Don’t Teach Data Journalism Without Teaching Mobile-First Design

Big Data, Small Screens

Twice in two weeks, Columbia Journalism School has demonstrated that a) it considers data journalism to be a crucial part of journalism’s future but b) that it still doesn’t get how vital design thinking for data journalism to work on the medium where it will be consumed.

Let me be really blunt about this. You cannot teach data journalism without teaching how to make it look good on a screen smaller than a pack of cards.

Here’s a handy maxim, journalism academics:


Jonathan Stray launched his ebook ‘The Curious Journalist’s Guide To Data’ at a Columbia event recently. It’s good, go read it. It’s also free, so you have absolutely no excuse for not reading it.

On stage at the launch, three lecturers in journalism & statistics joined Jonathan and talked eloquently about calculating probabilities, the use of R, p values and more besides. It was some good in-the-weeds discussion about the concepts underpinning data gathering and analysis.

But then someone in the audience asked how to make all this wonderful data render beautifully on a small screen, and was met mostly with silence and a few shrugs. Scott Klein offered that you have to test everything — mobile is as important as desktop, which is a promising response (device agnosticism is obviously critical) but that answer wasn’t enough. Testing mostly happens after something visual has been made. You need to consider mobile presentation before you make any dataviz. Mobile comes first.

Mobile is now more important than desktop and hence must lead design thinking. Mobile is pretty near everything, being honest. Build for mobile, test for compatibility with everything else.

If you hope to make data journalism connect with an audience at scale, you need to have a plan for getting it onto a small screen in a way that looks appealing and tells your story. That means your visualisation loads quickly, is at-a-glance comprehensible and doesn’t take any work for the reader to navigate. And you have to do that every single time.

Making big data work on small screens is hard but important. At Vocativ, our audience hovers around 80% mobile on any given day, so if something doesn’t work on mobile, it doesn’t work. When it comes to visualisation, you’ll often see me chatting with the team, taking my iPhone 5 out of my pocket and pressing against a monitor to highlight how much space we have to play with in any given viz. We’ve built our dataviz style guide with mobile first as a priority, setting minimum sizes for most of our fonts, minimising and thinking deeply about color scales and palettes and creating everything in a mobile-first way. We favor visualisation styles that work consistently in a longer, more vertical frame rather than favoring the horizontal aspect ratio typical of the desktop screen.

When we make gifs for dataviz, we reduce the number of colors & frames to cut down file sizes and thus load times on the reader’s phone. Vocativ’s just-dropped presentation layer has been rebuilt in React to further help with load time. Because video can be so easily optimised for mobile, you’ll see more data storytelling incorporated into Vocativ video soon, too.

Back to the school thing.

The second publication that made me question how academics think about data journalism was an intro to a report from Columbia Journalism Review describing how to teach data journalism. I was optimistic, until I got to the data journalism within it. 

This bar chart is not great data journalism at all.

It looks passable here, but do what I always do when I see visualizations online — grab the corner of your browser window and shrink it down as small as it will go, to see what the mobile experience will be like (assuming you’re not reading this on your phone, that is.) It means either zooming or squinting, right?

The above image looks fine if small-fonted on desktop, but it’s 800 pixels across at full resolution, with the text still very small at that. An iPhone5 screen is 320 pixels across. Squash an 800px image down to 320px, and you lose a lot of value. If it began as a just-about-legible dataviz on desktop, on mobile it’s likely a useless mess, unless it was designed mobile-first. The bar chart above is a case of very simple, quality data crippled by presentation that fails to consider the reader.

Here’s the exact same data, given a very simple, mobile-first treatment. If you’re not already doing so, check it out on your phone.

Just one example of data journalism in this post. Some nice bars.

This was made in five minutes using Vocativ’s custom template in Datawrapper, to which we sometimes default for simpler graphics. In this case, it’s a static image (Medium, where this was originally posted can’t deal with the responsive iframe embeds) but when we use Datawrapper embeds, the fact that they are responsive is fabulous for mobile, and scales well for desktop.

After six months leading our charge into data journalism and visualisation at Vocativ, my two main goals remain the same:

Help more journalists understand how to tell stories with data

Make it work on mobile every single time.

