Washington , D.C., 2014—The economic weather map, which started out as a gimmick, changed everything. It showed us how the old stuff—good stories told by professional reporters—could live happily alongside all the new: user-generated content, data mash-ups, discussion forums, Twitter feeds, and all that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back on September 6, 2008, NPR launched Planet Money, a team of radio and multimedia journalists producing a podcast, blog, Web site, and ongoing radio stories. Planet Money’s mission was to make clear a torrent of economic and business news. Our theory was that many Americans were eager to understand how economics and business affected their lives, but found much business reporting too jargon-filled and confusing. It was coincidental that we launched on the day that the U.S. and world economies, effectively, broke down. The first few months were wild. By mid-2009 we could, occasionally, catch our breath, and that’s when we put together the economic weather map.
The map was supposed to be somewhat simple: a fullcolor, fun-to-look-at, easy-to-use replica of the world which could show, in rich USA Today colors, just how the economy was doing. Areas with lots of job loss would be in red, the high-growth areas (there weren’t many in those first years) would be in blue.
Pretty soon we realized how much more fun it would be to make the map personal. If I’m a dentist in Akron, what did I care about the job security of computer programmers in San Jose? We wanted users to be able to enter their zip code (or the equivalent outside the U.S.), age, profession, education level, gender, etc., and then see how people like them are doing around the country and around the world. They could zoom in on their city or their neighborhood and compare themselves to the Joneses next door; or they could quickly compare their salary to dentists or computer programmers in Paris or Mumbai or Srinagar.
This was not easy, of course. It meant putting a bunch of journalists used to anecdotal, narrative reporting in the same room as a bunch of information architects and computer-assisted reporters used to massive sets of government data. But once we had it up and running, everybody was happy. The interactive map was just so cool: enter your profession and you instantly saw employment rates and average salaries around the U.S. and the world; enter your zip code and you could see employment rates and levels of bankruptcy and other economic indicators in your county, city, or neighborhood. Interested in trade? You could see global-trade flows. No longer would you have to wonder how circumstances in China or India, say, were having an impact on your job. You could see, in full color, exactly how much money companies in your area were paying for outsourcing services or imported goods.
It was cool, but not yet a work of journalism. It was all pull and no push. The users had infinite ability to play around but no guidance, no broad narrative to help them understand how the world economy works and how it’s changing. The discussion boards and the videos that our audience provided confirmed our sense of failure. There was no overriding view of the world, simply thousands of individuals who had used the map to confirm and strengthen opinions they already had. A disgruntled computer programmer used the map to prove that people in India and the Czech Republic had “stolen my job,” while others used the same data set to show that global trade was an uncomplicated and unambiguous positive for all Americans. Soon, the discussions and the user-generated content devolved into a screaming match among unbending ideologues.
All along, we had hoped that our economic news service would do the opposite: it would create a forum for reasonable, thoughtful discussion and debate, informed not by the Internet’s typical violent animal spirits but by respectful consideration of a shared set of facts.