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The Contemporary Narratives Lab project

About a year ago, I wrote about the need for journalism to not just cater to people who already feel a need to be informed, but to help create a need for news by sparking people’s curiosity.

To do so, we need to equip people with the right questions, instead of merely providing them with the right answers. We need to make it inviting and safe for people to explore the world and reflect upon it.

One way I approached this was to draw lessons from game design on how to create meaningful and engaging experiences. This led to the creation of The Uber Game, a newsgame that places the player into the shoes of a full-time Uber driver.

There is, however, another discipline with a long history of creating experiences that help people achieve an emotional understanding of the world — theatre and performance. I think there is a lot that journalism can learn from dramaturgy, and I’m embarking on my education with a new project: The Contemporary Narratives Lab.


What is it?

The Contemporary Narratives Lab is a partnership between the Financial Times, People’s Palace Projects, Queen Mary University of London, and The Battersea Arts Centre to explore the future of storytelling through digital and performance means.

We’re working with a number of artists to reinterpret and re-present FT stories through performance, culminating in a ‘scratch’ performance at the Battersea Arts Centre at the end of June.

We’re funded by a research grant from Queen Mary University’s Humanities and Social Science collaboration fund.

In this initial pilot project, artists Tassos Stevens, Rhiannon Armstrong, Harun Morrison, Paula Varjack, Conrad Murray and André Piza will be working with Financial Times journalists Emma Jacobs, Andrew Hill, Chloe Cornish and Leslie Hook.

We’ll be presenting early work-in-progress performances at the Battersea Arts Centre on June 29.

Why?

I have two parallel goals for this project. The first is to explore ways to present journalism that do a better job of conveying the emotions and feelings that drive human decisions.

The FT is very good at explaining the world intellectually through rational analyses, but a) we’re all irrational, and b) rational analysis alone is no longer enough in an age of decreasing public trust in the very concept of objectivity.

There is, of course, a long history of bringing artistic performances and journalism together, most notably with verbatim theatre. But I believe we are at a particularly interesting moment of convergence that is driving a renaissance in ‘live’ journalism events, such as Pop-Up Magazine and a bevy of live podcast recording shows. The annual FT Weekend Festival, which started three years ago, has just won the International News Media Asssociation’s award for ‘Best use of an event to build a news brand’.

Other projects that more explicitly brings theatre and journalism together are being done by ProPublica Illinois and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

This renaissance is happening because, while the internet has made it more efficient to get the news on demand and made information more widely available and cheaper to access, by contrast it is also making something else scarcer and more valuable: analogue, embodied experiences that establish a real human connection between storyteller and audience.

Creating participatory, artistic experiences that spark people’s curiosity about the news can become an important way of furthering our jorunalistic mission. I also believe that is fits in with the FT’s commercial positioning as a premium service, because these you-had-to-have-been-there experiences, which have something irreducible that cannot be captured by a digital reproduction, are becoming more prized. Their exclusivity makes them the new luxury and the new symbols of status.

We keep shifting back and forth from being in sync to being asynchronous, and the history of tech and culture is all about that. Asynchronous keeps getting more efficient, because you can do it on your schedule, but being in sync gets more real, because it makes us feel differently about what we’re going to see.

The second goal of this project for me is to learn about different processes for developing and testing new creative ideas.

I have long argued that transitioning from a mature medium like print to new and experimental digital media involves moving from clearly defined structures and specialisations to managing projects.

I started learning about project management from software and product development disciplines (agile processes, human-centered design, and design thinking) and trying to figure out what to keep and what to discard as I applied those lessons to a newsroom context.

Such processes exist elsewhere, too. Battersea Arts Centre invented ‘Scratch’ in 2000 as a way for artists to share ideas and unfinished shows with audiences at an early stage and to get feedback — a process that shares many similarities with agile, albeit with different terminology.

The goal, then, is to learn by participating. By collaborating with the Battersea Arts Center and putting the Contemporary Narratives Lab through the scratch process, I hope to learn more about what principles and practices are preserved across theatre and software development. More importanty, which are applicable and transferrable to how the FT produces digital projects?

What questions are we exploring?

  1. What are the assumptions behind how the FT reports and presents its journalism?

  2. How can we report and present our journalism differently if we challenge or let go of some of those assumptions?

  3. In what ways can we can help audiences understand reported facts through experiential and embodied learning?

  4. What are the key challenges in working factual accuracy and story development?

  5. How could this collaboration help overcome particular audiences distrust?

  6. What support structures are needed for artist and journalists to work together more often and regularly, in order to keep investigating how to tell stories in more impactful ways?

What have I learnt so far?

On April 24, Contemporary Narratives Lab held an informal discussion meeting with artists, producers, university professors and researchers, technologists and journalists at the Financial Times.

The project is still in its early stages, but from that discussion and the process so far, I have already learnt a number of lessons and shifted my own thinking on some of the issues. I will continue to update this list as the project progresses.

Context matters

A big difference between theatre and news is that shows ask for an up-front commitment of time and attention from their audience. People’s behaviour during a show is defined both by social norms and rules set by the show’s producers, but in exchange, the producers design not just the ‘content’ of the play but, through architecture, set design, etc, they also construct a space that enhances the show’s experience. Before the play starts, the audience is primed to experience it ‘properly’: They pass through a liminal space and they enact the ritual of ‘going to see a show’, down to five-minute-to-showtime bell and admonishments to turn off their phone.

Readers of print newspapers once had similar liminal spaces and rituals (the breakfast table, the subway commute, a lazy sunday morning with a cup of coffee). But when news moved from print to digital, we capitulated, perhaps too quickly, on the assumption that we can help to prime the audience and help construct spaces and environment conducive to learning about and understanding the world.

The emotional/rational dichotomy

While it is a sometimes useful shorthand in communication, saying that there are just two types of understanding is too simplistic a framework for thinking about human motivation and how people make decisions. Instead, a better way to formulate it is that cultural and societal changes are leading to people having different value systems, and the challenge we are facing is how we can speak to people who use a different set of values in their decision-making.

The reporting/storytelling split

Likewise, I originally approached this project with the simplistic view that we can split the practice of journalism into two distinct phases: reporting and storytelling. I wanted to preserve the integrity of journalistic practice by leaving reporting untouched, and asking artists to work with the material generated from the reporting to find new ways of presenting it. But the two are inextricably linked, and artistic practices may have lots to teach us about the discovery process as well.

Artistic exploration vs artistic production

They are two very different things. Neither is better than the other, but it is useful to be very clear about whether or not there is an expectation of a product at the end when it comes to commissioning artists.

Time expectations

A week of rehearsal time roughly equals two days of actual artistic exploration and development time.

What to read next: How (and Why) the Financial Times made The Uber Game