J-schools, if the CJR report is anything to go by, are waking up to the first goal and seeking to improve how they teach computer-aided reporting— and the CJR report makes some important suggestions on that front. But the second goal—making it work on mobile every time—isn’t on the radar, and data visualization is a poor cousin to the data extraction element of the discipline. The word ‘mobile’ features only once in the entire CJR report. In a world where we communicate and read mostly on phones, that’s bad.

Those two goals are always interrelated. The first is easier: At Vocativ, we reduce the fear around data journalism by creating some really simple processes for journalists to bring data to our dataviz team, and then we involve the reporters in the process of telling stories with that data. Helping the reporters understand the limitations of mobile visualisation and think about visuals up front helps manage their expectations, but also helps them frame what they think is the most important point the data should convey. Two of our team are also building Dataproofer, a tool to help journalists proofread datasets, removing even more impediments to the process.

Making viz work for mobile is the harder of the two goals, and we don’t always get it right, but it’s absolutely crucial to try every time, even if that means over-simplifying. We share our static graphic drafts in a Slack channel, and I try to always to review them through the Slack app on my phone rather than on desktop so that I see them as the reader will. That informs any design-related edits I have, which are most often about finding ways to either reduce the amount of text or bump up its size.

We’d love to do more interactives, but frankly, we value load time, simplicity and ease of scrolling over interactivity and complexity. Forcing interaction risks introducing a cognitive burden for an already skittish reader, their attention span frayed by Twitter and media overload. Performance is important, too–they won’t hang around on a page slowed by waiting for something heavy to load. Archie Tse put it really well here, I don’t need to go on about it — go read his notes. Then go read Mike Bostock’s expanded thoughts on why scrolling is the most important interaction there is. Once our team grows to the point where we can spend more time thinking deeply about how to make interaction work well for mobile, we’ll move into that space. Right now, simple visual storytelling, done well, works for us.

Data journalism is a vital part of journalism’s future — the 2.7 terabytes of scandal in the Panama Papers underscores that. Parsing data for stories has never been a more crucial skill to have in a newsroom, and it’s great that colleges like Columbia have courses dedicated to that discipline in isolation.

But visualization of that data is part of that discipline and, frankly, integral to the whole storytelling process. Done well, a dataviz paints a thousand data points (or even more). Done badly, it needs a thousand more words to explain it. Visualisations should move the story along, and show movement that text may struggle to convey.

Increasingly, we can extract all the data we want, but if our journalists can’t distil that into something the reader can consume in the palm of their hand, it’s all rather pointless.

Big data, small screens. Remember that.

Cross posted from Medium.

Decide for Yourself What Journalism to Trust

The Trust in Journalism  debate was sparked by a  Pew Research report that  disregards anyone under  the age of 30. Here’s why it’s no use  whatsoever in helping define the future of news.

Cross-posted from Medium. Subscribe to my newsletter.

When Pew released its survey on trust in the media, there was more than a bit of gloating at who came last (It was Buzzfeed), and a lot of debate about what it all means. The media world’s chin-strokers-in-chief wondered where all the trust leaked out, and how to put it back in. Should you trust the media elders to tell you whose news you should trust, and how? Let’s look.

The behaviour of a reader determines how they calculate trust. In the past, people chose one or two news organisations to trust, and committed to them by buying a paper or choosing one newscast over the other. Now, the delivery model has been blasted to smithereens and trust is not as closely bound to organisations as it once was. The new news consumer is a butterfly. They do not settle for long on any one news source. They don’t choose news as a bundle from one brand, rather, they flit in and out of news items from their social streams.

Arrival at a story is an act of trust, often sparked by a recommendation. There is, arguably, far more trust placed in the communities whose news recommendations we accept than in the news organisations who create that news. We trust our peers, we trust the filter bubbles we create for ourselves. We trust the algorithms which we (actively or passively) allow to access our histories and serve up more of the same. In the Pew Study, Google News is more ‘trusted’ than the New York Times, despite the fact that Google News doesn’t generate any news — it’s a largely algorithmic aggregation of what others produce. And hey, why not trust that? They know you better than you know yourself.

That’s Google News on the right, btw.

If something appears in my Facebook feed from someone I follow and trust, I generally trust that it’s worth consideration. If Nuzzel serves it up, I know that by metrics I defined, enough people have deemed it of value that I should read it. If @MagicRecs suggests a follow, I’ll click, seven times out of ten. If the recommendation sucks, if the story ends up being less than worthy of trust, that’s less likely to reflect badly on the brand than on the person who recommended it to me. Trust attaches to the recommender.

