Posted by: structureofnews | August 12, 2010


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 the way they access information, or 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 | December 7, 2015

(Not) Getting It Wrong

It’s terrible when we make a mistake in a story.  True, that’s an ongoing occupational hazard in a business that’s often rushing to write the first draft of history, so it’s safe to conclude that we’ll never completely eliminate errors.  But how can we reduce them?

There’s an interesting piece in Nature about a very similar problem in science – essentially about how too many studies can’t be replicated, indicating there’s an accuracy issue in what should be rigorously reported and peer-reviewed work. What the piece concludes – and it has resonance for journalistic work as well – is that unconscious bias plays a big part in when we get things wrong.

In today’s environment, our talent for jumping to conclusions makes it all too easy to find false patterns in randomness, to ignore alternative explanations for a result or to accept ‘reasonable’ outcomes without question — that is, to ceaselessly lead ourselves astray without realizing it.

Which is probably as much of an issue in some journalism as well – especially when it comes to figuring out what’s a likely narrative or hypotheses for facts we’ve gathered or data we’ve crunched.  Nature has a word for it: Hypothesis myopia.

One trap that awaits during the early stages of research is what might be called hypothesis myopia: investigators fixate on collecting evidence to support just one hypothesis; neglect to look for evidence against it; and fail to consider other explanations.

In other words, only looking for evidence, quotes, data that supports one narrative, and not really asking the tough questions that might point to another explanation.  The Nature piece cites a case where a woman in the UK was convicted of murdering two of her infant sons because of statistical evidence that the chances of both of them dying of sudden infant death syndrome only 1 on 73 million – which is a pretty damning statistic, until you consider that the chances of a parent murdering two children is even lower.  (The conviction was later reversed).

The trick is to make sure there are skeptical voices at every stage of a story, rather than have everyone so invested in the outcome that they rush to publish.  That can be hard on deadline, obviously, but it’s a critical brake on major stories. Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | November 30, 2015

In Control

MatrixBluePillRedPill.jpgSo why is this structured journalism concept a good idea?

OK – softball question.  But David Caswell, who created Structured Stories, tackles this question with a fresh take in an interesting post on the Reynolds Journalism Institute site, where he’s currently a fellow.  In a word: Choice. In two words: Consumer choice.

Which is a great argument, especially since much of this blog has been focused on why structured journalism is good for publishers. (And I’ll throw another publisher-centric argument in, later in this post.)  But focusing on user needs, as almost any decent businessperson will tell you, is a good idea.

As David notes, the old – legacy – media model was simple, but is now outdated:

The publisher decides what is published, when and how it’s published, the language of publication, the device or print format, tone and point of view, style and imagery, the degree of detail that is published, and the background knowledge required of the reader.

The only decision traditionally left to news consumers has been whether or not to consume the article, a situation that is less tenable in a 21st century consumption environment that is essentially defined by choice.

What structured journalism offers consumers, he argues, is the opportunity to rethink what parts of news and information they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

Transferring control of content from publisher to consumer requires structure. Only if the parts and pieces of content are available for decision-making and manipulation can the presentation of that content be determined at the time of consumption rather than at the time of creation. These parts and pieces, these “atoms” or “particles” of news, can include the semantics of the content — entities, concepts and activities captured in computer-accessible form — and can enable novel news products over which the consumer has almost total control.

That’s not to say that news organizations will be relegated to fact-gathering machines that offer raw materials to users – although some people might argue, what’s wrong with that? – because newsrooms still make decisions about what to cover, how to gather information, and Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | November 24, 2015

A Sign From The Times

NYTWe must be making headway.

First the BBC News Labs published “A Manifesto for Structured Journalism,” which laid out in pretty clear terms how they think this is one key way journalism can move ahead.

And now the venerable New York Times has written a piece that – except for not using the term “structured journalism” – lays out their case for why they ought to jump on this bandwagon as well.  (OK, they wrote it a couple of weeks ago – I’ve been busy. Gimmie a break.)

And while we’re at it, there’s a nice shout out to structured journalism by Jairo Mejia of Agencia Efe at the European Journalism Observatory. (It’s also likely that they’ll be a session on structured journalism at the upcoming NICAR conference in Denver next year, mirroring the session at last year’s ONA. )

So we’re making real progress.  (And more so than the last time I wrote about this.) Structured journalism is getting to be much more of a meme at mainstream news organizations, and with luck, all that early thinking on display with Politifact, Homicide Watch and even WhoRunsHK (and later, of course, Connected China) will get embedded  in more and more newsrooms.

The Times piece – entitled “The Future of News Is Not An Article” – offers a nice and fresh argument about the insanity of how newsrooms currently treat the information we create:

Can you imagine if, every time something new happened in Syria, Wikipedia published a new Syria page, and in order to understand the bigger picture, you had to manually sift through hundreds of pages with overlapping information? The idea seems absurd in that context and yet, it is essentially what news publishers do every day.


