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 | 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 by 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…

Posted by: structureofnews | April 22, 2015

News On Demand

taxiWhat is it about Uber? Oh, sure, it provides efficient, frictionless, safe personal transport on demand.  But weren’t you just as happy standing in the rain trying to hail the limited number of cabs on the street?


So then, as Ken Doctor notes in a smart (as usual) post, it shouldn’t surprise you that legacy news organizations are getting their lunch eaten by digital startups. He points out it’s Uber’s relentless focus on customer needs and reducing “friction” (eg, standing in the rain) that distinguishes them from long-protected taxi companies – not unlike what’s happening to old media.

And that’s a good object lesson in how we might want to rethink how we try to serve our communities, even in the way we create and present news.

Back to the Uber analogy for a moment.  So far it hasn’t largely been in the core “news” area that news organizations have been disrupted. Actually, in a way, it’s been worse, because it’s the profitable parts of the business that have been lost. Ken notes:

…it’s in “information” that we can see the profound inroads into former newspaper territory by Uber-like competitors. For 20 years, Angie’s List has been providing service about services. For 10 years, Yelp has helped us find chiropractors, mechanics, decorators, and hot spots. For 17 years, OpenTable has taken the wait times out of making restaurant reservations. For 15 years, StubHub has steadily perfected itself, though it still works on reducing friction. Check the first screen of your smartphone and see all the life-easing local services that crowd out news apps

After all, newspapers weren’t only ever about providing “news” – important as it is. We also provided information and help readers navigate the world.  Or at least, we used to.

Somehow, in this ungainly digital transition, newspaper companies mostly bungled away their advantages, opening themselves up to nibbling competition, first for audience and then for the revenue that inevitably follows it.

Which is a good – if late – reminder that it’s vitally important to focus on what your readers/customers want and need, rather than just on what you want to do, important though it might be.

So what’s a legacy news organization to do?  Does it make sense, at this point, to go up against the Angie’s Lists and Open Tables of this world? (Hint: No.) What real competitive advantage do news organizations still have, if we’ve Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | March 9, 2015

When Worlds Collide

WorldsOK, so the collision I’m talking about isn’t quite as apocalyptic as planets running into each other (although if you were in Boston just a few weeks ago, you would have had a glimpse of what the end of the world does look like). But close.

What happens when perfectly reasonable offline rules are applied to an online world?

The New York Times had a good piece the other day looking precisely at one such collision: The increasing leakage of documents in certain types of suits, often involving gender discrimination, into the digital world, and how allegations contained in them could go viral well before any court hearings, and long before any rebuttals could be filed.  And all protected from libel actions because they’re court filings.

Not that this wasn’t at least theoretically possible before, but as the NYT piece notes:

Lawsuit papers are generally public, but before the advent of electronic filing, most of them remained stuffed inside folders and filing cabinets at courthouses.

It’s that the ease of digital access – in theory, and often in practice, a good thing – sometimes leads to very unexpected results when applied to rules designed for an offline world.  Should government salaries be made available in searchable databases, for example?

There’s an argument to be made that the public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent, down to the last employee; there’s another argument to be made Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | February 24, 2015

A Report From Boston (from Bill Adair)

snowAs I mentioned last week, I took leave of my senses and headed to Boston on Thursday to catch up with Bill Adair, Laura and Chris Amico, and David Smydra and discuss what we wanted to achieve in structured journalism this year.

Here’s Bill’s note to the Google Group that Chris set up last year (and please sign up for the group, if you haven’t already):

Fans of structured journalism!

Here’s a report from a planning session we had last week:

We held Friday’s meeting in a windowless conference room because that’s where we go when we discuss structured journalism. This year, our meeting was at Google’s office in Cambridge, Mass., and our host David Smydra upheld the tradition.

It’s not that we fear sunlight. It’s just a quirk of scheduling. You may recall that last year’s meeting, our first, was in a windowless room at Reuters where we munched on cold pizza. This year, we got to enjoy Google’s amazing lunch buffet.

Around the table: David, Reg Chua of Reuters, Laura and Chris Amico, the creators of Homicide Watch, and me.

The goal for our second annual structured journalism strategy session was to assess how we did in our first year and set goals for the next 12 months.

We discussed our successes. We held well-attended panels at the International Journalism Festival in Italy and the Online News Association meeting in Chicago and we started this mailing list. We also wrote blog posts and articles, although we each felt we could have done more.

We discussed our new structured projects: Laura did a demo of a cool one she’s leading at the Boston Globe, which should be published in the next couple of weeks; Chris did a demo of two structured sites he’s built for Frontline, Ballot Watch, which follows the changes in state voting laws, and Ebola Outbreak: How the Virus Spread.

I showed two mock-ups Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | February 23, 2015

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

080312-total-recallIn the Philip K. Dick short story on which the two (not terribly good) Total Recall movies were based, people can pay to get false memories implanted in them, in lieu of real experiences. We don’t have that technology (yet), but it’s true that we’re increasingly outsourcing the task of remembering our lives to machines.

Is that a good thing? And should journalists care? I vote for yes.

But that’s not necessarily a conclusion of an interesting New York Times piece on Sunday that explores the process of memory as we take thousands upon thousands of photos and videos of our daily experiences.

Are shutterbug parents wiping away their mental databases of experiences with their offspring while bulking up their digital ones? And when children grow up reviewing thousands of pictures and hours of video of their young lives, will these images supersede their memories?