Trust is now like Pageviews. You earn it every day

How does a news organisation operate in that environment of detached trust and increased brand disloyalty? News organisations have to think of trust in the same way they think of pageviews. Editors now know that every story is sold separately — the bundle is dead. Each story earns the trust and time of the reader individually. You have to assume that you earn whatever small slice of trust attaches to a story every single time they arrive at your site. When you earn that trust, you get paid back by your story being pushed out to their trusted circles. And over time, sure, there’s longer-term trust to be earned for your brand.

This is why journalists get so worked up about getting their stories to thrive on Facebook, or being blocked from doing so by shifts in the algorithm. They’re desperate to get their content into people’s circles of trust. If a story becomes the focal point of a conversation, every share is a bolstering of trust. Facebook shares (trusted recommendations) are valuable, they are sticky because they are a commitment by the sharer and the more something is shared, the broader the circle of trust that sees it .

Don’t trust Pew’s definition of trust

There problems with trust as defined in the Pew Research study, however, or rather trust as not defined by the Pew Research study.

For starters, what is trust, for the purposes of this survey? What are we measuring by asking respondents which organisations they trust? The study is about political polarisation, so does ‘trust’ mean ‘this news organisation represents my personal political standpoint’? ‘I am comfortable with the views expressed by this organisation in its news coverage’? If so, that’s a problem, because trust should be based on the perceived proportion of empirical truth in an organisation’s coverage, not how closely it adheres to the viewer’s comfort zone or worldview. But then again, trust as defined in the Pew study has little to do with actual trustworthiness, less again with truthiness. It says it’s measuring:

[H]ow open people are to the political news and information put forth by various outlets, including those they do not actively consume.

Openness to something is not trust, and trust is, admittedly, a pretty slithery thing to define. I trust Bill O’Reilly to spew polemic every time he appears on television. I trust USA Today to dilute news to the point of homeopathy so that it doesn’t really interfere with breakfast buffet decision-making in hotels around the country. And I trust Jon Stewart to skewer absurdity five days a week and lean to the left. I trust only one of those three to be accurate and well-researched on a consistent basis.

Trust, in the Pew sense, is an understanding of what each news brand promises, and a measure of how consistently they meet that promise, and how that means they’re welcomed by the respondent. It’s not real trust.

Alright, fine, let’s go build some actual trust

So the conversation moved to building trust. Google News’ Richard Gingras argues, among other things, that all news organisations should publish ethics statements and statements of expertise for authors. This smacks of a yearning for another data point to feed into the Google News algorithm to help it determine what’s trustworthy, and pass that on to the reader. Given how much trust people already put in that algorithm and others like it, and how angry journalism gets when they don’t appear to work (read the comments), I suppose that’s not a bad thing. But at the reader/article nexus, these statements won’t make any practical difference. No reader is going to click into an article and, before reading, look for and/or read an ethics statement or expertise note, and then make a decision on whether or not to proceed based on their subsequent findings. That simply ignores user behaviour. Understanding user behaviour is the key to winning in journalism in the next ten years, so if trust is important, why would we spend valuable time ignoring the user in doing so?

Ethics statements should be nailed to the wall internally, for sure, and baked into the journalism we do every day to make it trustworthy. Publishing them widely for checking by readers is fine, but will do far more for supposed trust-based elevation-by-SEO than for the journalism itself, and to suggest they’ll matter to the vast majority of modern readers is simply not true.

The Trust Equation is Evolving

Let’s look at the headline loser of this so-called trust survey, butt-of-the-joke, bottom-of-the-heap Buzzfeed, whose untrustworthy journalism is crushed under the weight of all the trustworthy news organisations (Fox! Breitbart!) who outrank it.

Buzzfeed’s ranking is a giant honking siren of how irrelevant the survey is. Of the organisations included in the survey, it’s the only one of the new breed of news outlets chosen. No Vice, No Gawker, no Vocativ, no Vox, Fusion, Mashable nor 538. Screw those pesky under-30s. (How well represented were they in the survey? Hard to tell. Details on Pew’s methodology don’t include demographics)

Is Buzzfeed (and those like it) deserving of more trust than captured in this poll commissioned by the granit-collonade establishment? For its news, you betcha. Their foreign coverage, and often their political coverage, beats the pants of much of the mainstream on a regular basis. (Good note on that here, btw).

