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 seven 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 second paragraph remains just as valid. Plus, I’m pretty lazy. )

Posted by: structureofnews | October 3, 2017

Structured Witness

Seven Days.png

Of all the functions that journalism performs – explaining, investigating, watchdogging, etc – simply bearing witness to breaking news events would seem to be low on the totem pole in an age of crowdsourcing, easy self-publishing, and platforms that encourage ordinary people to post what they see.

And it’s certainly true that news organizations can’t be everywhere where news breaks – and even more so now that many newsrooms are that much smaller – and that many are increasingly dependent on user-generated content from on-the-ground witnesses.  (Shameless plug: At Reuters, it’s tools like News Tracer that helps us find those events and those witnesses.)

But just because everyone can do it doesn’t mean news organizations can’t add value to the process, and two recent examples show how.  Let’s call them – or at least I will – structured witnessing.

Exhibit A in this genre is this great Cincinnati Enquirer project covering a week in the lives of heroin addicts.

It’s really nice work – and while it isn’t intended to be particularly explanatory or investigative, it offers a nuanced view into a deeply troubled world.  It doesn’t attempt to sum up the issue, assign fault, or ponder solutions.  But at the same time, by setting a team on it, focused on a defined time period, and designing it beautifully, it allowed readers to get a better understanding of the scale and human cost of the problem Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | September 29, 2017

Structured Enough

Trump Effect.JPGShameless self-promotion time: We (Reuters) just launched The Trump Effect, a section of dedicated to tracking the real-world impact of the President’s policies and pronouncements.

It’s our way of trying to get past the daily noise and politics surrounding the new administration – important though some of that is – and focus instead on what’s actually happening on the ground.

It features a great interactive graphic that explains immigration issues (with more to come). There’s a timeline that tracks various policies and their impacts, and a rich trove of polling data for users to dig into. And stories, of course. (Hats off to a huge crew of smart people who built this, including Christine ChanMatt WeberLeela de KretserMaryanne MurrayChris Kahn and many more.)

All in all, a really nice package, even if I say so myself.  And just as important – a nice piece of quasi-structured journalism, even.

When we’re in as noisy and busy (and polarized) a news environment as we are in the U.S. these days, it can be really important – but hard – to find ways to step back and offer up a broader sense of the landscape, untethered to that day’s tweetstorm or crisis.

(Which is not to say that the daily coverage isn’t important or hasn’t been great – in many cases it’s been outstanding.  But it can be hard to keep track of all that’s going on, or understand how it relates Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | September 5, 2017

New Ways of Storytelling


Not all new ways of telling stories need to be digital, interactive or involve technology.

Take a look at how the PCIJ Storytelling Project turned the story of Kian Delos Santos, a 17-year-old killed in the Philippines’ brutal war on drugs, into a book designed in the form of a children’s book, complete with evocative illustrations. It’s posted as an album on Facebook.

As Sheila Coronel (full disclosure – my partner) notes in a post on Medium:

Children’s books rarely deal with current events or with topics as dark as the killing of minors in the war on drugs. This project presented an opportunity to tell (or retell) Kian’s story in a new way, to audiences that may have been overwhelmed by—or inured to—the news. It is also an effort to reach out to younger readers.

This story and the accompanying artwork attempt to bring Kian to life as a 17-year-old, with hopes and dreams like so many others.

There’s been a constant drumbeat of coverage of the thousands of killings in the drug war – including, I’d add, some excellent work by Reuters, here, here and here – but that also means it can be hard for readers to maintain focus or interest in such a long-running saga.

Shifting the way the story is told – changing readers’ frame of reference – can sometimes spark a new interest in a running story.  What it takes is imagination – far more than any great technology, datasets or programming skills.

Posted by: structureofnews | August 24, 2017

The Story of PolitiFact

PolitiFactJust a quick post to point out this nice piece in Columbia Journalism Review by Bill Adair about the birth of PolitiFact, my oft-mentioned poster child (along with Homicide Watch and Connected China) for structured journalism.

Bill walks us through all the ups and downs of creating the site 10 years (!) ago, including a bunch of dead ends in trying to find a sustainable business model, and how it’s finally found its footing.

Among the key points he makes:

  • You needed to approach political reporting from a completely different perspective (just as Laura and Chris Amico needed to approach crime reporting from a completely different perspective).
  • You needed to rethink what a story looked like, and was organized and built.

