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COMPUTIONAL JOURNALISM A study on the eefects of interactivity on student journalism.


Intro Newspapers are dying. It’s been true since the dawn of the radio, but print media is struggling to keep advertisers and subscribers when so many more convenient method of consuming information are present. It’s difficult to feel sympathetic for an industry that seems impervious to change as its castle crumbles in on itself. There’s no reason that all of the new media–televsion, social media and the internet generally–has to be print media’s killer when they could be its savior. In Computation Arts, we learn how new ways to communicate are popping up everyday. We’re taught to be excited while journalists dread discovering these innovative methods for sharing information. In my work at The Link, I’ve been able to work with a team that thinks more like a CART student than like their journalism professors. When we look, however, at how The Gazette, The Globe and Mail and other major papers seem to structure themselves, we see papers that still don’t seem to get it. The Globe and Mail heralded their redesign as a large overhaul, a shift in business perspective. It seems that now, all that redesign meant was more colour pages and less actual content. The Gazette has hundreds of print reporters, but only a handful of them have any programming knowledge. The CBC regularly tags totally two-dimensional pieces as interactive. It’s exceedingly rare to find a journalist over the age of 40 who uses Twitter well.


With Dr. Sha, I examined what professional papers were doing, what The Link was doing and what the future of the print newsroom might look like. We both believed that somewhere in the middle ground between Computation Arts and Journalism lay vaccines against the tech-phobic disease print media seems to have caught. For this semester, we focused on internal ideas. We looked at what computational journalism might look like inside an organization, and how it might change workplace dynamics and attitudes about sharing news.

The Process The problem with changes like this is that the infrastructure for them at The Link doesn’t really exist.

programming skills should allow for the kind of support system that this for of journalism requires.

As student journalists, we’re all stretched pretty thin as is. Those very involved with the paper are working about 40 hours a week at The Link on top of school work and, for some, part-time jobs.

The first thing I will do next semester is hold a series of javascript workshops, This is probably the easiest language to learn and integrate immediately with regards to journalism. When we attended the national journalism conference last January, a speaker told us that it is easier to journalists to program than it is to teach programmers to report.

Computational journalism is not easy and it does not take the same amount of time that a regular article takes. While you can usually estimate pretty accurately how long interviews, transcriptions and writing will take, programming is so much trickier, Things may go smoothly, or a small bug make take you hours to find and remove. Because of that, we were certainly limited moving forward. We were forced to experiment with easier to implement ideas, like live-blogs and micro-sites, rather than my original ideas of large scale data visualizations. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it can’t be done. For next semester, we will just have to implement a structure that supports that kind of work.

That doesn’t mean I’m not looking to involve more CART students, however. I’m hoping to create a Computational Journalism task force. Any interested in this kind of work, writer, programmers, artists, etc. will be invited to monthly meeting where we pitch projects and set deadlines for each other. If I can build the infrastructure, I have no doubt that we can increase the amount of computational work we are doing tenfold.


We have a production cycle now for web and print content, we will need a separate one for interactive work. Picking projects with several deadlines will certainly help. Also, teaching more editors some basic

He was absolutely right. While my colleagues in CART can do some incredible work, most of them have neither the interest nor the personality to succeed in journalism. My fellow editors at The Link, however, certainly could pick up some very rudimentary programming skills quickly. It wouldn’t take a computer science student to make a simple interactive infographic.

The Results

We, did however, manage to do a few pieces that helped explore different ways to bridge journalism and computation.

CUTV General Assembly Live Blog Type Live Blog Medium Expression Engine, Storify

Story & Concept Following resignations of several staff members, the locking of their doors and the freezing of their bank accounts,Concordia University Television held a general assembly to held determine the station’s very tumultuous future. We wanted to have live updates throughout the GA, both on twitter and in an actual article.


Execution We created an article that would automatically refresh every five minutes. Throughout the event, we would live-blog updates using the, as well as add to a list of tweets from the event at the bottom of the page. We had two reporters and one photographer at the actual event. While one reporter tweeted, the other took notes in a Google document that I used to write regular blog posts. The other reporter and another editor would edit it. The other editor would also regularly update a storify of the best tweets from the event. Reflection This was a test-run for us, as we’ve never tried live-blogging before. It was mostly a success, traffic was relatively good for a Saturday news event. Although we did realize that the analytics were falsely bumped by the auto-refresh, the unique views gave us the real numbers which were better than we anticipated. Editing quickly was certainly a struggle, as those at the actual event had to put aside their task there to focus on that. It also required a huge number of editors to pull off, which is something that we can’t count on for most events. Still, it’s something we’ll definitely use again.

By the Numbers

Type Interactive cover Medium Print

Type Video Medium After Effects, Vimeo

Story & Concept For a feature on the end of Concordia’s Governance Crisis, we wanted to create a cover that would invite readers to write on it.

Story & Concept For a story breaking down Concordia’s budget, I worked with another CART student to create a video going through the more important lines in the budget.

Execution On a solid red background, we asked readers “What Do You Want From Concordia?” with a large blank space to fill in. We asked readers to send in pictures of answers and then we posted a blog of the best ones we found.

Execution Using exclusively paper, we created a stop motion animation that illustrated how much money went to different ares of the university.

Reflection While not actually computational, it’s always an interesting exercise to bring the methods of communication from tech into the physical world. With this cover, we got a much bigger reaction than expected. Virtually all the display issues in The Hall got filled in. The answers ranged from silly (“Moar Sandwiches” [sic]) to serious (“Free Education”) to plan puzzling (“Free Grapes”). It had been something we had been interested in trying for quite some time, so we took the opportunity. As far as engaging readers in new ways, this succeeded beyond our expectations.

Reflection This was my first time working with stop motion, so I certainly struggled with certain aspects. I shot it over the course of several nights, so not everything lined up very well. If I were to do it again, I would build a lightbox so that I could keep clean and consistent lighting. I would also spend time reworking the script after the shoot. I learned that pieces never take as long as you expect, so it’s important to rework narration to fit the animations. Other than that, it was a clear engaging way to illustrate a story that might otherwise fall relatively flat.


What Do You Want From Concordia?


Overall, engagement for any kind of interactive journalism is relatively rewarding but hardly ground-breaking. In order to sell interactive content to our potential readers, The Link is going to have to get much bigger. Next semester–after I build an infrastructure more accommodating to this kind of work–I will focus on the external side of the newspaper. We need to explore making large-scale pieces that surprise. We need to try totally unconventional methods of storytelling. The Link will have to expand our vision of what journalism looks like.

We can do that through hosting events, like hackathons or workshops, where we allow readers to become developers. We can achieve this by creating simple games that allow users to change a story with their own information. Art installations could help spread the word about our work, as could viral marketing campaigns that utilize the playful nature of computation arts.


Regardless, there is still so much more exciting research to be done.

Cart 457  

Final Report

Cart 457  

Final Report