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.

(An update: I first wrote those words 11 years ago, and it’s amazing how some of those passionately argued debates – free vs. paid! – have basically gone away.  Which is great.  So I could and should rewrite this intro.  But the third paragraph remains just as valid. Plus, I’m pretty lazy. )

Posted by: structureofnews | July 10, 2022

A Talk Or Two

Shameless self-promotion alert: Here are links to two talks I gave recently (“recently” being stretched to mean “three months ago”).

I would summarize them, but that would take work, and it’s the weekend…

More seriously – but it is also the weekend – the first is a talk I gave at the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, Texas, back in April. The topic was News: What is it, who is it for, and how can we rethink it for the digital era? and it’s mostly about the need for imagination in journalism innovation, but the Q&A session afterwards, expertly moderated by Neil Chase of CalMatters, roams all over the place. I had fun, but your mileage may vary; there isn’t a transcript so you’ll have to wade through 45 minutes or so of bad jokes and poor analogies to capture the entire essence of my ramblings.

And a shout out to Rosental Alves, who created the conference two decades or so ago, and who had the bad judgement to invite me to speak.

The second is the lunchtime keynote I gave at this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Denver in June; I don’t think I had a title for it, and if I did, I’ve since forgotten. It was mostly about – well, a bunch of things, ranging from the need for us to focus as much on communities and audiences and their needs as on the stories we want to write; the importance of diversity in management ranks and greater sensitivity to our blind spots; and why framing stories and language are critical. There’s no shortage of bad jokes, too.

The link takes you to the text of the 15-minute talk, and at the bottom of the page is the actual video; my part comes on at about the 50-minute mark. The jokes are better in the video; the text is faster to read. Your call.

Hugely honored to have been asked to give both talks; sorrier for the people who had to sit through them. And gave me a chance to distill a lot of what I’ve been writing about here and thinking about more generally. Would love to hear thoughts and comments.

Posted by: structureofnews | July 5, 2022

Starting Up

So this is old news, but hey, it’s not like I’m the fastest writer in the world – despite having spent more than a decade at one of the fastest real-time news agencies in the world.

Although I’m not at one of the fastest real-time news agencies in the world any more; the news is that I left Reuters in April and joined Semafor, a new news startup founded by Ben Smith and Justin Smith, where I’ll be Executive Editor.

I love Reuters, but this was a too-good-to-turn-down opportunity to help build something from the ground up as opposed to work within a 175-year-old institution; to “make my own mistakes,” as I’ve said to any number of people. So far it’s been a wonderful adventure – a frenetic, kinetic, full-speed ride. And a ton of fun.

What is Semafor, you ask? Good question. Here’s what we say on our job ads:

Semafor is a global news platform for an increasingly complex world in which consumers are overwhelmed by too many news sources and unsure what to trust.  We are building Semafor from the ground up to enable world-class journalists to deliver reporting and insights with rigor in journalistic forms that ensure a new level of transparency. Our editors will distill the most important stories from all over in formats that uncover the forces shaping the stories, explain the interests behind polarizing narratives, and replenish the stock of shared facts. As a global platform, Semafor recognizes that smart people can disagree and that informed readers need to understand alternative points of view from competing centers of power and culture in a multi-polar world. 

There’s more to come, and we hope you’ll check us out when we launch later this year.

Posted by: structureofnews | November 29, 2021

Fixing Bias

How do you fix bias?

More specifically, how do you fix bias in the systems we interact with every day?  That’s the theme of The End of Bias, an interesting new book by Jessica Nordell. She doesn’t just document all the conscious and unconscious biases we all have, but sets out to look at what works and doesn’t work in trying to address those issues. Well worth reading.

Plus, what’s not to like about a book that starts out with the experiences of a transman as he crosses the gender divide?

I wrote about this book a little while back – even before I read it! – and the simulation described in it; it shows how, even without overt acts of discrimination, a small level of systemic bias will accumulate over time and significantly disadvantage one group or another. 

