Structured Journalism

So what is this Structured Journalism thing anyway?

It’s not database-driven journalism, although there are elements of that.  It’s not Wiki-driven journalism, although there could be elements of that, too.   And it’s not writing to a template, although there will be some of that.

One way to look at it is to consider two ideas – really the fundamental underpinnings of it:

One, 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.  The popularity of Wikipedia as a news site, and the development of “topics pages” on some mainstream media sites, is evidence of this.

Two, there is a great deal of valuable information embedded in stories – and in reporter’s notebooks – that isn’t being properly captured and turned into potential new stories/products, at potentially low relative cost.   In theory, too, there is embedded value to be captured in user-generated content on sites with active communities, although that may be a more difficult logistical task.

So the gist of Structured Journalism is to change the way we create content so as to maximize its shelf-life, as well as structuring – as much as possible – the information in stories, at the time of creation, for use in databases that can form the basis of new stories or information products.

Whoa!  Way too business-consultant-speak.  But that’s the gist.  There’s more about this in the postings below, but to add some flesh onto these bones:

One example:  Stories in archives are invariably stored in the form and format they were written in.  So a story written six months ago will probably have a reference in it to an event that happened “at the last council meeting.”  That reference makes sense when read at the time, but is nearly meaningless when read six months later.  So one simple workflow change would be to ensure that archive copies of stories be edited subtly to make such references more understandable – from “at the last council meeting” to “at a meeting held in late June, 2009,” say.  It’s simple, but I don’t know of any media organization that does this.

Another example: Newspapers write about people all the time, but they don’t take the time to capture, in a structured database, information about them and their relationships.  That could fuel different news products which show how people are connected – information that’s interesting, important and valuable.  There are technology companies trying to do this, but by and large they’re focusing on unraveling stories after they’re written.  But there’s lots of disadvantages to this approach, which I discuss in some of the postings.  (An update: The product might look something like the Connected China project we launched at Reuters.)

And some news organizations are building deeper and better topics pages, which are a step in the right direction.  But they don’t really get to the heart of the issue, which is the daily newsroom process and rebuilding that for a new age.  Similarly, Living Stories from Google is a great step forward as well – but that, too, depends on what’s already been written.

Structured Journalism is as much about rethinking how we write things and how to extract more value – and provide more value – from what we do daily.   And in the process, hopefully build a business model that helps sustain journalism as well.

(And credit where credit is due: Kudos to Matt Waite, the designer of Politifact, who really sparked my thinking on this.)

Some of the more pertinent postings:

Other ways of explaining Structured Journalism – here and here.  And here.  An attempt to visualize the ideas here.

Why we need to rethink the notion of stories as the standard unit of what we produce.

The case for why we need to structure information, not just tag it.

How we can get value out of things we did yesterday and the day before that.

And why technology isn’t the solution.  At least, not the only solution.

Responses

  1. Great post, Reg. It’s worth reading several times and think for a long time. Will find a way to carry out the ideas in daily work. Tnx.

    • 我这个礼拜突然觉得看这个博客没有刚刚开始的时候那么费劲了,然后回来看这篇最基本的介绍觉得开始make sense了……我觉得你可以多从一个记者的角度来探讨newsroom re-structuring的问题。我在做的项目和相关的记者沟通的感觉也是觉得一个新的idea在推动的过程中最终还是要记者(也就是data的产出者)认可并参与进来,才是最重要的一环呢。

  2. Awesome post Reg. Wondering if you’ve checked out Circa and how we are structuring data? Would love any feedback

    • Dave, I love Circa and the ideas behind it, and jealous you took Ant De Rosa away from us… Would love to dig in under the hood of Circa more and see where you’re going with this. Reg

      • Ant was indeed a great coup for us ;) Happy to chat through it more with you anytime.

      • What coast are you on these days? Let’s catch up next week.

      • I remain on the west coast. Ant is still on the East Coast though.

  3. As you say, Reg: “So the gist of Structured Journalism is to change the way we create content so as to maximize its shelf-life, as well as structuring – as much as possible – the information in stories, at the time of creation, for use in databases that can form the basis of new stories or information products.”

    You didn’t say it, but it can also be done as you know: structure the material that doesn’t make it into the story, too (Der Spiegel is calling what’s published “the tip of the iceberg”). This is where the DBs will get very, very rich. We’re telling people we work with at Story-Based Inquiry that it’s another good reason to create master files of their research. Best regards Mark


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