Posted by: structureofnews | August 12, 2010

Welcome

Aaah – another site about The Future of Journalism.

A dull one.  Without the  invective and ideology about free vs. paid, pajama-clad bloggers vs. stick-in-the-mud mainstream media curmudgeons, and Utopian visions of crowdsourced news vs. dark fears about falling standards you can find elsewhere.  It has words like taxonomy and persistent content in it; discusses business models and revenue streams in dull, accountant-like language; and tries to dissect the sparkling prose journalists turn out into tiny bytes of data.

But there is a purpose here, and it’s based around the idea that we as journalists haven’t really thought about how people are changing they’re accessing information, or about how we need to fundamentally rethink the way we carry out journalism and the kinds of – for want of a better word – products we turn out for them.

There’s much hand-wringing over the loss of the traditional business model of news, it’s true.  Perhaps too much.  And this site will contribute its share.  But hopefully it’ll also explore some of the less-explored questions about where the profession goes in a digital age.   And lay out some of the thinking behind one concrete idea that might help move the business forward: Something I’m calling Structured Journalism.

So, welcome – and I hope you find this interesting.

Posted by: structureofnews | July 21, 2014

Beyond Human

hal 9000“Robot” journalists can’t compete with humans at the things humans do best – Slate Magazine

Slate had an interesting piece the other day about “robot” journalism, doubtless prompted by the AP’s recent announcement that it would be turning to software from Automated Insights to produce thousands of corporate earnings stories. (Business news organizations like Reuters, Forbes, and probably Bloomberg have been automating stories as well, but this underscores how mainstream the technology and practice is becoming.)

The Slate piece was a smart look at the advantages and disadvantages that humans and machines bring to the exercise of producing stories, and it summarizes the state of play well.  Machines are faster, more reliable, better at crunching reams of data, and all that.  Humans are better at bringing in broader context, understanding what might be interesting to other humans, and so on.  Machines are critically handicapped by the quality of the data available to them.  Machines are cheaper than humans.  All of which is true – or mostly true, anyway.  (Machines can be very expensive to run.)

Slate’s conclusion?  Humans are better at producing journalism, as the quote above notes.

Well, sure – but is that the right question?

Horses are more empathetic than cars.  They won’t – by and large – go off a cliff by themselves if you take your eye off the road or doze off.  They’re superior at jumping over obstacles.  They don’t need messy fossil fuels to run.  In short, horses are better than cars at providing horse-type locomotion.  But as a method of mass transportation, they suck.

So – yes, humans are better at producing human-type journalism, and God knows, we need much more of that.  But is it the only thing we need, and what are machines better at producing that the world needs?

I don’t mean to suggest Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | July 7, 2014

Time Scales

moneyWhat’s new in the news business?  Money, apparently.  And not just any money – venture capital money. The kind of money that typically chases high-growth start-ups with the potential to scale massively.

That’s certainly not the way most new journalism projects are described.  But the money is coming in, nonetheless.  As Quartz noted in a piece a couple of months ago, BuzzFeed has $46 million in funding, Vox Media $80 million, and Business Insider about $30 million.

“Our general view is that news is a growth business,” said Eric Hippeau, managing director at Lerer Ventures, which has invested in PandoDaily, The Dodo, PolicyMic, NowThis News, Circa, and elsewhere. “There are many more people are accessing and interested in and engaging with news today than ever before, thanks to technology. So we’re bullish on content and we’re bullish on news. Clearly, we have to pick the right companies. Not everybody’s going to be a winner.”

So what’s going on?  And will this all end in tears?  Perhaps, as this very smart piece at Venture Beat argues.  But even if it does, there may well be good lessons to draw from what doesn’t work.

The article, by Nicholas White, Editor-in-Chief and CEO of the Daily Dot, effectively dissects the various areas where news startups – content-creation companies, if you like, rather than technology platform shops – and VCs are likely to disappoint each other: Upfront costs, time to build a brand, lack of easy exits, and perhaps most fundamentally, problems with scaling.  Or at least, problems with scaling if we think of news and stuff that’s ephemeral.

There is a wide-ranging belief that the need for human talent on a daily basis means you’re on a cost “treadmill.” The underlying issue here isn’t really about talent—all businesses require talent — the issue is that the shelf life of the product is often days. In a tech company, what the talent produces stays fresh for 18 to 24 months.

Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | May 23, 2014

The Architecture of Context (And Other Things)

Escher's_RelativityToday’s post is brought to you by the metaphors “architecture,” “apps,” and “by-product.”

There’s a unifying idea in here – honest! – and it’s around what we journalists think our core job is, and all the conscious and unconscious ways we build our world around that view of ourselves. That helps us focus and work more efficiently – but at the same time cuts us off from new ways of thinking and doing things. (And naturally, or this wouldn’t be this blog, it’s about why we might want to change that.)

Bear with me. If you ask a journalist what their main job is, I’m guessing most would talk about reporting and publishing the news, and most often in the form of stories, pictures or videos.  There are other things we do, of course, from curating and engaging social media to layout and design, but by and large those are seen as adjuncts to the core work of reporting and producing.

Then there are the less-obvious (or at least less-openly articulated) and more-detailed subsets of those aims that are built into every organization; consider the recently leaked report on innovation at the New York Times, which highlighted – and decried – the newsroom’s obsession with getting on page one. Not all news organizations have that same kind of focus on the front page – but almost all are obsessed with something, and generally something pretty similar.

And that can be – and often is – a good thing.  It’s hard to be good at all things, so focus matters.  And building the infrastructure around that focus – the “architecture” of a newsroom and its CMS – is what makes that focus stick. That’s why front-page stories at the Times (and at The Wall Street Journal, which at least during my years there had even more of an obsession with page one) generally sing.

But architecture can also be confining, as the Times’ internal report noted. Being focused on the front page hobbles the Times in its efforts to move to a more digital view of the world. (And as I’ve noted, having an even-more implicit focus on the primacy of the print story form means they don’t even really consider how they might rethink how reporters work).

So what does a completely different architecture look like?  Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | May 19, 2014

Changing The Times

Innovation 1Nieman Journalism Lab calls it “one of the key documents of this media age,” and I can’t say I disagree.

To be sure, much of the contents of the leaked internal report on innovation at the New York Times aren’t surprising to anyone who’s been in the middle of the kinds of cultural and technological revolutions all mainstream/established media are grappling with – if anything, the main surprise is that even the storied NYT, with huge resources poured into its digital teams, has the same kind of problems as the rest of the mortal media world.

But it’s an important document not because of any great revelations, but because it so clearly and starkly lays out the common challenges that all legacy news organizations face – and in some ways, the issues that even some startups will have to grapple with.

There’s much to digest in the report (news of which was first broken by Buzzfeed), and you should definitely get a copy and go through it in detail. (Or at least read the Nieman summary, which is a great piece of quick curation.) As Josh Benton notes in the Nieman piece:

I doubt there is a newsroom in the world that wouldn’t benefit from understanding the cultural issues laid out below.

Absolutely.  There’s much to dig into, but a couple of key points jumped out at me – with admittedly my structured journalism filter on: It highlights the value of archive and the long tail of news; the importance of metadata and structured data to enhance the content journalists are creating everyday; the need to get beyond one-off projects and build systems and platforms that can enable better, longer-lasting journalism; and the central role newsrooms should – but aren’t – playing in developing a real strategy for the digital age.

Hey – I did say I had my structured journalism blinders on.  And even then, far as the report went, I thought it could have gone even further. Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | April 28, 2014

Revisitation

So I’ve been thinking. (I know – a dangerous activity at the best of times, and ideally mitigated by the ingestion of copious amounts of Islay scotch. But I digress.)

Apropos of – well, a couple of things: Talking to Bill Adair and Laura and Chris Amico about the precepts of structured journalism, prepping for a panel discussion with them (virtually) next week in Italy, talking at length with David Caswell of Structured Stories, and a couple more things like that – it seemed like a good time to revisit the broad underpinnings of the ideas behind the blog and structured journalism. And if it deosn’t – well, hey, it’s my blog.

It’s not that the basic ideas I wrote down back on 2010 have changed; they haven’t, really. But the world has, and technology has advanced, which makes more things possible and some of the underlying needs that structured journalism addresses perhaps more pressing.

The core underlying idea remains the same as I articulated it back then:

  that the tradition “push” model of news – we tell you the latest happenings – only serves part of audiences’ needs; increasingly people turn to a “pull” model where they look for up-to-date information on specific subjects when they want it, not when events happen.

But it’s already moved on from there: People not only want news/information when they want it; they want it – and will increasingly expect it – to be personalized to them. Whether that’s stock market reports that are built around their portfolio, analyses of school results that focus on where their kids are educated, sports stories that reflect their level of interest in that team, or just the ability to explore in narrative and visualization forms a wealth of data and information, it’s increasingly possible to develop machine systems that can “write” such stories at speed and scale.

Not all stories, of course, and certainly not for all circumstances. But still a far advance on the current one-size-fits-all-audiences model. It seems to me just a matter of time before such personalized reports are available and expected. If.

If there’s enough underlying data and information to create such stories. Data and information that journalists need to go out and report, verify and collate.

Some might argue that, given how much data is being created and dispersed into the world each day, there’s no shortage of information for machines to use to build narratives. And maybe that’s true. But there is – at least currently – a shortage of well-structured, clearly verified information that professional journalists are ideally placed to create – mostly because it’s a by-product of our day-to-day activities. Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | April 15, 2014

Pulitzer!

medalNewsdayJust a quick post to congratulate colleagues Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall for winning a Pulitzer for International Reporting, Reuters’ first in a text category, for their great coverage of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.  Great work that had a real impact and helped save lives. 

Awarded to Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshallof Reuters for their courageous reports on the violent persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that, in efforts to flee the country, often falls victim to predatory human-trafficking networks.

Also: Megan Twohey is a finalist in the Investigative category “for her exposure of an underground Internet marketplace where parents could bypass social welfare regulations and get rid of children they had adopted overseas but no longer wanted, the stories triggering governmental action to curb the practice.

And the amazing Goran Tomasevic is also a finalist for his series of photographs covering combal in Syria.

A really nice day to be in the Reuters newsroom.

Posted by: structureofnews | March 17, 2014

Perturbations

TowIf machines could write stories as well as humans, what would you have them do? Write faster, more cheaply, and on more topics than humans can, almost certainly.  But what else?

That wasn’t the core part of Thursday’s panel discussion on “computational storytelling” organized by Nick Diakopoulos of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, and moderated by yours truly, but it threw up a number of smart, interesting ideas that get us beyond doing what we’ve always done and into truly taking advantage of technology to help fulfil journalism’s mission.

Among the ideas: Different versions of the same story for different people; hypothetical stories to explore different theories, and “perturbation analysis” to understand how solid a story’s conclusions might be.

But first, some background on the panel, which featured three top-notch computer scientists:  Jichen Zhu of Drexel, Mark Riedl of Georgia Tech and Larry Birnbaum of Northwestern U and Narrative Science.  We spent nearly two hours exploring a wide range of questions about machine-generated narratives, from biases inherent in algorithms, data and interaction design to the importance of the provenance of data in a world where stories are created purely from data to our inherent (if unjustified) trust of narrative and anthropomorphic avatars.

You can watch it – telling insights, corny jokes and all – here.  It’s pretty interesting, even if I say so myself.