And that’s a key point:  That you don’t need bad actors, overt discrimination or blatant wrongdoing to suffer from bias; it’s the small things that add up over time.

And key point two: We’re all biased.  None of us can escape the blind spots we have; and we all have plenty.  “Trying harder” isn’t a solution, any more than telling a nearsighted person to “try harder” to read the words across the wall.

So if more effort, better intentions, training people to recognize bias, aren’t the solutions – or at least not the only solutions – then what is?  That’s what the book’s about.  Bear with me. This is a long-ish post.

And all this matters not just as we try to build newsrooms that are more inclusive and more representative of the communities we cover and serve, but also in how we think about, document and frame the issues that matter to them.

First, it’s important to understand what bias is.  Basically – and I’m sure I’m butchering some definition somewhere – it’s really just substituting our expectations about a group and their shared traits, whether justified or not, for actual detailed findings about an individual in that group.  And we all do it.  It would be hard to get through life without doing it.  In many cases, it’s simply our brain’s way of coming to conclusions more quickly, although of course it can also be the result of out-and-out prejudice.

Or, as the book puts it:

That expectation is assembled from the artifacts of culture: headlines and history books, myths and statistics, encounters real and imagined, and selective interpretations of reality that confirm prior beliefs

Biased individuals do not see a person.  They see a person-shaped daydream

The individual who acts with bias engages with an expectation instead of reality

Read More…
Posted by: structureofnews | November 3, 2021

Backwards Ran The Sentences

A very short post, sparked by a single paragraph.

It was in a NYT story about the debate over language on the left (BIPOC/Latinx/ Microagression/AAPI/LGBTQIA+ and more); the story overall was smart and interesting, but this paragraph was particularly insightful.

Saying something like, ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank,’ instead of saying, ‘Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,’ might feel like it’s just me wording it differently,” Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said. “But ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank’ makes people ask themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Black people? Let’s get them financial literacy programs.’ The other way is saying, ‘What’s wrong with the banks?’”

And Mr. Robinson is absolutely right: Words matter, and how we use them matter. Beyond news judgment – itself a whole area we can and should explore – and the framing of stories (ditto), even simple, declarative, uncontroversial factual statements can affect how readers look at a subject.

You might be thinking: Perhaps he’s overstating the importance of this. And it’s true that probably a single use of a phrase or a framing doesn’t have much impact. But cumulatively, small things do build and can change our perceptions of the world. We all have biases, based on how we see categories of things and how experience and culture of them filter into our brains. (This all from The End of Bias, a book I’m deep into now and plan to write about soon.) And words in stories are part of that experience and culture.

This won’t be easy to address. Undoing decades of writing habits is hard.

It would be easier if it wasn’t words. Certainly the graphics and data visualization community has always been sensitive to how information is designed – and writing is a form of information design – and that’s perhaps because that visual grammar is in many ways still evolving; and as a result, everything is up for discovery and debate. Writing, on the other hand, is a much older technology, and so much of it is embedded in us that we often don’t think as much as we should about how the words go on the page (or screen), and certainly not when we’re on deadline. I confess I haven’t thought about what I write the way Mr. Robinson has, and that’s my bad.

So how can we address this? I’m not sure, other than more scrutiny and awareness. But I’m sure that’s not enough.

Posted by: structureofnews | October 21, 2021

The Arithmetic of Bias

The NYT recently ran a great opinion piece, by Jessica Nordell and Yarnaa Serkez, about the long-term impact of bias on women in the workplace. The magic was in the math.

It wasn’t that the piece called out egregious examples of discrimination, or identified companies or people that were really bad actors (although there was some of that); it was that it called attention, via a simple simulation, about how even small levels of bias – whether conscious or unconscious – can accumulate over time and lead to very large effects. In other words, it wasn’t trying to pin issues on particular bad actors or motives, but flagging systemic issues we might be otherwise blind to.