We brought in Matt Waite, a reporter who had done lots of data journalism, to build the website. He incorporated the ideas of Adrian Holovaty, a visionary web developer who believed that journalism should be structured like a database so readers could interact with it.

  • You needed to build a platform that would support that new story structure.

We realized it wasn’t practical to put PolitiFact on the newspaper’s web publishing system, so Waite built ours from scratch.

(Which is a pretty critical point – technology enables journalists to do many more things these days, but technology also constrains what we can do, Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | June 21, 2017

What’s News? Part Deux

Rolling Stone.pngWhat’s “news?”

I riffed on this way back in 2012, and about how newsrooms might need to rethink how they define what’s newsworthy – i.e., worthy of coverage – in a digital age that allows readers to approach information in completely new ways.

That question came back to mind after reading a very good speech by Amanda Hess, the NYT David Carr Fellow, about reporting on sexual assault. Her talk, entitled “The stories we tell, and the stories we don’t,” is a smart and provocative look at how journalists pick the subjects they cover, the characters they focus on, and how the issues are framed.

She uses as a poster child for getting all those things wrong Rolling Stone’s hugely discreditedA Rape On Campus” story.   (If you want the abridged version, just read the Wikipedia entry.)

As she notes, the story is skewed by all sorts of assumptions about what sort of sexual assault is newsworthy – those involving white women, on college campuses, and that are more violent, and so on – based, in all likelihood, on what journalists think is interesting and of public interest.

When we gravitate toward the most “shocking” stories, we necessarily distort reality. And as we do that, we send messages about what’s important. One of the messages we send is that the violence of rape isn’t violent enough. It’s only really newsworthy if the victim gets punched in the face, too.

There’s a broader theme that she’s pursuing, about the role of journalists in the choice of narrative about topics like this, and how we can distort public perceptions.  (For example, she notes that all the coverage of campus rape has led to the mistaken notion Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | June 18, 2017

Unpicking The Algorithm

Just wanted to flag an Upshot story that ran in the New York Times the other day, looking into the algorithm that the Chicago Police Department uses to predict who is most likely to be involved in a shooting (whether as the shooter or as the victim.)

As I’ve mentioned before – and Nick Diakopoulos has campaigned about – we ought to be doing more to cover the alogorithms that rule increasing parts of our lives, so it’s great when there’s a piece that does exactly that.

The story, by Jeff Asher and Rob Arthur, takes as a starting point the limited public information about the algorithm – known as the Strategic Subject List – that’s available, then tries to figure out how it works.

But using the publicly available data that (the CPD) have released, we reverse-engineered the impact of each characteristic on the final risk scores with a linear regression model. Because the department didn’t release all the information that the algorithm uses, our estimates of the significance of each characteristic are only approximate. But using what was available to us, we could predict risk score very accurately, suggesting that we are capturing much of the important information that goes into the algorithm.

It’s a nice piece of work that helps shed light on what’s almost certainly an important policy and policing tool in Chicago.  It isn’t clear if the algorithm works well or not – gun violence remains a problem – but just being able to show what factors are taken into account is already an important public service.

In particular, victims of assault and battery or shootings were much more likely to be involved in future shootings. Arrests for domestic violence, weapons or drugs were much less predictive. Gang affiliation, which applied to 16.3 percent of people on the list, had barely any impact on the risk score.

The algorithm has been updated several times, and (Illinois Institute of Technology lead researcher on the project Miles) Wernick noted that the variables of gang affiliation and narcotics arrests were dropped from the most recent version.

There’s nothing wrong in theory, of course, with using an algorithm such as this one to help prioritize the use of limited resources – or even to take human bias out of decision-making, so we shouldn’t be approaching these stories with a bias that algorithmic decision-making is a bad thing.

But while we can talk to humans Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | May 8, 2017

For Or About?

News Jobs

There was a fascinating analysis in Politico recently about how and why the media missed the support for Donald Trump in America’s heartlands. Written by Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty, it’s a smart look at where journalists have increasingly congregated in the digital age, and – no surprise – it’s not in red states.

And if you’re not where the story is, you’ll miss the story.  And so we all did.

But that’s only half the story.  It’s not just that we – the media – missed the story; we also missed the audience.  And that’s probably as important an issue as how well the country is covered: Do we need better coverage about a group, or better coverage for that group?

