Last week, Slate launched Slate Labs, a collection of their “experiments in multimedia journalism.” Curated by programmer-journalists Chris Wilson and Jeremy Singer-Vine, the project is meant to both show off their past work—from maps to interactive charts to games—and to encourage reader feedback and participation. It even lives on a separate server from the rest of the site so no one has to worry about crashing the main site with a multimedia experience gone awry. The experiments range from the silly (The Dan Brown Plot Generator) to the stirring (an animated map of several oil-spill scenarios).
CJR assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Slate editor David Plotz and associate editor Chris Wilson about their goals for multimedia journalism, and why every journalist could benefit from a little computer programming knowledge. This is an edited transcript of those conversations.
Part one of this conversation was published here on Wednesday.
You’re developing some games that readers can play on the site, such as Lean/Lock, where readers compete to pick the winners in predicting the outcomes of the midterm elections. What do you like about the game format, that kind of reader experience?
David Plotz: There’s a lot of spinach in the kinds of subjects that journalism has to tackle. I think that Slate over the years has been incredibly good about making that spinach delicious. Our writers have a lot of spirit and wit and they take fresh angles on things, and in our writing we’ve always tried to make the spinach taste like candy. Even so, there are subjects that are quite dry, and with the games we can take subjects that can be a bit arid and end up with something fun.
DP: We did this amazing series of articles last year called “The End of America,” and it was about how exactly America will cease to exist. Like it or not, it might be 100 years, or ten years, but someday the United States of America will not exist. And the question was, how will that happen, what will be the factors that cause it? There was a series of really smart essays by Josh Levin about that, and then Chris and Josh built a game which allowed readers to pick their fateful scenarios. I think 60,000 people played it.
The data were fascinating: men picked different scenarios than women did, conservatives picked different scenarios than liberals did, and the collective intelligence of the scenario, if you averaged them all out, seemed to be the most intelligent and persuasive. It was a subject that was kind of depressing when you thought about it, but the game made it live.
Chris Wilson: Lean/Lock just launched, but it already has about 4,000 players [as of Tuesday morning] and it continues to grow pretty steadily. In my mind, it’s a win-win, because you’re giving them a fun game to play while you’re giving them a reason to be involved in the site and keep coming back. And my favorite part of the game is that there’s a map on top, where you can click on the aggregate picks, so you’re also kind of getting some neat content out of it. You can mouse over a state on the map and it will show you how many players have “leaned” or “locked” for each candidate, and the reason I feel confident that it’s working so far is that the choices do match up with reality—it seems like people are understanding the game and playing it seriously.
It’s a very different kind of poll than what you might usually see, because it’s only giving you the predictions of people who are (probably) really informed and engaged about these political races.
CW: Right, and there’s no way you’d be interested in playing this game if you weren’t. I haven’t looked yet at how it compares to other actual polling yet. But what would be really fun is, after the election, we would then have this day by day picture of who was leaning and locking to whom, so we could go through and look at which day was the most accurate. It would be very cool if, for instance, everybody was correct, like, three weeks before the election, but then psyched themselves out and chose wrong.
To wrap up, do you think that more journalists should learn programming?