the news frontier

Q & A: David Plotz and Chris Wilson on Slate Labs, Part Two

“There’s no programming function that causes your computer to catch on fire.”
August 19, 2010

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.

Such as?

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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?

DP: Yes. There’s just no doubt in my mind about that. Looking for new talent, that is something that is very, very high on my list, someone who can use data and use the tools of software and the tools of the Web to make things work in a different way. I say this whenever I speak to aspiring journalists: my number one piece of advice is to learn some technical skills. It makes it possible to do better and more interesting journalism in the medium we are working in.

I’m not so foolish as to think that you can learn technical skills and be as good a writer as Norman Mailer. There’s a limited capacity, so that people who spend time learning technical skills won’t spend as much time learning on their writing, and that’s a tradeoff. But Web journalism right now is long on people who can write really well, and short on people who can do interactive visual journalism. So that’s the opening I see, and people should rush to it.

What’s your advice for journalists who want to start learning programming?

CW: It’s a kind of knowledge that you can kind of dip into from the surface, you don’t have to take a semester and enroll in a computer science program to be able to do anything. And this is exactly how I learned it—you can start by just messing around with HTML, and that’s pretty easy, and then you can learn Javascript, which is the built-in programming language that works with HTML in your browser, and do simple things like making buttons that people can press that make little messages come up, and then from there you might get interested in Flash, or MySQL, which is the database program that we all use. But virtually all of these programs have the same syntax, and all of these things (except for Flash) are free. All of these things also have great tutorials, and you can easily learn how they work by just tinkering with them.

A lot of people who are writers by nature are probably intimidated by programming. It’s a whole new language to learn.

CW: It really doesn’t take that much time to build a couple of skills that will put them way, way ahead of the pack, and really make them better reporters. Particularly with things like screen-scraping, where you can build these data sets, that’s very much directly in the service of gathering information and reporting, and making sure the information you’re providing is much more thorough.

The hardest thing is getting over that fear, but really there’s nothing that you’re going to do that’s going to cause any damage to anything. There’s no programming function that causes your computer to catch on fire. On the Labs blog soon I’d like to write up some tips for journalists who want to learn this stuff—partly as a public service, but mainly because we’re all in this together, in terms of figuring out what’s going to work and what isn’t.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner