Posted by: structureofnews | August 10, 2010

What’s It All About?

Why structured journalism?

Good question – thanks for asking that.

If we take the high-end view (and of course there are exceptions, but bear with this), news is an increasing commodified product which is unlikely to be supported by ad revenue. It’s labor-intensive to create and isn’t hugely scalable, all of which doesn’t bode well for the future. There’s competition from a variety of other sources, not least individuals. And barriers to entry are low, so many competitive advantages can be quickly competed away.

So what’s a newsroom to do? It seems to me that if part of the goal of the exercise is to keep newsrooms and journalism viable (or sustainable), it’s important to find ways to extend the shelf life of what journalists do. In other words, we need to create more persistent content – not the video that is good only for today, but one that will be watched for months to come. Can good stories be read weeks and years after they’ve been written? Yes, of course they can. Do we make it easy for readers to comprehend them if they’re read next year? Not at all. We can and must do a better job of that. That’s one part of structured journalism – structuring stories and information so they can be of higher value over time.

Another goal has to be scalability. Of course the great investigative profile of the corrupt mayor may well be read again and again – but for most newsrooms that’s a story that comes once a year, not once a day. What happens to all the routine things that need to reported – and for society’s sake, should be reported – but have no real persistent value? That’s where we need to find ways of extracting more common elements from the stories so that when we aggregate information from a number of humdrum stories, we can build more value – and more persistent value. That’s tracking each car crash at a corner so that every story is adding to a bigger and better picture of what’s happening. But we don’t do that well in newspapers, or in archive.

Look at Politifact, which is the best (and only) example of how to structure stories so that the parts make up much more than the whole. Each individual fact-checked statement is of greater or lesser importance and interest. But each one that’s done contributes to the greater value of the entire database, and allows readers access to completely new information – who lied the most, who told the truth the most – that was never created by any individual journalist. If we structure stories/daily work right, we get to build something where the sum is greater than the parts, and give an incentive to keep the daily reporting going.

And finally, it’s making sure we leave no value on the table. When reporters report stories – even the most boring and routine story – they gather an immense amount of information. Diligent reporters keep notebooks and mine that information for later stories. But newsrooms don’t get to see it, or use it. It’s just thrown away, institutionally, because it doesn’t fit into a format created during Gutenberg’s day. We should find ways to tap into that knowledge, build databases with it, and create new ways of giving readers information. That’s the idea behind People Maps – a task that would be nearly impossible to do with hundreds of researchers, but theoretically can be built with the knowledge that’s already in a newsroom’s head.

So that’s what structured journalism is at heart:

Increasing persistent value;
Finding more value in the aggregate of daily news;
Extracting the value that’s already in reporters’ heads.

Or, in more business-oriented terms:
Increasing the shelf life of the product;
Making it scalable;
Leaving no money on the table.

But at heart it’s about keeping newsrooms and in-depth journalism alive. And it’s a way of thinking – about how people access news and catering to them.

Finally, a musing about structuring journalism – it’s about discipline as well. Choosing what to structure and how to do it means choosing not to structure other things. If Politifact captures who said what but not the time of the day they said it, we can’t find out whether people lie more in the mornings than in the afternoon. Whether that’s a good decision or not, we can’t have some reporters collecting the information and some not. That speaks to having an organized newsroom – not so much a collection of volunteers.

But perhaps that’s too bold a statement.  I’ll have to look at it again.

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