Beyond “Be Like Facebook”
How the SND award went wrong, and what we can learn from it
In the first article of a series on evolving understandings of news design, ProPublica’s David Sleight considers a controversial award and its implications.
Industry awards set benchmarks. Done well, they reflect the priorities of a field and give us a snapshot of its prevailing ambitions. They highlight role models to follow, achievements to emulate, and competitors we can sharpen our skills against. They’re clear about priorities, and they set agendas we can reasonably aspire to.
At this year’s annual workshop in Washington, DC, the Society for News Design broke with tradition and handed out just one of its trademark “World’s Best Designed” awards in the digital category. And instead of using it to recognize the work of a “traditional” news shop, they gave the nod to Facebook. Judging by the lukewarm applause during the announcement, some folks were less than thrilled.
It took a while, but we now know the judges were trying to make a point: a provocation meant to get us thinking about our newsroom priorities, and an acknowledgement of a juggernaut in our midst. According to a recent statement from the judges, “By naming Facebook the world’s best designed news site, we feel we are making a statement that is both controversial and obvious.” In their own words:
Facebook has accomplished what most news organizations cannot, to be a worldwide news site. It has managed, through bleeding edge design, to function and be a dependable source of “high news” and personal news, and we fundamentally believe that news organizations should be interested in establishing the same kinds of relationships with their audiences. It could not accomplish this without world-class design. It’s [sic] size, and scope, and our increasing dependence on it to reach audiences are testament to its place in our news ecosystem.
Right away, there’s a problem. The judges assert Facebook couldn’t have become a worldwide source of news without world-class design, but they never say how that design was put together. What did Facebook do that other offerings didn’t? What techniques have relevance to our newsrooms? Without that foundation, the judges’ explanation rests on an incomplete syllogism. We see outcomes, but not causes.
It’s also unclear what kinds of relationships the judges think Facebook has established with its audience, even less clear how newsrooms might adopt them. That’s important. The fundamental “connective tissue” of the service is formed by relationships between audience members, not, as the judges imply, between Facebook and its audience. It feels like they looked at Facebook’s effects and said, “do that”—and that’s not helpful. Any meaningful critique of design needs to account for intent. Are we talking about the result of rigorous craft or happy accidents? Be specific. Show your work.
They continue, pressing the case that news organizations should be more like “platforms,” ticking down a list of by-products but again never articulating how those things are put together:
We think most news organizations could learn a lot by understanding what Facebook is doing, and applying those lessons to their digital presence. Other platforms are doing so, whether they are geographically or subject related.
They even work in a couple potshots at Snowfall. Point noted that we should be smart about allocating resources for complicated custom work, and that we should seriously consider the plusses and minuses of work that might only reside within the borders of our own walled gardens. But experiments in elevating our storytelling can co-exist just fine with experiments in disseminating and showcasing our work, whether that means participating in outside platforms and services or being more “platform-like” ourselves.
Put it all together, and the resulting tone of the award felt more scolding than progressive. It borders on goading to ask, “Platforms are of the web, are you?” That question is only provocative if the answer, by and large, is “no.” But from what I saw at this year’s gathering, the answer for the majority of SND’s membership is an increasingly emphatic “yes.”
Walking around the event, I was heartened to see no one had to get up and make a big point about using Facebook or Snapchat or Periscope because we all expect experimentation to be part of our culture now—on these services and even further out on the fringes. That includes participating in platform ecosystems as well as taking on some of their attributes ourselves. This is what folks like Zach Seward are doing when they refer to their newsrooms as an API.
The judges seem intent on preempting objections by chalking them up to denial, dismissing valid concerns in the process. It’s evocative of a mindset John Herrman just outlined in the Awl, talking about Facebook’s Instant Article announcement:
There is [a] toxic mindset that permeates discussions not just about Facebook but about most accelerating, inevitable-seeming tech companies. It conflates criticism with denial and nostalgia. Why do people complain about Uber so much? Is it loyalty to yellow cabs and their corrupt nonsense industry? Or is it a recognition that, as soon as a company reaches its level of importance and future inevitability, it should be treated as important. A word of caution about Facebook is not a wish to return to some non-existent ideal time. Print media was broken, TV was broken, commercial and public radio were broken, local media was broken, web media was very broken. Understanding this—or even just assuming it to be true!—is understanding that it is imperative to seek out the manner in which your media is broken, and the pressures that keep it that way.
To assert that the old news paradigms don’t work is absolutely true. That’s old information. We get it, really. But even as we acknowledge the past way of doing things was and is fundamentally busted, we can still recognize that Facebook as a designed news experience has issues that rightly give us pause.
Facebook is an incredibly important part of our ecosystem that nevertheless stumbles when it comes to relating context and maximizing audience understanding. Its leadership still publicly talks about the News Feed algorithm as if it doesn’t have editorial intent (it absolutely does, even if they aren’t conscious of it) and it has knowingly manipulated users without informed consent. Those are legitimate points of concern. Moreover, they are absolutely fundamental design concerns. Not addressing them leaves us wanting.
To be truly useful, and provide the kind of motivating push the judges were hoping for, industry recognitions should open the door to critical discussion and an examination of what’s possible. That requires a more robust accounting. We can infer causes, speculate on intent, and make educated guesses about the motivations behind projects. But we should also highlight and explain how designs are defined and executed. Awards are a unique opportunity to complete that picture. This is news design after all. We need to remember those Five Ws.
David became ProPublica’s first design director in May of 2014. Previously, he worked with numerous startups as a consultant specializing in user experience and responsive web design. Before that, he led the interactive design team at BusinessWeek.com, and helped build some of the first web-based textbooks at Pearson Education. In 2016, Sleight was named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and was the recipient of a Communication Award from the National Academies for his work on ProPublica’s “Killing the Colorado” series.