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 | December 5, 2017

Small | Scale

StoryWorksCan you scale intimacy?

In an age of viral content and global pageviews, what’s the right balance between aiming for massive scale and building deep, personal engagement?

That’s one of the questions I was left pondering after this year’s Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg – another great gathering of some of the best and brightest journalists from around the planet.  (And as an aside, one of the best conferences GIJN has put on so far.  Plus, no one should ever miss a Paul Myers presentation).

The question about scale vs engagement was a theme I saw in a couple of panels, but surfaced very clearly in one I moderated on Innovations in Storytelling, with panelists David Schraven of Correct!v, Susanne Reber of The Reveal, and Julianna Ruhfus of Al Jazeera.

David and Susanne presented interesting ideas that seemed to really build connections with audiences – but relatively small ones.  (Julianna showed how Al Jazeera was using news games to engage audiences.) Susanne talked about how the Center for Investigative Reporting was running plays based on its stories, among them one about deaths of men working in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.  The plays, Susanne noted, had very small audiences by design, but seemed to have touched them very deeply, not least because it was shown in the communities the stories were about.

Other plays CIR has collaborated on include:

HEADLOCK was written by William Bivins and directed by Jennifer Welch based on Ryan Gabrielson’s investigation into abuse at California’s adult care facilities.

A GUIDE TO THE AFTERMATH was written by Jon Bernson and directed by Jennifer Welch, inspired by Mimi Chakarova’s documentary about female veterans suffering from PTSD and military sexual trauma.

THIS IS HOME was written by Tassiana Willis, Donte Clark, Will Hartfield-Peoples and Deandre Evans and directed by Jennifer Welch and Jose Vadi in response to Amy Julia Harris’ reporting on corruption and squalor in Richmond, California, public housing.

ALICIA’S MIRACLE was written by Octavio Solis, translated into Spanish by Brandon Mears and directed by Jennifer Welch in response to Bernice Yeung and Andrew Donohue’s investigation into the use of fumigants in California’s $2.6 billion strawberry industry.

Correct!v, the German non-profit investigative news organization, is likewise branching into plays, but David also talked about a foray into very local journalism: Setting up a storefront newsroom in Bottrop, a coal mining town of 100,000 where hundreds of people had died because of a pharmacist’s manipulation of cancer medicines. Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | November 6, 2017

Coding Error


To err is human.  But machines aren’t bad at it, either.

Especially when humans are the ones encoding the mistakes in – whether in the flawed assumptions we bake in, or the lack of judgement we show in blindly trusting our creations.

That’s the key thesis of  Cathy O’Neil‘s Weapons of Math Destruction – a well-argued book about the dangers of allowing algorithms we don’t understand well to run large parts of our life.  It’s a good, quick, read – I finished it on a five-hour flight from New York to Phoenix – with lots of stark examples, and is well-worth diving into.

It makes a great case for why we need better coverage and understanding of algorithms, given how big a role they now play in our daily lives and how little transparency there is about how they work. That’s not a new idea – “algorithmic accountability” has been a rallying cry for some for some time now, not least from Nick Diakopoulos, now at Northwest University, and Julia Angwin of Pro Publica. (I’ve made pitches for it as well – here and here, for example.) And the furor over Facebook’s algorithmically driven news feed, and how it was used to target particular audiences during the 2016 presidential campaign, is breathing new life into that drive.

But there’s still much more than can and should be done.

To be sure, we can’t do without algorithms – they help us sift through tons of data, can bring a level of objectivity to difficult decisions, and can surface insights Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | October 30, 2017


matrixWhat most ails the marketplace of ideas?

Tim Wu knows: Too Much Information.

In a well-argued and smart essay, Tim – a law professor at Columbia University – makes the case that intelligent, truthful, nuanced information is being drowned out by a deluge of noise: Not just the cacophony of the crowd, but increasingly weaponized disinformation, propaganda and troll attacks that exploit new news distribution systems to overwhelm citizens.  And that existing free speech protections, designed to constrain governments from silencing dissenting voices, are grossly unsuited to countering these new threats.

The most important change in the expressive environment can be boiled down to one idea: it is no longer speech itself that is scarce, but the attention of listeners.

It’s not a completely new argument, but he brilliantly synthesizes multiple threads (and threats) facing the industry – fake news, filter bubbles, the rise of platforms, troll armies, lower barriers to publishing – into a stark (and eloquent) framing of the information landscape, and lays out thoughtful ways to think about possible remedies, getting beyond the black-and-white arguments about whether the free market or the government should tackle the problem.

To be sure, the world of journalism, news and news organizations face all sorts of other challenges, not least disintegrating business models that have led to smaller and smaller newsrooms.  But the issue Tim identifies isn’t one of a lack of quality content; it’s about how it gets to people and how well they can process it.

(As a digression – that’s not to say there aren’t problems with good journalism being practiced and how much quality content is being produced.  Including, as I’ve discussed before, how some audiences are being ill-served Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | October 25, 2017

Evolving Structured Journalism

GuardianThe Guardian came up with an interesting way to rethink the article the other day: “Smarticles.”

OK, so I don’t love the name, but the idea is a good one – a machine-assisted evolution of the late, lamented Circa’s model of personalized news that incorporates ideas from the also late and lamented Google Living Stories idea, and some notions of structured journalism.  It’ll be interesting to watch.

The Guardian explains it this way:

Here’s how Smarticles work: On a reader’s first visit to a story page, the blocks contain the most basic details and background, as text, embedded video, photos or social media posts.

As the reader returns to the page, the Smarticle will attempt to algorithmically determine which elements of the story are most useful to the reader based on a number of signals, such as the time passed since last visit, the frequency of visits, and the importance of each story development.

In other words, the story figures out what you already know, doesn’t bore you with those facts, and only presents you with the new stuff.  In many ways, it’s a simple and obvious enhancement – and at the same time also a huge, fundamental change in thinking about what we do and how we do it.  Read More…

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…

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