But this archaic way of measuring of trust doesn’t work for new media organisations, because they are odd beasts which don’t have the nicely defined trustworthy shape of the trusted news establishment. How can you trust a listicle factory, FFS?

Does Trust Really Come Into This?
Does Trust Really Come Into This?

Well, that’s a generational question. And it’s also a business model question. Old news models don’t pay because the generation before failed to future-proof the industry, so you have to figure out a new way to pay the electricity bills, and–guess what–it may not look like the news of old. The businesses doing good journalism may look hard to trust, by old measures, but not to the generation they’re built to serve.

Buzzfeed and Vice, to take the two most high-profile examples, have placed genuine, trustworthy journalism as hood ornaments on subtantial commercial vehicles which built their momentum via other means. For Buzzfeed it was memes, quizzes, all the frivolous entertainment material that props up their business model and gives them a firehose of young eyeballs. for Vice, it was a slightly seedier, but no less valid accumulation of youth culture cred over two decades of immersion. They powered the train with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and then hitched on a carriage of journalism at the last stop. None of this takes away from the journalism, which sells itself as trustworthy on a story-by-story basis.

The younger you are, the more you trust these brands. That trust is built on a mutual understanding — I know they understand my demographic, I can see some transparency in how they communicate with the outside world. There is no ivory tower any more, it’s made of perspex. I sat in a room not long ago, and the further you went towards the young end of the spectrum of those assembled, the greater the trust in organisations like this was visible.

Emily Bell may have inadvertently put her finger on it in a tweet in which she says:

Accurate and good journalism is distrusted by those whose interests it damages

If there’s good, accurate journalism that isn’t being measured, or, worse, is being held up as untrustworthy by the old guard, could we argue that because the new models threaten their existence, they’re deemed untrustworthy by the establishment doing the measuring? I think so.

Rebuilding trust in news can’t be done by the old metrics. Trust is evolving. New generations trust news organistions for different reasons than did the outgoing greybeards of the news industry. The basis on which we calculate trust, the equation of trust has been redefined.

I should clarify. There’s one old metric that we can all trust. Truth. And any organisation that consistently focuses its journalists on uncovering that, regardless of its odd commercial shape or the results of bonkers surveys, is one that I’d trust.


News needs to go Netflix

Screen Shot 2013-09-06 at 15.18.03

The way we buy news is a ridiculous bundling mess. The news needs to go Netflix.

I don’t buy weekday newspapers now, that change happened years ago, because no one newspaper is going to have all the news I want to read. Simple fact. Buying one paper means a lot of redundancy. Take Thursday. There was an article by David Aaronovitch in yesterday’s Times which I wanted to read. Tweets suggested that it eviscerated Ed Miliband over his Syria reaction, and it sounded like it was a surgical piece of assassination prose. (Being honest, you could piece it together from all the online analysis within hours of publication.)

I wanted to read Aaronovitch’s column, but not enough to go and buy a copy of the newspaper – largely because I didn’t want to read the rest of the paper. Buying a paper is a waste of time and money if you’re only seeking out one article. It’s a really inefficient bundling of goods for the reader. If you went to a supermarket for one item, but were forced to pay for a bundle of 20 assorted random items to get it – would you? Of course not.

As Ben says, though, newspapers have struggle with pricing models. The bundle is king, he says. I’m not so sure. I think matching your content to your customers’ behaviours is more important (I’ve written about it here and here).

Let’s look at Netflix. It hosts hundreds of shows and films, which would effectively be competing inefficiently for attention, were they shown across numerous disaggregated channels in fixed time slots on traditional TV. Hugely inefficient for the provider, who are taking an educated guess at when best to hit the audience, and do it in one shot. It’s worse for the audience, who have to bind themselves to time-slots if they want to see their favourite content as it gets released.

Netflix lets the provider empower viewers to fill their available time in a way that suits them. Got five hours’ to spare? Binge away on one series, episode after episode (no week-long gaps). Want to watch your content in 15-minute snippets? That’s fine too, it’ll re-start where you left off. (Be honest, have you ever snuk a sneaky five minutes of Breaking Bad while on the loo?) Want to mix original movies with ShowTime series with AMC with some classics? Go for it. Kevin Spacey gets it. Allow the user take control.