And that’s something we should think about too, as we write about complex systems – to resist the temptation to just look for for bad guys but instead to help readers really understand how the world works, even if terrible outcomes are the result of small flaws or human frailty.

The piece features a simulation of a company, NormCorp, where employees are promoted based on their performance reviews. You know, more or less like a regular company.

NormCorp is a simple company. Employees do projects, either alone or in pairs. These succeed or fail, which affects a score we call “promotability.” Twice a year, employees go through performance reviews, and the top scorers at each level are promoted to the next level.

So if all things are fair, men and women progress at the same rate through the company. But what if there’s some in-built bias in the system that regularly rates women slightly lower then men? It doesn’t have to be intentional, or the result of bad motives, or even conscious. It just has to exist – and it doesn’t even have to be against women. It simply has to be systemic. Maybe managers have a (unconscious) preference for people that look or sound a certain way, or who have gone to a certain university, or come to work early, or socialize after hours. Whatever.

When we dig into the trajectory of individual people in our simulation, stories begin to emerge. With just 3 percent bias, one employee — let’s call her Jenelle — starts in an entry-level position, and makes it to the executive level, but it takes her 17 performance review cycles (eight and a half years) to get there, and she needs 208 successful projects to make it. “William” starts at the same level but he gets to executive level much faster — after only eight performance reviews and half Jenelle’s successes at the time she becomes an executive.

Read More…
Posted by: structureofnews | October 18, 2021


Shameless self-promotion post:

Incredibly moved and honored to have been named the inaugural recipient of the Online News Association‘s Impact Award, for a “trailblazing individual whose work in digital journalism and dedication to innovation exhibits a substantial impact on the industry. “

I’m not sure I would have chosen myself to get this award, so I’m very glad the ONA board was making that decision and not me. It was nice to see shoutouts in the citation to things I’m really proud to have been involved with, from Connected China to WhoRunsHK to CitizenMap, as well as Reuters’ award-winning graphics and data teams. I’m even happier to have it also call out this blog and the Tiny News Collective, a really smart and innovative project that sprung from the fertile mind of Aron Pilhofer, that I’m currently privileged to be a part out (and I’ll have to write it about soon.)

And especially happy to have a chance to talk, in short remarks when accepting the award, about how we need to not only work to make sure our newsrooms reflect the communities they serve, but also to ensure that our coverage more accurately reflects the world we live in.

This is an excerpt.

So that was a very nice evening. And now back to the salt mines.

Posted by: structureofnews | September 20, 2021

News Worthy

Pauli Murray. Charcoal on paper, Gina Chua 2020

It’s been a while since I posted, I know. Events got in the way, notably trying to get people out of Afghanistan. But here I am again.

I’m in the middle of reading the autobiography of a remarkable person, Pauli Murray – a pivotal figure in legal and civil rights circles of the 20th century, and yet someone most people haven’t heard about. Why is that? What gets in the way of our ability to see stories that matter, and what stories are we now missing – what events aren’t considered “newsworthy” – because of the blind spots we have?

But first, a plug: I came to know about Pauli Murray via a great documentary about their life, My Name Is Pauli Murray, by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who also directed RBG. It’s well-worth watching. Pauli was a feminist, civil rights pioneer, legal scholar and the architect of the winning arguments behind some critical U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopal minister. Also, queer, non-binary and possibly transgender. How did someone pack so much into a life that began as a young Black orphan in North Carolina? Watch the documentary, read the book; Pauli is well-worth getting to know.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s a long one, so apologies in advance.

Early in the documentary, you learn that Pauli was arrested and jailed in 1940 for refusing to move back to the rear of a bus, as was required in then-segregated Virginia. That was 15 years before Rosa Park’s similar, but much more celebrated, act of civil disobedience. During a panel discussion with the filmmakers at Reuters, the question was asked: Why wasn’t there more coverage at the time of Pauli’s action?

The answer: There was. Just not in the mainstream press. Black newspapers covered it, as they did issues like lynchings and everyday discrimination. But this was rarely deemed “newsworthy” by the mainstream – white – press.

And that raises bigger questions about what we deem to be worthy of coverage, what constitutes “news”, whose voices we hear, and who gets to make those decisions.

This aren’t new questions, but they are important ones, not least in the wake of the racial justice protests around the world in the summer of 2020; and while it’s heartening to see that those events have raised newsrooms’ sensitivities to those kinds of stories, it also raises the question about what other stories we might be missing, what other as-yet-undiscovered blind spots we might have.

Sometimes we miss stories because we don’t have connections into communities where things are happening; that’s a problem of a lack of diversity in newsrooms (and not just of gender and ethnicity, but also of class and background). Sometimes editors dismiss ideas because they don’t jive with their view of what’s important; that’s a problem of mistaking one’s viewpoint for being the most valid viewpoint. And Gary Younge, a journalist and academic, notes in an incredibly insightful piece that sometimes we don’t pursue important stories because they are – regrettably – just not out of the ordinary.

Read More…
Posted by: structureofnews | July 12, 2021

Of Human Frailty, Part Deux

Just riffing off my recent riffing off on Noise, the new book by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein: OK, so people are flawed, illogical and inconsistent, and that leads to injustice – even when the people making the decisions aren’t biased.

(Of course it’s worse when they are.)

And we as journalists should expose injustice in systems whenever we find it – no matter whether the cause is.

But more importantly, we also can and should delve into how those systems could be better. As well as think about how these ideas could apply to our own decision making and our own organizations – such as when we hire or promote, since that’s a place of intersection with systems, journalism and diversity.

So how does one reduce “noise” and inconsistency in decision making?

The book lists a series of practices that help, mostly involving slowing us down from our very human habits of jumping to conclusions, relying on intuition, or building a narrative to support a decision we’re predisposed to make, regardless of the facts. And – more controversially – turning more to algorithms to help us drive more consistency.

These aren’t hard things to do – they’re just a pain, and they take away some of what we think of as our essential humanity: Our ability to make exceptions, look beyond the facts, go with our gut. And sometimes those are good instincts – and many times they’re not.

Among the suggestions: Break judgments up into individual tasks, so we’re less inclined to make holistic decisions, overriding inconvenient facts. Get multiple, independent opinions, and aggregate them into a wisdom-of-crowds judgment. Think statistically, not in terms of narrative or neat causal stories. Resist premature intuitions. Try to make judgments on just the issues that are relevant.

Take hiring: We often based those decisions on interviews and discussions with a hiring panel – possibly one of the worst ways we can find the best candidate. Instead, where there are specific skills we’re looking for that can be quasi-objectively judged, let’s make applicants take tests that measure those skills. And anonymize the entries, so we’re not swayed but who someone is, or how the look, or what school they went to.

If you’re trying to hire a copy editor, have candidates take a copy-editing test. And scrub their names from the submissions. Have the hiring panel grade the results – independently. Then compare notes. If you’re looking for a reporter, get anonymized reporting memos from the applicants.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t also interview the candidates. But the test may throw up results you weren’t expecting.

Look at the experience of US orchestras, which I wrote about some time ago:

Consider that in 1970 women comprised less than less than 10% of major orchestras in the US and fewer than 20% of new hires.  As Mahzarin (Banaji) recounts in her book, back then auditions for new members were conducted in front of a team of seasoned musicians, often from that orchestra.  You’d expect that they had well-trained ears, able to select the best candidates.  And they largely picked men.

But then an interesting thing happened when they started auditioning candidates behind a curtain, and taking pains not to let the panel know if it was a man or a woman was playing.  More women won spots.

Read More…
Posted by: structureofnews | July 6, 2021

The Fault In Ourselves

Whose fault is it when something bad happens? Who do we hold to account when we find injustice?