And they also come to the conclusion that it isn’t just about better storage of what we’ve already done – although there’s a good argument for that – but more Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | November 23, 2015

A Step Closer Towards the Borg

pollingOK, so it’s been a while since I posted here.  My day job, unfortunately, sometimes gets in the way of the blog.

On the other hand, sometimes work really helps feed it, as when we at Reuters – shameless plug time again – relaunch the Polling Explorer, a (free!) site that lets you dig into the nearly 100 million responses we’ve been collecting from Americans since 2012. It’s a great poll, a great resource, and now even easier to explore.

How much easier?  I’m glad you asked.

Because this time around it features some very new technology that helps surface interesting statistical factoids (Donald Trump’s support is weak among Republicans making $100,000 or more a year) to help users dig into data – and take us one step closer to a cybernetic newsroom.

Which is not a bad thing, even if it conjures up images of the Borg. Honest.

Poynter had a nice piece on us, which explains the gist of the idea:

…this crush of data also means that many reporters are stepping up to a proverbial dinner buffet with a butter plate. With so much information and so little time to crunch it, data journalists have to make tough choices about the kinds of data sets they dive into and how long they can afford to spend analyzing them.

To help provide context for this sprawling repository, Reuters is using algorithms that sift through the data and surface potentially interesting interpretations.

Ken Ellis, the genius head of technology at Reuters, who with Mo Tamman created the Polling Explorer in the first place, Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | August 31, 2015

With Great Power…

Ashley“With great power comes great responsibility” – Uncle Ben, in Spiderman

So if you, like me, have been somewhat queasy about rush to dig up salacious materials on anyone quasi-famous in the wake of the Ashley Madison hack, well, good news: Gizmodo has pulled off a really nice piece of data analysis that both flags what a strong public interest angle in the stolen data is as well as shown how creative thinking about data journalism can yield smart stories.

It certainly didn’t look like it for a while.  True, there was a quick hit early on that exposed family values champion Josh Duggar as a paid-up member of the site, which purports to help people cheat on their spouses.  Chalk one up for the public interest.

But there weren’t a lot of other similar examples.  As Columbia Journalism Review noted in a good piece about the many issues surrounding diving into the data, which had been hacked and then posted online:

it’s clear that reporting on the private data of millions of ordinary Americans that has been stolen by unknown hackers raises serious ethical questions. Reporters are digging through people’s personal email addresses, home addresses, physical descriptions, and preferences, sexual or otherwise.

“We’re looking at these hacks like forces of nature. These are crimes, not tornados,” (Monica Guzman, vice-chair of ethics at the Society of Professional Journalists) says. “Somebody made that happen. We should know who they are.”

As the piece points out, it’s not clear how reliable the data is, there’s no evidence any one actually cheated on their spouse, and even if there was, it’s hard to see what the public interest in publishing that is.  Not to mention the broader questions about using stolen information.  (True, journalists use leaked or stolen information with some regularity, such as from whistle-blowers; but there are reasonable questions Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | August 18, 2015

Just Content?

matrixShould news organizations be content to be in the content business, and give up the fight to stay in the news distribution business?  And does it matter?

No. And yes. Very much.

These are questions that Ezra Klein tees up very nicely in a smart piece in Vox the other week, about how the media is increasingly becoming more like wire services, publishing via platforms others control, like Facebook. (To which my first reaction was: Hey! I resemble that remark!) He frames the issue well as the tension between reach or innovation, taking the discussion beyond the already not-unimportant business model questions about ceding your audience to others.

And I’d push it further: Innovation isn’t just one of those nice-to-have things; it’s core to what news is, and will be, in the future. And letting others define that, via platform standards, means losing a measure of control over what “news” is.

But first, let’s roll back to what Ezra wrote.

My biggest frustration with the new media — including, on some days, Vox — is how much we’re like the old media. Most outlets — even the digitally native ones — still publish pieces that could, with few exceptions, be printed out, stapled together, and dropped on someone’s doorstep. So long as that’s happening, it’s a pretty safe bet we’re not fully realizing the potential of this new technology.

Exactly. Wire services have to provide content that works on pretty much anyone’s platform; bespoke projects like the New York Times’ Snowfall simply can’t be syndicated to a zillion different publishers and platforms, each with their needs and standards.  Which is why Snowfall was produced by a newspaper, and not a wire agency; or why Reuters’ Connected China project wasn’t part of the file we sent subscribers. As Ezra notes:

There are lots of these little quirks hidden in the distribution system, and they quietly, but surely, enforce a status quo bias across the industry. That isn’t because Facebook, Google, or anyone else is trying to staunch innovation — it’s just because these services can’t possibly be built to support every new idea.

Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | August 3, 2015

The Stories We Tell

Once upon a time there was a startup called Circa.Circa 2

It was an innovative startup built on some very interesting ideas and run by some really smart journalists like David Cohn and Anthony De Rosa, and it got a lot of great press for much of its life.

And then it ran out of money, and closed.