It’s almost certainly true that technology is changing what and how we remember – and we’re certainly losing something of ourselves in that process.  On the other hand, we’re gaining volume and accuracy, and that’s not a small thing.  As the Times piece notes, quoting Linda Henkel, a professor of psychology at Fairfield University:

“It’s like the family stories we tell. There’s the original experience, and then the story everyone tells every Thanksgiving. The story becomes exaggerated, a schema of the original event. The physical photo doesn’t change over time, but the photo becomes the memory.”

Human memory is notoriously fallible – as Brian Williams has discovered, to his cost – because we’re designed to remember meaning, not details. And as our relationship Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | February 18, 2015


Woman shovels snow on Joy Street during a winter blizzard in BostonCall it temporary insanity.

There’s no other way to explain why I’m off to snowy Boston this Thursday, to catch up with Laura and Chris Amico, Bill Adair and David Smydra to talk about structured journalism and what we hope to accomplish this year.

Why we couldn’t do this in somewhere warmer and less snow-bound – like Alaska, say – I don’t know. The first time we did this, we were in a windowless room at Reuters in New York, chomping on cold pizza. But at least it was balmy out.

Nonetheless, this is a good thing.  As I’ve mentioned here, structured journalism had a good 2014, thanks in large part to the energy and drive of Bill, Laura and Chris coming out of that first meeting.  We got a discussion going among the journalistic community, and structured journalism has become enough of a shorthand term that we can get past the what-is-this-thing-anyway part of the conversation and more into the meat of how we might try to see if it can help us.

So what do we want to accomplish in 2015? I’ll be eager to hear what Laura, Chris, Bill and David have to say, of course, and there are a couple of threads I hope we might also pick up, from encouraging more experiments, whether in start-ups or embedded in more traditional newsrooms, to exploring the prospects for monetization, to sharing the often-painful lessons learned in the process of launching projects, to thinking more about CMSes. And just more discussion overall on the pluses and minuses of this approach to news and where new experiments might be appropriate.

Should be fun. But cold.

Posted by: structureofnews | February 17, 2015

Machines Behaving Badly (People Too)

matrixShould machines try to stamp out discrimination – or should they just work efficiently? And what should journalists do about tracking the answer?

The question comes up as we increasingly turn to algorithms and digital platforms to manage many of the things we used to do offline. Offline, there are any number of laws and practices that regulate behavior. Online – well, that’s a whole new landscape. And one we ought to cover a lot more.

There was an interesting NYT piece from a little while back about start ups that are trying to use data analysis to make lending decisions – not so much looking into people’s credit history, but more throwing together thousands on seemingly unrelated pieces of information to predict borrowing (and repayment) behavior.

No single signal is definitive, but each is a piece in a mosaic, a predictive picture, compiled by collecting an array of information from diverse sources, including household buying habits, bill-paying records and social network connections. It amounts to a digital-age spin on the most basic principle of banking: Know your customer.

Does it make sense that people who capitalize properly are better credit risks than people who don’t? Well, the people who make the software not only don’t care, they’d rather they didn’t even try to understand it.

“It is important to maintain the discipline of not trying to explain too much,” said Max Levchin, chief executive of Affirm (one of the companies profiled). Adding human assumptions, he noted, could introduce bias into the data analysis.

True, it may be great that machine-learning systems that crunch lots of data can find correlations that allow more people more access to credit than under the traditional banking system. But what if it turns out that it’s denying credit to certain groups – not intentionally, but simply because that’s the way the data correlates?

The danger is that with so much data and so much complexity, an automated system is in control. The software could end up discriminating against certain racial or ethnic groups without being programmed to do so.

But if you wanted to program in less discrimination, how would you do it – and how much less would you want, if it wound up being less effective at channeling money to people who need it and aren’t being served by the existing banking system?

Or what if it isn’t the machine, but just a lot of people who, each acting on their own, wind up exhibiting discriminatory behavior en masse?

Consider this much-cited paper by Harvard Business School professors Benjamin Edelman and Michael Luca, who showed that non-Black hosts in New York City manage to charge, on average, 12 percent more than Black hosts on Airbnb, after correcting for location, ratings, quality and so on. In that case it wasn’t so much an algorithm determining prices Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | January 13, 2015

Of Machines and Morality

9lqDAokHow moral should a machine be? How moral can a machine be?

Maybe that conjours up science-fiction images of Hal 9000, Cylons, Skynet and even lovable Robby the Robot.

But what it should really do is make us question the assumptions, values and directions embedded in the multiple algorithms that run our lives – not to mention how, increasingly, we won’t really know what assumptions, values and directions are in them.

Consider this scenario, which NYU cognitive science professor Gary Marcus posited in a 2012 New Yorker article:

Your car is speeding along a bridge at fifty miles per hour when errant school bus carrying forty innocent children crosses its path. Should your car swerve, possibly risking the life of its owner (you), in order to save the children, or keep going, putting all forty kids at risk?

Now, I’m sure we all have different answers to this question, perhaps related to how bratty the 40 kids are. But what if it’s the algorithm that powers a self-driving car that has to make that split-second decision?  What are the factors that should be programmed into that piece of software?

Welcome to the world of machine ethics. Or, as Prof. Marcus notes:

As machines become faster, more intelligent, and more powerful, the need to endow them with a sense of morality becomes more and more urgent.

Or at least the need to debate and discuss the questions about how issues of morality might be incorporated into machines.  Those issues cropped up again in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, which raised similar questions about machine-delivered medical care and semi-autonomous weapons systems. If machines can quasi-independently choose which targets to attack – as they already can – how should they be programmed to make that selection?

Computer scientists are teaming up with philosophers, psychologists, linguists, lawyers, theologians and human rights experts to identify the set of decision points that robots would need to work through in order to emulate our own thinking about right and wrong.

The NYT article even discusses the concept of programming “guilt” into robots, to help it learn to adapt Read More…

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