Featured Member: Matt Thompson

By on February 6, 2012

Current Location: Washington, D.C.
Current Gig: Editorial Product Manager for NPR’s Project Argo.
Member Since: March 2008
Six-word memoir: Obsessed with idea of infinite stories.
Favorite tech tool: This shifts day to day. But I’m still a pretty big fan of YubNub.
Favorite fictional character: I’m bad at giving superlatives. So this is a tie – Anya from “Buffy” and Tami Taylor from “Friday Night Lights.”

What happens during your average day?

I’m just going to describe workdays, ’cause my non-work days are pretty variable. In general, I try to keep up with what’s happening on the Argo network around the day, but I try to reserve a concentrated bit of Argo-reading time in the morning, alongside my email. Meetings and calls often start around 10:30 and continue intermittently through the afternoon. I typically have a project going at any given time that requires some research and writing, and I block out days that are light on meetings to work on those. I travel pretty frequently as well.

What project are you most proud of?

Again, bad at superlatives. So I’m going with another tie, three ways this time:

(1) Argo’s (a collection of websites of NPR member stations) still going, but it’s fair to say I’m already in its afterglow. I’m so delighted by how much we learned, how much we built, and how much terrific journalism we produced.

(2) I’m still very proud of Vita.mn, the arts and entertainment site I helped develop in Minneapolis. In Agile terms, you could call me the “product owner” for Vita.mn, but at the time, I knew nothing about rapid, iterative development. So I wrote this giant, complex spec for the site (guided by our awesome development team at the Star Tribune) with a badly swollen list of requirements. It’s a textbook example of the deficiencies of a waterfall approach to app development. And yet, in part because we packed so many ideas into that site, it’s still going, almost seven years after that spec was created – a lifetime in digital years. It’s definitely showing its age, but I think it also demonstrates real imagination. And it’s still a lot of fun.

(3) EPIC 2014 – its creation and the aftermath – was a terrific experience.

Why did you choose to get involved with online media?

I knew I wanted to be a journalist from a pretty young age (4th grade). I won’t bore you with the long story, but I started looking for other career paths after sampling the worlds of print reporting and broadcast television reporting firsthand. It wasn’t until I became a real participant in online communities that I began to see the amazing potential of digital, networked technologies for doing journalism better than it’s ever been done before, which completely reignited my passion for the field.

Where do you see opportunities in journalism?

So many places. Storytelling: I think there are still so many narrative conventions and techniques that are being invented every day, in ragecomics, BioWare games, reality shows, Twitter streams, just all over the place. There are so many ways of conveying information that are just being developed, some of which I think offer significant possibilities for journalism. Reporting: Again, we’re venturing into bold new territory here, from data reporting on a vast scale to the sort of social, public reporting that feels like it’s just being invented. I’m still incredibly excited by the possibilities of engaging the public in a quest to enrich its future.

NPR’s Argo program was a grand experiment in hyperlocal news and media. What were the three biggest things you learned from that project?

Again, superlatives! I’m so bad at them! These are not the “three biggest things” I learned from Project Argo, but the three things that are on my mind as I write this response to you:

(1) There is no way to write this lesson that will not elicit a “duh.” But here goes: Four different journalists given the same beat will probably yield four completely different interpretations of that beat. Different journalists are motivated by completely different things – one’s a storyteller, another’s a muckraker, another’s a systems analyst – and these motivations push them in very different directions in their approach to coverage. It also means editors should learn to engage with different types of journalists in different ways.

(2) Digital media habits are still very much in flux.

(3) When coordinating a large project, there’s great value in being flexible and experimental as you figure out how to collaborate. There’s also great value in deciding on a mechanism for collaboration, laying out how it should work, and making everyone stick with it for a while. We decided, basically by fiat, to use OSQA (a Stack Overflow-inspired question-and-answer app) for our technical support, and it’s been brilliant.

How would you update EPIC 2014 considering all that has happened in the last few years? What would EPIC 2028 look like?

I can’t say what it’d look like, ’cause we haven’t made it. But I’d imagine the underlying themes that animated EPIC 2014 will continue to become more pronounced: Media everywhere, all the time, produced by everyone. Still an obvious disparity between the largest voices and the smallest ones, but the aggregate power of those smaller and more intimate voices will be a continually expanding media force in each of our lives. “It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.” That will still be true. In 2028, I expect the average person will be able to summon, without much effort or cost, an information product so marvelously deep and comprehensive that it would still probably stun us today, even as we become jaded at the prospect of encountering more information in an average morning than our forebears got in an average decade. And with even less effort and cost, that same person could probably assemble an information product so mind-numbingly vapid and sensational that its viewers become lifeless, losing all interest in anything other than consuming it.

What can journalists learn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

So many things. I need to narrow this somewhat. So I’m reframing the question. Ahem …

“What can journalists learn from Giles, the librarian and ‘Watcher’ in Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

I’m glad you asked! As any journalist who works for an organization with an awesome news library knows, behind every great journalist is a great librarian. So we have much to learn from Giles.

Giles was once asked why he was so distrustful of computers. After a pause, he answered, “The smell.” Asked to elaborate, he said, “Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer … has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be, um, smelly.” This is both complete hogwash and deeply true. Ponder.

When she was a young naif, Buffy asked Giles if life ever gets easy. His answer: “Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.” We’d all like to see the world that way, and sometimes journalists have a tendency to oblige. That works out awesome in J.K. Rowling novels, but not so well in reality.

In some ways, a Watcher is a lot like a journalist. A Watcher serves to provide the Slayer with the knowledge and guidance she needs to combat the forces of evil. It’s a vaguely defined profession, quasi-governed by a self-appointed Council of practitioners that exists, essentially, to preserve the mysterious, longstanding conventions of the trade. I imagine many journalists can relate to this. The following spoiler will not affect your enjoyment of the series if you haven’t seen it: Giles is fired from the Watchers Council for essentially caring too much for his Slayer, for cheering her on too vigorously, for being too naked about his desire to see her succeed. That firing is a domino in a long chain of events that is ultimately the Council’s undoing.

If you’re still following the somewhat tortured analogy I’m implicitly drawing between Watchers and journalists, Slayers and the public, the Council and journalism’s priesthood, I’ll let you interpret your own conclusion from it.

If you had a million dollars dedicated to improving media, you would…

Just so I have this right: a distant relative has passed on, leaving me a million-dollar trust that must be spent towards the improvement of media. The money has to be distributed within a year.

A million dollars is, of course, both a ton of money and barely enough to make a dent. I’d probably do something a little Knight News Challenge, a little Y Combinator. I’d try to charm some smart, experienced folks into lending some of their time and expertise to some incredibly talented people for a few months, to help whip their ideas into sustainable enterprises. I wouldn’t be really looking for ideas as much as people – talented people passionate about innovating who are ready to do a lot to make their ideas tangible and durable. Also, they have to be all of the above, and willing to come learn and build for three months on basically lunch money.

I’d try to structure the budget such that most of the money does not actually go toward funding ideas. Or at least, not at the front end. Let’s say I can fund nine or 10 clusters of founders to put through this wringer. Since I do have to spend the money within a year, I will use what’s left (which hopefully is the bulk of it) to find the three companies that emerge from boot camp with the most progress — the clearest pitch, most-improved product, best relationships with potential investor/funder/customers, etc.