Take a cohort of 40 shows on standard cable. Let’s say that three of the 40 interest me, and they happen to overlap, time-wise, or be on three different channels, one of which would require a subscription I don’t currently pay for. Unless the rest of that channel matches what I’m interested in, it’s unlikely I’ll shell out for it on the basis of one show.

The same goes for news articles. If you think of the David Aaronovitch article as a TV show, and The Times as that channel I don’t subscribe to – I’m not going to buy the entire channel for the single show. I lose out on access, the newspaper loses out on revenue.

But if there was a Netflix approach, where newspapers pooled content and I could pay a all-in fee, without having to commit to one single outlet, I’d pay for that. (Kind of like Oyster is trying to do for books)

Maybe, in an inarticulate fashion, it’s the kind of bundle that Jeff Bezos was talking about at the WaPo, and which he could use his infrastructure to bring about. It’s not a direct translation of the model, however, because news organisations compete with each other in a different way than TV shows. TV shows are not competing on the basis of first-past-the-post with the facts, they’re not racing each other to explain a topic. They’re vying for a slice of the audience’s valuable time, but not with barely-differentiated content, as news orgs do.

Pooling news content (or a differentiating portion thereof) in a Netflix/Spotify-style system, with subscribers paying monthly for unlimited access, would require a critical mass of providers joining up, and would mean figuring out new criteria for selecting the portion of content for ringfencing. Perhaps, once an article starts to trend, administrators flick a switch to push it behind the Netflix-style paywall, thus motivating the reader to sign up for that nominal monthly fee.

Until that comes to pass, until the media orgs make it easy for me to pay in a way that gives me convenient access to the content I want, when I want it, I’ll continue to do what I do now. I won’t buy any newspapers during the week when my time is precious. I’ll buy perhaps two or three papers at the weekend when I have time to browse through a bundle. And I’ll continue mainlining the available content as it suits me, with no-one getting any revenue benefit from that media-hungry behaviour.

Edit: Sept 10, 08.30am – adding a few of the online responses here…



For mobile news apps, there’s no place like home


In the New York graffiti world, ‘getting up’ and ‘staying up’ are two different things. Getting up – that is, getting your name on walls and recognised – is relatively easy. Staying up – having your work endure on New York’s busy walls, with anti-graffiti task forces and other artists vying for wallspace – is a lot harder. If you stay up, you’ve either found an awesome spot, or people respect/love your work enough to leave it in situ. They WANT it there. 

For apps, the homescreen is where ‘staying up’ matters. As one startup entrepreneur says: ‘ If You Aren’t On My Homescreen, Your App Is Probably a Tombstone’. My homescreen is where I keep my EVERY DAMN DAY apps. Page two is for the optional, lesser-used ones. When I need to transfer cash, or check the weather in another country, or find an organic alpaca fur pashmina on Etsy, I go to page two. I think Safari is somewhere on page two, in a folder with the compass and that ugly yellow notepad.

Page two is like purgatory. Some apps may never leave. If I find myself using an app enough, it may achieve homescreen immortality. The rest risk tumbling into oblivion during periodic r-app-tures.

For the record, this is my phone’s homescreen. What’s interesting to me, as a journalist, is that there isn’t a single news app on there. There’s a few on page two, in a folder, but really, there’s only one news app I need. It’s Tweetbot. For ‘content’, I tend to scan Feedly, or LinkedIn. I have a nice stack of subscriptions on YouTube, which I often scan when I’m sitting, erm, on the loo. That’s right, zeFrank. You and me, buddy. True facts. But news apps? Never gonna make page one. News from one single news outlet? Why would I restrict myself like that, when I follow them all on Twitter, and access them via Tweetbot? (I do recognise that because I watch news all day, I’m an edge case, but still…).

Developing a news app? Oh, behave.

What prompted this line of thought was the news that Anthony De Rosa, Reuters’ outgoing social media editor, is to move to Circa markets itself as the best way to read news on your phone – ‘news, re-imagined’. Circa made it to page two of my phone at one stage, then ended up in a folder. Some time around the end of 2012, it felt the cold steel of the axe against its neck. It’s back now and, to be fair, it looks great – a colleague says it’s as close to AMAZEBALLS as a news app has achieved. But I’m still not sure it matches my news-reading behaviours.

Mobile news apps are funny things. I’ve been involved in two so far, neither of which met with success. One became obsolete as our business changed. The other was meant to enable citizen journalists to share video with a news organisation – ours. It suffered from some bad off-the-rack tech, but also a misalignment with behaviours.

