#51: understanding precedes action
Richard Saul Wurman, incoherence, Sunday morning news routines
When you’re working through the same set of questions for a very long time, it’s helpful to occasionally revisit key moments of inspiration. So this week, I dug through my archives to the April 2015 meeting of the Society for News Design, at which Richard Saul Wurman, then 80, gave a talk. Wurman is an eccentric, highly productive map-lover, coiner of the term “information architecture,” designer, writer (over 90 books) and the creator of the TED conference.
I was so inspired that I’d nervously emailed him to see if we could talk about my then barely-coherent thoughts on news consumption, and to my surprise, he called me one day while I was visiting a friend in Milwaukee. We spoke by phone as she drove around in circles and all I can remember of the conversation was his blunt advice that if I want to start anywhere, it should be by decreasing the number of times I use the word “like.”
(I fully credit my ability to work in podcasts to that terrifying/delightful conversation.)
Fortunately, his talk was recorded in It’s All Journalism’s enormous archive. To set up today’s How Might We prompt, here are some of my favorite quotes from the talk, edited down:
Understanding Precedes Action
A fundamental principle of mine—and I think you should run a political campaign on it—is that understanding precedes action.
What I’ve tried to have as a path in my life is to be the dumbest person in the room. I really like to suck out information from everybody else. I listen to every word everybody says, and it’s unsettling because sometimes the words are really stupid and inaccurate.
Guides vs. Teachers
We’re all Gin Rummy memory people. We take tests and we forget it. That’s all we do. It’s the stupidest educational system in the world. You can shout out any subject and connect that subject to everything else in the world. Everything connects to everything, based on your interest. We should have not teachers but guides to take us through that.
We’ve all had teachers who were very smart. We know they’re smart. But we’re lost because they don’t start at the beginning and we never quite get into the subject. You have to take people in.
I off a plane in some city and I’m just full of anxiety. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know how far it is to where I’m going. I want somebody with my name at the gate to hold my hand. Doesn’t that feel good? Just think of that personal attention—where you can ask somebody, how far is it? What am I going to pass?
Everybody in this room probably has, as their worst nightmare, instructions from an incoherent or irrational superior. That’s what takes the joy out of our life. The incoherence of superiors.
We come up with ideas in conversation. We think of things and we can see and explore the translation of those conversations into words, visuals and the combination of words and visuals into real-time things. It’s an amazing adventure but it comes from us talking and listening to each other.
I used to play a game when I gave speeches. I used to take the New York Times, and I’d say to somebody, pick out a story on the front page, any story and I’m going to ask you the three simplest questions about it and you’ll find that it’s not in the story. And it worked every time. That level of question is not covered because the people writing all this stuff have the disease of familiarity.
If somebody wants to come up and explain Obamacare to the room, I’ll let them do that. Nobody can explain it, although you’ve all written about it and done stories about it and diagrams about it. There’ve been probably more inches written about it in the press in the last three years than anything else and we can’t explain it to each other at all. I mean, that’s really creepy. If we took a vote here, how many people are for it, how many are against it, we’d get people having a reaction, and then you ask them to explain what they’re reacting for or against and they wouldn’t be able to explain it.
What it feels like not to understand
There’s lots of secretaries in the cabinet, but there’s no secretary of understanding. There’s nobody there that makes what people come up with understandable to others. It’s not a sociological ideal. We’re anxious about the fact that a lot of the stuff we call information doesn’t inform.
Strive to discover what it’s like not to understand. In a simple-minded way, I get up one morning, something is interesting to me, I don’t understand it. I look for a book or a TV show that would help me understand. If I find that, I’m satisfied. If I don’t, I do a book or a conference or a meeting. It’s all just generated by my curiosity.
So I’ve done about 90 books on lots of subjects and that’s the quest in each book. I don’t use experts because they can’t explain it to me. My doctor can’t answer a fucking question. He doesn’t tell me anything that I can understand.
Examples of books he mentioned: A book of 2 page explanations of all the sports in the Olympics; a series of guidebooks organized by location (what’s near you) instead of category (hotels, restaurants etc); a book on healthcare (when he was turning 75 and didn’t understand the healthcare system at all).
How do I begin? I go to this place of not knowing anything about the subject. Of wiping my slate clean of anything. Then how do I organize my thoughts? I came up with a notion called LATCH 20-some years ago when I did a book called Information Anxiety.
Remember this one-liner of Steve Wright: “Everything is in walking distance if you have enough time.”
Needless to say, his descriptions of the consumer’s experience of news + his habit of creating books to understand things touched on three of my core beliefs about journalism:
that we should view journalism as a practice rather than profession
that the best journalism helps us understand and navigate the world
that navigating information is a skill that should be modeled and taught
So today’s prompt is: How might we approach our news consumption from a place of not-knowing?
So much of what we consume feels like catch-up. I should know about this because it’s in the news. I should have an opinion on this because it’s being discussed. Rarely do we enter into news consumption with a beginners’s mindset. I know nothing about Country A or Law B or Trend C. Where might I begin? I think the important thing is that there should be no consequence to this type of learning. Just pure curiosity.
In following pure curiosity, in finding a small amount of time to intentionally follow it as if you were a reporter or researcher with no obligation to produce, but a desire to be able to talk about what you’ve learned, journalism (the practice) can feel like play.
🥬 Constellation: Sunday morning news routines
This past Sunday, I noticed myself feeling very excited about the newsletters in my inbox and it occurred to me that the Sunday morning time slot is a really delightful one. During the week, what shows up in my inbox feels like a mess, but on Sunday mornings, there’s a mood. Like the Sunday Edition energy of the paper carried over into the marketing decisions of all newsletter writers.
A History of Sunday (CBS News)
I’ve somehow unintentionally subscribed to Sunday stuff that’s my own personal lifestyle section. The energy matches mine: slow, extra coffee, strongly desiring inspiration. Feeling just about emptied out after the week, but also kind of needing some magic to start the new one. Here are some from last Sunday:
Readwise Sunday Favorites (curated highlights from books I’ve read)
What/how do you consume on Sundays? Leave it in the comments!
“Not that Pulitzer's paper was especially dutiful, or even responsible. The man who endowed the most prestigious prize in journalism also gave us headlines like "Scientists Now Know Positively That There Are Thirsty People on Mars." Indeed, almost all the appetite-whetting epithets that modern-day media critics like to fling around -- warmongering, pandering, sensationalistic -- would stick to The World, and twice on Sundays.”
—Jonathan Mahler in the review of The World on Sunday above
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