Much ink (pixels?) has already been spilled on the untimely death of Circa a few months ago – for a sampling, look here, here, here, here and here – and this post really isn’t about the site’s closing as much as it is about a broader issue that some of us engaged in structured journalism are grappling with, and which has been blamed at least in part for Circa’s end.

Put starkly – as Jason Calacanis does at Medium:

Circa failed because it was so efficient, so obsessed with the truth, that it was boring.

Ouch. So was Circa boring?  And is much of structured journalism – at least the reconstituted, recombined content that’s one of its selling points – destined to be boring?  And will that doom the idea?

It’s certainly one of the topics that Bill Adair, Laura and Chris Amico, and David Smydra discussed when we last got together in a windowless room in Boston to trade ideas about structured journalism. As Bill noted in a guest post here:

A common theme in our discussions: the need for narrative and context in structured journalism.

Which is another way of saying that structured journalism is great at delivering information, but perhaps less so at being engaging, and enticing people into that information, the way a great piece of storytelling might.  And there’s a logic to that – although, the more I reflect on it, the more I think there’s also a false dichotomy to that argument.

But first let’s back up and recall what Circa was, and what it offered.  Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | July 31, 2015


NYTSo maybe this structured journalism idea is going mainstream after all.

The BBC recently announced a “manifesto for structured journalism,” which has to be the first time a major news organization has used that term; and there was a very interesting post in the NYT Labs site that spelled out in everything but name the gist of a manifesto for structured journalism.

Check out this bit from the NYT Labs post:

…when we look at an article we can see that it actually contains many smaller component parts, like a fact, a person, a recipe or an event. If we could begin to annotate and tag these components, it would enable us to do so much more with that information. New devices, especially those with smaller screens, could make use of smaller chunks of content. New products could be created by extracting components from their original article context and recombining them to create collections or new kinds of experiences. And rather than the archive being a file cabinet full of articles, it would become a corpus of structured news information that could be interrogated and reasoned across.

Doesn’t get much more structured journalism than that, including the notion of recombining elements of stories to create new stories or “new experiences.”  That’s one of the fundamental tenets of why we should structure the information in our notebooks rather than simply tag stories better. (Although that would be good too.) And the notion above that one of the main use cases for recombined stories is to make a more effective mobile experience is a great one.

And Columbia Journalism Review has also just come out with a good piece on structured journalism as well, completing a nice trifecta of shout-outs in a short period of time.

Both the BBC and the NYT are huge organizations, with access to the kinds of resources that most newsrooms would drool over, and with huge teams of journalists that in theory Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | June 3, 2015

Black Boxes in Philly

ire2015phillybannerlogoJust a short post to say I’ll be off to Philadelphia tomorrow for the annual IRE conference, where I’ll be moderating a panel – called Investigating Black Boxes – on digging into the algorithms that increasingly rule our lives.

The good news is that you don’t actually have to listen very much to anything I have to say; there are way smarter people on the panel, including Julia Angwin, Jeremy Singer-Vine and Nick Diakopoulos.  And, of course, we’re expecting and hoping for lots of participation from the audience.

It’s a really interesting topic that all of them have worked on before (here, here and here, among other things), and certainly I’ve been fascinated by, as I’ve noted here and here.  We’re not planning on the normal panel format of presentations, but more a roundtable discussion of topics we’ve identified, from the difficulty of reverse-engineering algorithms to the new legal and regulatory issues to why the subject even matters.  The goal is lots of discussion and interaction.

So please come by if you’re at the IRE conference.  The panel is on at 9:40 am on Saturday, iIn rooms Franklin 3 & 4, wherever that is.

I’m looking forward to it, and to the rest of the conference.  It’s always a great opportunity to catch up with friends. And drink. Not necessarily in that order.

Posted by: structureofnews | May 6, 2015

Location, Location, Location

NYTNieman Labs had an interesting piece yesterday about this NYT Upshot story on the best and worst places to grow up in America.

It’s not that the story itself was great – although it wasn’t bad, and in any case was technically a companion piece to this much more traditional NYT story – but that different Upshot readers got different versions of the piece, depending on where they were.

…what’s different is that the article itself is almost self-aware: It knows what county you’re in and alters the story text depending on your location.

So while it’s not quite the kind of extreme personalization that news online is theoretically capable of, it’s yet another important step in that direction. And not so much just because these kinds of stories can make data more compelling and useful to readers, but more because it edges us further down the road of rethinking what a news story is, and how we’re providing what our readers need.

As Nieman’s Justin Ellis notes, when a story is about location, it makes sense to get the reader’s location in the piece as high up as possible; and in this case that was only possible because there was a ton of data underpinning the story, some notion of where the reader was, and a simple mechanism for generating machine-written prose.

The Upshot team decided to use prose templates that could be rewritten by a bot based on the data specific to where you live and your neighboring counties.

The end result: A piece that’s much more more relevant, useful and engaging to users.

But why stop at location? Read More…

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