What do I mean by that? The behaviour of uploading videos from phones to YouTube or Facebook is easy. It’s the natural flow, because they’re the platforms integrated into most phones. Yet, news organisations want to use apps to tease people into giving them the video exclusively – a deviation away from the natural flow. Reuters, AP, The Guardian, everyone, EVERYONE, has an app which asks for video.

They’re asking the user to deviate from normal behaviour, but without any additional motivation. The motivation for uploading video is often that you get to share it with friends, maybe your granny, for as long as it lives on YouTube or Facebook. That benefit is often lost if you give it to a news organisation. So, there has to be some sort of compensation for that loss, which there mostly isn’t, unless you include ‘gamification’ – in which case, wait while I search for my ‘puke bucket’ app on page three. The only app to build in some sort of non-financial compensation is the lovely new one from Small World News, which at least offers the prospect of producing a better-constructed video, for those who value that, and uploads to YouTube as well as pinging the SMW team.

Apps which push news are asking not for video, but for your time and attention. In order to be get that, they must either be in sync with your existing behaviours, or be AWESOME at what they provide (additional motivation). Scanning Twitter or Facebook, for most people, are now firmly entrenched behaviours. A ‘local’ news source, or nearest major news source, may also get a look in for niche awesomeness. But if you’re an app serving up global news, or tech news, you’re competing with every news app from everywhere. Therefore, you have to give even more to compensate for deviation from normal behaviour. How you do that is, ultimately, how you win.

So do you need to end up at home?

Depends. The funny thing is, developers don’t always think about the homescreen. I asked a couple of app folk what they thought, and while it’s a win to end up at home, it’s not essential.

“On the home screen it suggests it is used a lot. But this isn’t the only measure of success. An app can be like an important, but seldom-used tool in your toolbox.

There are some apps you don’t use every day.You don’t set your Sky+/TiVo to record a series every day. You won’t be exchanging currency or finding an iPhone every day. But when you do, you’ll reach for a go-to app that might be on page two, and which is relatively safe in purgatory because of its dormant, but unarguable utility.

News is every day, though. News never sleeps, and all that. That news folder on page two? It’s where my news apps go to die. So if you’re interested in being a winning news app you need to be getting up on a homescreen and staying up. And to do that, you need to know your users’ behaviours and either be perfectly in sync with them, or be confident that you’re going to provide enough of a payoff for them to change.

There’s no place like home.


This post was cross-posted from Medium

A year after Kony2012, five non-profit wins

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March 5 marks the one-year anniversary of a film that blindsided everyone who has an interest in NGO communications, or how narratives emerge from developing countires – Kony2012. The video defied all logic for web videos. It dealt with a complex and obscure topic, lasted a half hour (most ecof the popular web videos are under a minute long) and had a heavy, moral message. I won’t go into the amazing story of Kony2012, there’ll be enough column inches written about it on Tuesday. But one passage from this excellent Observer piece stood out, describing a a report on the film’s impact, which concluded:

 “[T]he way in which charities communicate has to change in the wake of it”. It was, he said, a “game changer”, “for all of us to hear about it from our kids. That’s how I heard about it, from my teenage son, 48 hours in. I was like, ‘How come you have heard about a Kony video and I haven’t and it’s my job? And I haven’t ever heard you talk about Africa before.’

“They reached young people in a way no charity has been able to do before. They connected to people’s stories. It wasn’t snazzy or trendy. It was just good old-fashioned story-telling.”

Despite Kony2012, many NGOs are still trying to peddle the old press-release (and sometimes video) email to journalists, effectively begging for coverage, when it’s been demonstrated time and time again that you need to push the boat out to get cut-through. Kony2012 changed the game entirely. This video has more than 96 million views on YouTube. That’s unheard of, and it’s proof of concept that if you do something different and connect with people on a human level  your message takes on a life of its own.

So here, in no particular order, are my top five favourite comms projects from NGOs and non-profits, people who really thought differently about how to tell their story. Some are expensive and involved, others cheap and engaging. But all are game-changers in a way, and should serve as models for emulation.