In other words, it’s great if major news organizations spend the time and resources to cover the fears, dreams and drivers of rural and rust-belt voters, and so better inform their readers in New York, London or wherever.  But that’s not the same as covering those communities for people in those communities, who doubtless have a whole bunch of issues they care about that people in far-off cities don’t.

To be sure, it’s not the job of the New York Times, or Washington Post, or Guardian, to reach rural readers in Wyoming, and it’s unfair to expect them to do so.  Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | April 15, 2017

Off to SABEW

SABEW.JPGA quick post: I’m off to Seattle in two weeks for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers annual conference, and to talk on a panel about automation and the newsroom.

Also on the panel – titled “Robots Will Change Your Newsroom. Are You Ready?” – will be Robbie Allen of Automated Insights and Lisa Gibbs of the AP.  Should be lots of fun, and interesting.  The main point I want to make is that we ought to be looking at the kinds of stories that machines can do well, rather than trying to make machines do what humans do well.  

(Plus, I’ve never been to Seattle, and it looks like a fun town.)

It’s on at 3:45 pm on Friday, April 28.  Come by if you’re in town.  (And, there’s a reception sponsored by Reuters that evening.  Free drinks!)

Posted by: structureofnews | April 8, 2017

Navigating The News

HuffPoHow do you find the news? Or, more to the point, how do you navigate the news?

It’s one thing to be alerted to breaking news or interesting stories – there are recommendations from friends via social media, news alerts on your phone, and other systems that let you know when something interesting is happening.  But what if you want to explore the news, tracking down threads from one story to the next, or pieces that contradict the one you just read, or simply content that’s related?

There are recommendation engines, of course, and some of them even work reasonably well.  But as I noted in a piece way back in 2011, most of them come to you in the form of lists.  Which are great as a means of sorting information, but certainly aren’t the only way to help you understand how stories might be related or how to explore particular trains of thought.

So a new navigation page from the Huffington Post – the Flipside – is an interesting experiment in seeing how people will take to a non-list form of exploring the news.   It’s built around the idea that you can navigate stories by topic and news organization, laid out on a matrix that sites them based on how liberal or conservative they are, and how trustworthy or untrustworthy they are.

As the HuffPo notes in a blog post introducing the idea,

The idea is simple: Use this tool to explore the diversity of stories trending on Twitter at any given time on a handful of topics. We’ve chosen to follow links from 14 publications, some mainstream, some from the edges of the political spectrum.

To be sure, while it’s a smart, innovative design, there aren’t a lot of surprises built into the current implementation of the page: Most of the mainstream news organizations it carries are clustered in the trusthworthy/liberal end of the scale, with Breitbart occupying the untrustworthy/conservative world by its lonesome.  The value is in the headlines that pop up on the side when you click on a news organization, in the form of a – yes – list.  And to be fair, the point was really to make readers aware of the spread of stories from a range of media on some key topics, and in that regard it works well.

But there are clearly many other uses for such a layout, Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | March 31, 2017

What Can’t Google Do?

google-logoWhat can’t Google do?  And why does it matter?

The subject came up while I was talking to a journalism class the other day, discussing an upcoming site that would collate and curate information about a particular topic, bringing in context, related information, documents, and background.  There wouldn’t be a huge amount of original content, with most of the focus being on collecting and organizing information from elsewhere.

To which one student asked: Can’t I get all of that from Google?

And it’s true, you can.  To be sure, there’s already a huge amount of value in curating, verifying and organizing information that’s easily available via a Google search.  Just sifting through the flood of links that come back on any search is massive public service.  But it does raise the question: How much different do you have to be from a Google search to really add value?  Do you have to add a lot more original content – and even if you do, isn’t that content then just available on Google as well?

Or, to put it another way, what is it that Google can’t do that a site – even one that doesn’t create its own content – can do?

And the answer is: A fair amount.  (At least so far, until a bunch of PhDs at Google put their mind to it.)  Google can’t really add or subtract, for example, so if you store information in a structured form, ala Politifact’s fact checks, you can create a page that summarizes and counts, for example, how many  times Donald Trump has uttered falsehoods.  Google can’t do that.  (Or rather, a Google search can’t return that number).

Google doesn’t do timelines all that well, either, since it generally prioritizes the most recent story on any given topic.  But if you want to track an event or an issue over time, that’s not to helpful.  So by ensuring that dates and summaries are part of the information structure of a site, it’s relatively easy to generate Read More…

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