful stories encourage you to explore the boundaries of your templates and workflows. Got a news story, internet creation or piece of digital ephemera you’d like to share? As always, let me know.
MANAGE YOUR CONTENT: WordPress.com has chosen 12 newsrooms to help shape Newspack, a WordPress publishing platform for small- and medium-sized news organizations. WordPress promises that the tool will “eliminate the need for news organizations to devote time and effort to simply keeping pace with broad-based industry innovations.” It will also include audience engagement and revenue-building tools and membership to a community of Newspack users, who I presume will break the ice by kvetching about their old content management systems, aka journalism’s industry-wide pastime.
A SOLID POD: Thinking about starting a podcast? There are plenty of great online courses and how-tos to help you get started. My advice? Seek help from the ones that have been producing audio for 47 years. NPR has published some great (and free!) guides about podcasts, covering topics like starting a podcast, hooking an audience, training your ear for audio and production. And there’s plenty more where that came from.
TWITTER VERIFICATION: Tweets have a habit of making their way to other platforms via screenshots, where they mingle with doctored and made-up tweets to form a bitter concoction of mis- and disinformation. Worse yet, checking the veracity of an individual tweet that’s been pulled outside of Twitter is time-consuming — open Twitter, search for a few keywords, scroll, scroll some more, and you’re still left without a definitive answer. DidTheyTweetThat, a plugin for Firefox and Chrome, makes that process easier. Just open the plugin and type in the alleged tweeter’s username and a few words from the tweet, and the tool will tell you if the tweet is real or not. Just note that it won’t tell you if a tweet has been deleted.
TWEETS FOR GOOD: Tweeting updates from live events is a great way to build interest and expertise in a topic. But pulling information from those tweets later to use in a story can be a hassle. TweetsToText is a handy bot that pulls in your tweets and sends them to you as plaintext in a direct message after you’re done live tweeting. If you’re likely to forget to turn it on or off, try one of IFTTT’s handy formulas instead.
FROM THE EXPERTS: Taylor Lorenz has written insightful articles about how The Kids are using Google Docs as a chat app, Instagram has become a hotbed for hateful content and the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto was designed for an online audience of trolls. And that’s just in the past month. I doubt that seeing what’s on Lorenz’s phone’s home screen is going to offer much insight into her insight, but it can’t hurt.
100 FREE TOOLS: When I started this newsletter, I promised to never to send a tidal wave of tools your way. But, erm, here’s a tidal wave of tools (and a colorful Reddit thread with some thoughts on said tools). The infographic says they’re for marketing but I’ve used many of these to help my journalism and didn’t suffer any ill effects. I’m breaking my own rule and sharing them willy nilly because there are some solid alternatives here for folks who are hoping to break up with a tool that isn’t treating them right. (h/t to my friend Tara McCarty, director of print design at the Tampa Bay Times)
- If you mistakenly joined this newsletter because you were looking for tips and guides to the best shovels, angle grinders and garlic peelers, here’s the YouTube channel for you. But for real, there are some helpful things for journalists on here, like guides on buying the best portable solar charger, emergency radio or anti-fogging safety goggles (for when you have to tell your boss that you’re going to miss deadline).
Just a reminder that my webinar about digital tools to improve your workweek is on Thursday, April 11, at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Come join the hordes, the crowds, the dozen(s)!