1. Médecins Sans Frontieres – Premium Publications

MSF are consistently courageous with how they tell their stories, blending multimedia with that French bravado that serves them so well. The two books to the right, Writing on the Edge and The Photographer, don’t follow the usual formula, rather they are by-products of them. The Photographer is the story of a snapper who went to Afghanistan in 1986 to observe the work of a team of doctors. After the trip, he and two artists blended his work with a graphic novel describing the trip. The result is a wonderful, human narrative that tells a woven story which separate words & pictures cannot achieve.

Tom Craig’s ‘Writing on the Edge’ is another image-led collection with the photographer again as the constant. Craig was accompanied on a number of trips with MSF by his pick of great writers, AA Gill and Daniel Day-Lewis among them, resulting in an expensive, experimental and richly-produced book that is visually halting and riveting to read. Both are examples of how thought and freedom can create something that endures for a NGO’s brand. I bought copies of both – they’re stunning.

2. Wikileaks

OK, so it descended into farce, with Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy, after hosting a


Russia Today chat show and being defended publicly by George Galloway, but as far as non-profit comms projects go, Wikileaks blew everything else out of the water. They acquired some phenomenal content and made it public in a very creative way, by drip-feeding it to the world and seeding it via a safety-in-numbers network of global media houses, who had the power to visualise and manipulate the data and make it come alive. Would you know about Anonymous or Lulzsec were it not for Wikileaks? Would the occupy protests have happened? Arguable points, but a watershed nonetheless.

3. Shave or Dye

A local one. This initiative from the Irish Cancer Society has raised more than €4.5million for the charity, by getting people to raise money by either shaving or dyeing their hair. It has it all. A macabre play on words in the title, a playful way to make light of one of the worst stigmas associated with cancer – hair loss – by co-opting the healthy into mimicking the worst effect of the illness, or making the hair they still have seem ridiculous. It is fun, and it has the backing of a national broadcaster. A superb, simple success.

4. Mapping @fieldproducer in Burkina Faso

When Neal Mann was between his jobs with Sky News and the Wall St Journal, he was drafted by Save the Children for a trip to Burkina Faso to cover a looming food crisis in the country. They approached me to help them document the trip in a new way. At the time, we were in the habit of using maps to contextualise stories at Storyful, so I suggested we do the same for Neal’s trip to Burkina.

While he pinged back pics and audio from BF, I got busy embedding and arranging them on the Google Map to make the journey come alive. The map ended up attracting 26,000 views, with one of Neal’s audioboo reports getting the same again after it was promoted on Audioboo’s front page.

The engagement was genuine, from fulsome praise to the debate it generated around Neal’s use of Instagram  in some of his reporting. But it was all unfiltered, unmediated, and in real time. Neal had the freedom to respond to users in real time, just as they watched him upload content items and spell out the context around what he was seeing. The trip, it was claimed, generated five times the traffic of a long-form piece from the Guardian from a similar trip to Mozambique.

It took a leap of faith from Save the Children, but it cost them little more than the airfare for a high-profile online newsmaker, and the gains in terms of engagement and understanding of the crisis were manifest.

View Burkina Faso Trip in a larger map

5. Kony 2012

One year, 96million views. Whatever your thoughts on how they went about it, it is a phenomenon, and it should redefine non-profit comms for the future. NGO folk still understand that they struggle to get beyond the ‘black babies’ or ‘eyes ‘n’ flies’ narratives, but this film blew through those stereotypes, for better or worse. It stands alone.

Karibu Kibera


Before going any further, the word Karibu means ‘welcome’ in Kiswahili, and it’s one you’re likely to hear on a regular basis here.

This post issues after a flying visit to Nairobi, where I arrived on Friday after a long journey from Dublin with delays at both ends. In Amsterdam our engines wouldn’t start. In Nairobi, the visa queue moved with all the urgency of cold honey. Thereafter, things picked up pace. Less than twelve hours after stepping off the plane, I was in Kibera meeting with the Kibera News Network team. KNN film news in Kibera as it happens, videoing the footage on small Flip cameras and uploading their edited clips to Youtube. They’re often the first on the scene, and get some great interviews from major events that would otherwise go unnoticed. They deserve more attention than they get.

The KNN team came to my attention through Map Kibera, one of the projects I’ll be examining in detail as part of a project funded by a Simon Cumbers Grant. ‘What you measure, you’re more likely to improve’, an athlete once told me. Map Kibera has helped civilian teams measure every inch of the Kibera slum, mapping resources, sanitation facilities, black spots for crime and everything in between, quite literally putting Kibera on the map. Go to Google Maps, and Kibera’s a blank, just as it is on Kenyan government maps. It is a vast nebula of humanity, hunkered under a wavy canopy of rusting tin rooves and a hum of commerce, music and motorized mayhem. Nebulous things are hard to map, or so the excuses run.

