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 | 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 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…

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