We decided to show the audience “the truth,” since it didn’t seem capable of finding it on its own. We took back the control of our weather map and created narrative stories out of the data. We made something distinctly old media, even if it used new-media tools—a series of “data stories” in whichthe audience pushed one button and got the equivalent of a high-school filmstrip: a world map with big red arrows and
a voice-of-God narrator explaining exactly how the world economy works. It was authoritative, objective, and completely boring. Our audience fled. We had overcorrected. We were miserable.

In that early period, we thought we only had two choices: embrace new media and create a forum for cranky extremism with none of the perspective provided by professional journalism, or ignore new media and just tell old-fashioned stories with no audience interaction. Yet, we began to wonder: Isn’t there an audience that wants what we want—intelligent, informed discussion? We couldn’t get rid of the cranks, but we could reward the thoughtful.

So: we gave the audience the tools to create their own datadriven narrative. Each person could more rigorously show how his own life—his profession or his neighborhood or his financial situation—fit in the context of the global economy. People could create their own personal documentary, complete with—we hoped—some journalistic balance. We provided access to the data and a whole suite of new tools—map mash-ups, intuitive information design, video and audio archives, do-it-yourself animation—which allowed anybody to create a simple, but pretty awesome, narrative.

Some were cartoons; some were videos; some were audio or text; some were simple PowerPoint displays. The more ambitious had plenty of room to expand. An easy, standards-based format meant that the personal stories could be as elaborate as the audience wanted, and expert users could create their own data mash-up tools and then share them with the rest of the community. A novice could create a basic story in ten or twenty minutes. Others spent months perfecting theirs. Since NPR is the ultimate hyper-local company—a big, national network with hundreds of local partner stations—it was natural that user groups opened around the country. We soon were seeing group-developed economic histories of Akron, Ohio, and Logan, Utah. Some member stations began hosting discussion sessions on economic issues that had been raised by the project; they would invite active users onto local talk shows to share what they had learned.

The level of user activity is what you’d expect: most visitors don’t create anything; they just browse; most of what is created is of interest only to those closely linked to the creator, while a few are true masterworks. Some of the minidocumentaries are less than a minute long and tell one specific story—the history of one neighborhood, for example, or one company. Others run more than an hour and have sweeping narratives spanning centuries and continents. A history of the sock industry, for instance, was particularly fascinating, taking the viewer to ancient Rome, medieval England, colonial Massachusetts, mid-century North Carolina, and contemporary China and Pakistan. Each element of each documentary is keyword-coded, so someone, say, creating an economic portrait of Pittsburgh can quickly find homemade videos of retired steelworkers, charts about steel production, and user-generated tools.

Every mini-documentary is connected to the central map that serves as the entryway and meeting place for the community, and where a first-time visitor can get a sense of what is available. Through careful information-architecture design and by celebrating the best user-created content, we’ve been able to elevate the conversation. Users have rich, heated discussions about the exact causes and implications of controversial topics like outsourcing, immigration, and trade tariffs. When someone comes out with a strong but poorly argued attack, other users respond with a simple request: show it with data or shut up (SIWDOSU is our favorite acronym).

Adam Davidson is editorial director for NPR's Planet Money project and reports on business and economics for the network's national desk.