We spent yesterday talking to several Kiberan residents about some aspects of their lives in the city. I passed on what little filming and photographic skills I had to help them with their interviews, and together we set about putting together some material for an upcoming project of theirs. I also introduced them to two Kodak zi8 cameras donated by the good folks at Storyful, which they’ll add to their arsenal.

There was a group of eleven of us tramping around Kibera at times, so I won’t name everyone, but the KNN team was hugely hospitable. They were fun, welcoming, and rightly proud of their home town and the people within it.

Kibera, for its troubles, fulfils many of the slum sterotypes. The houses are small, dark and close together. The roads are muddy. The sewers run as trenches in the middle of alleyways, shallow and fast in some spots, deep and fetid in others. It’s not a nice way to live at times, and the KNN guys, all Kibera residents, acknowledged the problems their home faces. Their whole raison d’etre is to draw attention to the highs and lows of Kibera life in the hope that the good stuff will be recognised and the bad stuff rectified.

Highlight of the day was meeting a man called Mike Aziz. Mike was a KNN interviewee in a story produced by Joshua on a fire in the area. I recognised Mike and we bumped into him at one point when the KNN guys were filming some material on that topic. He was gobsmacked (as were the KNN crew) that I knew his face from an online video, and we interviewed him in English for the piece.

On to Mombasa, where I’m currently visiting Komaza, a sustainable forestry NGO based in Kilifi. I visited Kilifi in 2003, and plenty has changed. More on that, Map Kibera and the rest a little later.

Editors/producers interested in contacting Markham for material from Kenya & Tanzania, please email Markham (dot) Nolan (at) gmail (dot) com or call +254-732-580-147.

Play the hand you’re dealt

Last week I took a bunch of college students back to school. After three hours of poker, I stood up and walked away with 70 of their softly-bludged euros. It was a rare, rare win.

While I was busy fleecing them, we got talking about work, and the fact that I’m back freelancing again. The lads started asking me about what articles I most enjoyed researching. I’m not a big poker player, but when I mentioned a long feature on student poker, and promptly scooped another hefty pot of chips, there was a collective groan. He’s a fucking shark.

The article appeared on the front of the Agenda magazine while I was still a student myself.

Sunday Business Post, Feb 27, 2005

Poker School

It’s 7.30pm and the last of 270 students are trickling through the doors of the Gresham Hotel. Ten to a table, they sit and make guarded small talk, eyeing each other nervously.

With a top prize of €1,500 on the line, there’s little time for making friends, and everyone is anxious to get down to business. Niall Hughes of Trinity College’s Card Society announces to much applause, that the prize fund has reached €6,500. Continue reading “Play the hand you’re dealt”

‘Normality to Richard Pryor in four short years’


This was one of the hardest articles I ever chose to write. My mum had a short but intense battle with MS in her mid-forties, which she ultimately lost. I paired up with Damien Mulley, who had been diagnosed recently, to write about our experiences of the condition. It’s heavy.

I wrote this six months after my father died, and some people remarked that it was an article I could never have written while he was alive, given the situation it describes. It doesn’t attach any blame to him for his response, but it would have been….awkward. And as for the motives behind it – I don’t know. Therapy, I guess. It’s still hard to re-read, and seeing it in print was much harder than the process of writing it, which I undertook pretty much on autopilot. I picked up a copy of the paper and went into a coffee shop to read it that day, and nearly collapsed when I saw the pictures of my mother in the paper. Anyway, here it is:

Sunday Business Post, September 07, 2008

MS, which attacks a person’s nervous system, directly affects more than 6,000 people in Ireland. Diagnosis often prompts a frenzy of research, as the new patient scrambles to arm themselves with as much information as they can. Often, the first stop is someone whose life has already been affected by MS.

For Cork-based journalist Damien Mulley, diagnosed this January, his first port of call was a fellow journalist, Markham Nolan, whose mother died in 2004 after an unusually brief time with the illness. Here, they share their very different perspectives on a condition that is a familiar presence in thousands of Irish homes. Continue reading “‘Normality to Richard Pryor in four short years’”