It’s a natural – and good – impulse journalists have, to look for wrongdoers when we see wrongdoing, to identify bad actors and uncover bad motives. And long may that continue.

But what happens when injustice isn’t anyone’s fault; if it’s – essentially – everyone’s fault?

That’s at least one of the takeaways from Daniel Kahneman’s interesting new book, Noise, written with Olivier Sibony and Cass Sustein. It’s about how, beyond bias, discrimination and prejudice, simple randomness – caused by human frailty (“A flaw in human judgment”) – can also lead to injustice and inequality. And it offers a lesson for journalists: We should look for and expose systems that are failing, regardless of whether there’s systemic bias in them.

The book offers example after example of how what should be consistent judgements made on the merits of an argument often aren’t, even when the people making those calls are trying hard to be impartial and fair.

A study of thousands of juvenile court decisions found that when the local football teams loses a game on the weekend, the judges make harsher decisions on Monday (and, to a lesser extent, for the rest of the week.) Black defendants disproportionately bear the brunt of the increased harshness. A different study looked at 1.5 million judicial decisions over three decades and similarly found that judges are more severe on days that follow the local city’s football team than they are on days that follow a win.

Or this:

A review of 207,000 immigration court decisions over four years found a significant effect of daily temperature variations; when it is hot outside, people are less likely to get asylum.

The fundamental thesis of the book – which, admittedly, can be a little hard to get through – is that we don’t spend enough time looking at “noise” in our systems: the factors that produce wide variations in what should be much more standardized decisions. That’s not to say that bias and systemic bias isn’t an issue, and certainly journalists expend a huge amount of effort to find cases of discrimination, both blatant and subtle. But we don’t focus as much on the noise that can cause as much injustice in outcomes. If immigration cases aren’t judged purely on the merits, if the results are somewhat random, that’s just as bad an outcome as if cases are regularly stacked against a type of applicant or group.

Read More…
Posted by: structureofnews | June 21, 2021

Designing Information

Just the facts, ma’am – Sgt. Joe Friday, Dragnet

Not really. All stories need framing and narrative for the facts to speak, for audiences to engage, and for insight to emerge. We call that editing. But in an age of visual, interactive and multimedia journalism, maybe we should call it designing.

There’s a nice piece in the New Yorker (largely a review of a book, A History of Data Visualization & Graphic Communication) that makes a point that I love to make: That how information is presented – designed, for want of a better word – isn’t just an add-on to other forms of journalism that can make a story better; it’s as much an independent form of narrative that, properly used, can bring completely different insights to users.

It can even literally make the difference between life and death.

The piece starts with the now-famous chart of the space shuttle’s O-ring failures in frigid temperatures, and how poor presentation of that data may have misled engineers to believe the components were robust enough to hold up in cold conditions, and hence green-light the tragic launch. They had all the data; they just didn’t see it clearly. And that’s because it wasn’t presented correctly. As the story notes:

A decade later, Edward Tufte, the great maven of data visualization, used the Challenger teleconference as a potent example of the wrong way to display quantitative evidence. The right graph, he pointed out, would have shown the truth at a glance.

The flip side of that, as I wrote some time ago, was how information presented correctly can bring instant insight:

Probably the best-known example of the value of mapping is John Snow’s famous map (above) tracking cholera outbreaks in London, showing that an outbreak in the mid-1800s could be traced to a contaminated pump.   Without the map, you’re faced with a long list of addresses where outbreaks occurred; with the map, you can immediately see where there’s a real concentration of cases and hence where to investigate.

To be sure, those are examples of single information graphics rather than the all-bells-and-whistles multimedia interactive extravaganzas that we’ve come to expect from any major journalism project. But the core point remains the same: It isn’t simply how words are edited, pictures cropped, or charts plotted; it’s also how they are integrated, how the narrative flows, and how the audience experiences them that brings the understanding, engagement and insight to the fore. It’s how the information is designed.

Read More…

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