Miranda Mulligan

Miranda Mulligan is a designer, coder, journalist, and now, Executive Director of the Knight Lab at Northwestern University.

Miranda Mulligan is a designer, coder, journalist, and now, Executive Director of the Knight Lab at Northwestern University in Chicago. Prior to decamping to Chi-town, Miranda served as the Design Director of BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com, overseeing their massive responsive re-design a few years back. Follow her on Twitter @mirandamulligan.

Why is technology important to the media industry?
I have jumped around quite a bit in my years as a journalist. I started out as a photographer, then page designer turned graphics reporter, turned interactive artist to web designer.

For the past few years, I have been a manager and meeting-attendee. And, to be completely honest, I think I might be drawn to innovation in media delivery/platforms/presentation/storytelling because I have a tendency to get bored. I always want to be doing something different.

Over at Knight Lab, we feel like it is an exciting time to be working in media and technology. Every bit of what it means to be a journalist is being reassessed, redefined. While traditional news outlets are cutting back, many leading companies, digital-first organizations and startups are inventing the future of journalism. As an industry, we are witnessing a rebirth. As the Knight Lab, we are participating in a revolution.

Right now, publishing is filled with untapped potential – especially for those arriving at it from non-traditional backgrounds – and, for someone with a tendency to bore quickly, working in technology + media is a darn good fit. I would like to see more journalists and technologists getting involved, and I like to think that the work we are doing is helping make that happen.

What companies or media outlets that we might not know about are doing exciting, innovative media, tech work?
I often become fascinated by web-technology-first companies that spin up their own publications, just for fun. My favorite story from the past year is how Mule Design Studio came to launching Evening Edition, a daily, “succinct summary of the day’s most important news” which provides an overview of the news and links to original reporting. They launched in July in partnership with Mother Jones, and are currently sustaining themselves on a sponsorship-model. Plus, the team is currently seeking an East Coast editor, so apparently they are growing. I think Evening-Edition is such a creative solution to the “fitting news into pockets of time in our day” problem that we’re all wrestling.

How can people use technology to create change in the world?
Journalism matters. The free press is important to a functioning democracy. Journalism has the power to change the world. Journalism helps create and foster informed and engaged communities. However, while the Internet has been totally-rockin’ for writers, designers and publishers as well as for readers and audience, introducing incomprehensible potential for new storytelling techniques, communication and ways to connect … Its effect on the traditional publishing business models has basically been one giant suck-fest.

In fact, this is a point beautifully drawn in a relatively recent A List Apart article from David Sleight, a well-known and highly respected designer, strategist and consultant. In his explication, he puts forth a strong argument about why future-friendly publishing business models need to create more distance from their presentation layers … Unlike our current models in which journalism’s revenue is deeply entangled in how content is presented.

Therefore, since it is highly unlikely the news industry will ever be the beneficiary of an industry-wide, tax-funded bailout, journalism needs technology.

What is the biggest tech challenge that media companies will face over the next 5 years?
News media companies are going through a cycle of darwinism right now. Technologists are learning to be journalists, and the “journalists” who do not transition toward digital-savviness will go away because they can’t keep up. Seems harsh, but its true … and I would argue that this is a “tech challenge” because media companies NEED technology, not the other way around.

Do you think all journalists should code?
In general, I am disappointed with the lack of preparation programs offer to journalism students who are entering the professional field. I worry that today’s journalism and communications graduates are still afraid of the Internet. In my experience, most recent graduates barely understand how the Internet works, the medium’s constraints or how to communicate effectively with technologists. Understanding our medium makes us better storytellers.

I do not see why journalism can’t be taught from a digital-first perspective … For example, you can teaching writing skills in the context of a blog, a technique which will also teach writers how to deep-link and reference their sources in the way that people write on the web. Every graduate should know the history and background of the Internet, the key terms of digital media, how data can tell a story, that social media is just “what we do now” as communicators, that “mobile” is very important, as well as how browsers work + enough HTML and CSS to understand the constraints of the web.

Today’s students should feel comfortable “speaking tech” and should be taking data and statistics classes.

Today’s students should be taught to have an open-mind about their career paths. They should be thinking in terms of a job they can see themselves doing for 2-5 years, and be willing to take a new job if it gets them closer to what they think they might ultimately like to do.

Today’s graduates need to know how to take initiative and be a self-starters … ALWAYS. Young journalists should be comfortable with being overly-communicative when working with others. Every graduate should develop an ability to learn quickly and adapt, to be open to new ideas and solutions, try to continually grow, teach yourself the newest storytelling tools and techniques. Every graduate should think of themselves as lifelong learners.

What is good design?
I like how Wilson Miner answered this question in his “When We Build” talk given during the 2011 Build Conference in Belfast: “Design is the choices we make about the world we want to live in.” I don’t think that I could add much to his brilliant manifesto, asking designers and developers to make the Internet with the intention of longevity.

What could the world use a little more of?
Great editors who also identify as a technologist.

What could the world use a little less of?