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Review of Materialising New Forms of Journalism: A Process Model

By Cindy Royal, Professor
June 28, 2022

It is always interesting to me when scholarly articles provide a provocative conceptual take on the future of journalism, specifically via theory from a separate, yet related, discipline. That is the case in a thought-provoking article in Digital Journalism entitled Materialising New Forms of Journalism: A Process Model, authored by a team of scholars from The University of Queensland in Australia: Skye Doherty, Jane Johnston and Ben Matthews. This piece uses design literature to suggest “how journalistic values can be incorporated into the design of public interest technologies,” through the lens of materiality theory. I am particularly interested in this topic as it relates to the shift in mission of media organizations to managing digital products that solve users’ problems, with the specific need to build journalistic sensibilities, values and ethics into their products from the outset, a concept I have incorporated into my own research and teaching. The design angle of this article highlights the importance of these approaches to alternative story forms supporting public service journalism and relates to what is popularly known as design thinking.

Using a social constructivist approach, the focus on materiality emphasizes possibilities and “a process for imagining futures” (p.2).

This perspective represents a shift in our understanding of materiality in journalism away from a lens through which to analyse what is happening as a result of technology, toward seeing technologies and journalistic principles as materials to shape in order to explore new opportunities (p. 2).

The emphasis on design literature focuses on process and the unification of technology to the physical world. The process view describes three elements of journalism practice – values, participation and technology—relating to them as design material. The article provides examples for each.

Values as Design Material
What the authors term “designerly material practices“ provide new opportunities for working across technologies, practices and people. “Designerly material practices, such as sketching, scenario creation and prototyping, provide ways of working with these components and envisaging new possibilities” (p.5).

They propose flipping media’s relationship with the public to be more actively engaged and involved from the outset. “What if important journalism was reconceptualised to act in the public interest by being more inclusive of the public, or various publics, of extending the now well-trodden idea of participation to one in which these publics are not the recipients of public interest journalism but the drivers?” (p.5).

Using the example of Vim, an innovative energy futures narrative prototype, the article proposes that physical interaction in a public space can improve engagement with an issue. “These values materialise through the design of interaction: users make story choices via dials and buttons, they can donate energy using a crank, and they can engage in the core issue via written responses” (p. 6). It is the fact that the product takes an unfamiliar form that makes it so provocative in achieving goals normally ascribed to journalism: “informing and engaging publics on important issues” (p. 6). 

Participation as Design Material
The authors recognize the effect that social media has had on the public’s participation with news, both in creation and dissemination. However, they see a more fundamental role. “But for journalism, a design-led material view invites us to see participation in public issues as simultaneously method and objective. Participation can be an end in itself, rather than as a means of producing or distributing news“ (p. 6).

They rightly articulate the opportunities associated with moving from simple “journalism-audience interaction” to a public more engaged within itself, as well as challenges associated with misinformation, propaganda and other interactions that go against democratic ideals. “In the context of materiality, that participation can both enhance and challenge public debate suggests its affordances and consequences need to be accounted for in the design of journalism” (p. 7).

The Oaklandside publication exemplifies such participation using listening sessions to include their audience in the design process. This example “identifies new possibilities for participatory practices in which journalists facilitate the collaborative construction of media and artefacts in response to social issues, which have been materialised through new processes of journalistic production” (p.7). 

Technology as Design Material
Technology provides new ways for publics to interact with media, both online and in physical space. The authors reference the technologies of microcontrollers, RFID tags, sensors, voice-controlled speakers, virtual and augmented reality devices and health trackers that meld the physical and technological. But these technologies provide design challenges, specifically when applied to news. “Understanding how to design tangible and/or embodied interactions for physical space and physical things is an open challenge for technology designers and an opportunity for the media industry” (p.8). 

They reference the USA Today multimedia project, The Wall, integrating text, video, interactive maps and more within a virtual reality experience. The project provides an up-close view of the border wall separating Mexico and the U.S. “Where video provides a one-way, linear view of the landscape, VR enables the viewer to immerse themselves in the environment and control the point of view” (p.  8).

A Process Model of Journalistic Materiality
The article offers a model that illustrates the function of values, participation and technology on developing products and the resulting alternative story forms, but also new journalistic practices (p.9). The authors highlight that the model is constrained by longstanding boundaries and power dynamics in the media industry. “As journalism’s boundaries and power dynamics change, and as communication technologies enable new forms of interaction and participation, the value of a process view of materiality becomes evident” (p.9). How to challenge these obstacles in the service of new journalistic practice remains and will no doubt be case dependent. They recommend a shift in focus.

If journalism considered public interest values and participation as material to shape and configure, attention might shift away from a focus on how technology is impacting journalism and toward what journalism brings to technology, and how new journalistic objects might achieve the social and democratic functions that underpin journalistic practice (p. 10).

Challenging boundaries is also critical in recognition of new roles in journalism. “Journalism scholars also recognise that materially, the news ecosystem now includes a wider range of elements—programmers, bloggers, hardware, software, data—which consequently change narrative formats” (p.11). This presents opportunities for media education, as well, in training the next generation of journalism professionals to also reimagine the possibilities for media. 

When asked about the implications this research has for media professionals, lead author Skye Doherty provided a current example. “Imagine if Facebook had been designed for verification, transparency or balance," Doherty said. "Journalists have an important contribution to make to the design of technology, and it is crucial that they find ways to incorporate social, democratic and public interest values into storytelling platforms.”

She thinks media professionals in all roles should be focused on internet-connected journalistic products, but they should be prepared to be surprised by the outcomes. “News products designed by shaping technology, values and participation are likely to look and behave quite differently to those we are familiar with,” Doherty said. 

To participate in a design materiality approach, Doherty suggests the following activities: 

  • reframing technology as a tool to support journalistic goals
  • giving journalists and news designers the space to think creatively about how participation, technology and values play out for the topics they cover or communities they serve
  • using journalism-specific design thinking and prototyping techniques to generate and test ideas 
  • experimenting with codesign by involving reporters, producers, developers, artists, experts and publics in coming up with ways to tell impactful stories

“These processes can inspire new news products, but just as, if not more, valuable is their ability to reveal the underlying structures, constraints and assumptions built into the way things are done already,” Doherty added. “Innovation means responding to those more wicked problems.”

Media curriculum should flow from professional needs, incorporating designerly techniques, according to Doherty. “In our experience, it is useful to create activities and assessment that encourage students to decouple journalism from newsroom production and to use sketching and low-fidelity prototyping to imagine how values can inform technology design.” (Teaching resources available at https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:ee80999).

In conclusion, from a research perspective, this article provides a template for how to construct a conceptual piece applying related theory to a media topic and makes a contribution to the growing research on digital media product management. It is particularly helpful in its approach to media innovation, as developing media products become as much the mission of journalism as reporting and editing. It provides a useful, aspirational model for professionals and educators to consider in practice. Read the full piece at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21670811.2022.2087097 (requires journal access).

Doherty, S., Johnston, J., & Matthews, B. (2022). Materialising New Forms of Journalism: A Process Model. Digital Journalism, 1-15.