For example, we touched on the subject of how there’s some research to suggest that people respond better to avatars than to impersonal interfaces.  It may make sense, if that’s the case, to try and create more human-like user interactions for news sites.  But does it also mean that Amazon would sell more stuff if recommendations came to us in the form Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | March 13, 2014

Computational Storytelling

TowCenter-LogoConfiguratorSo I’m off to moderate a panel discussion on computational storytelling at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism tonight.

It should be interesting, not just because the automated production of stories from data is rapidly coming into the mainstream, but also because it throws up potentially huge questions about how news judgments can be embedded into algorithms, and how newsrooms might have to evolve to allow that to happen as part of their workflow.

And beyond that, what are the uses of such capabilities, beyond replacing or adding to what humans currently do – ie, write stories based on judgments of newsworthiness for a broad audience?  Narrative Science and others have shown the value in expanding coverage to events such as high school sports that in the past would never have merited a mention – in effect serving microaudiences at a reasonable cost. But having the capability (in theory, at least) to create, on the fly and cheaply, news stories that speak to audiences of as small as one, opens up a raft of other potential uses, including much more personalization and the creation of “news-on-demand.”  And that opens up questions about what’s newsworthy as well.

Nor should such discussions be limited to stories; after all, storytelling comes in many different forms, including data visualizations and news games.

All in all, it should be a a great discussion. The panelists are Larry Birnbaum, of Northwestern University and Narrative Science, Mark Riedl from Georgia Tech, and Jichen Zhu of Drexel University.

Posted by: structureofnews | March 10, 2014

Productize This

450px-RubenventSo it’s been a week now since returning home from the NICAR conference in Baltimore, and I still can’t get over the size of the event: 1,000 attendees, up 400 from last year’s meeting, which was already a record, and three times as many as IRE was struggling to get to show up not that many years ago.

Which is great news on so many levels, even if the crush of people there made it awfully hard to fight through to the bar to get a drink.  Not that I noticed the conference was any more sober than normal.  But I digress.

It’s great because the conference is one place pulling together the disparate strands of “classic” computer-assisted reporters, journalist-technologists, design and user interface experts and computer scientists – and we need to get together more if we’re to play a leading role in how the industry develops.  And it’s clear – at least based on a couple of observations in Baltimore – that we’ve got a long ways to go before we all understand each others’ language.

Back in the day when printing presses reigned supreme, newsrooms could focus on getting and writing the news; the hugely important intricacies of print runs, color quality, delivery routes and subscription fulfillment were someone else’s problem, and probably quite rightly so. But these days, the means of production is digital, the internet delivers your product, and not only can anyone start up a news site at will, the form and format of news itself is rapidly evolving. So if we don’t take a broader view of what it means to gather, analyze, produce and deliver news – well, someone else will.

But that takes a fairly big change of mindset, and we’re not there by a long shot. At the level of story or project, it’s still Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | March 1, 2014

What’s In A Name?

NameAs Bill Adair notes at Poynter today, four of us – Bill, Laura and Chris Amico and myself – locked ourselves in a windowless conference room at Reuters last week, sustained only by cold pizza, and spent a day discussing… well, what exactly?

It’s not that we didn’t know what we were talking about.  Let me rephrase that.  We knew we wanted to talk about projects like Politifact, Homicide Watch and Connected China, and how to evangelize the kind of journalism they do, but there was also a question about what exactly to call this kind of journalism.  To be sure, it wasn’t a big part of the conversation, but it was helpful to actually discuss the name.

Bill, of course, winds up calling it “structured journalism” in his piece – which works for me, not least because it means I don’t have to rename this site.  But there were other ideas, including “narrative data” from Laura, “frameworks for reporting” from Chris, and “new forms of storytelling” from Bill, all of which have lots to recommend them.

But before delving into that, it’s probably worth asking what we actually mean when we talk about this kind of journalism – which is in fact the way Laura started off our meeting.

I’m not sure we settled on a firm definition, but we did define a chunk of characteristics common to these kinds of projects: They atomize the information collected in the daily course of journalism Read More…

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