Posted by: structureofnews | August 1, 2010

Absolute Relativity

One first step newsrooms could take to increase the value of archive.

All stories have dates or date references in them – from “next week, the judge is expected to rule that…” to “Today, on the eve of National Day…” All of them make sense if you read the story when you’re supposed to: That day.

But if you read the stories six months – or six days – later, it can be a real exercise to try and figure out when the “next week” in the story is. In many cases, the archive story only carries one date – at the top of the story – and provides no “absolute” date references (May 10, 2008) while providing a lot of “relative” date references (“next week”).

So what’s a reader/newsroom to do?

There are two solutions, one easier and one harder. The harder one is to build a free-text search engine that can look for all relative date references and change them to absolute references. So while the original story says “next week, the judge will rule…” the new story would read “by June 15, 2009, the judge will rule…” It’s not pretty. And frankly a little too much technology.

The easier solution is to get the reporter (or editor) to write two versions of the story. The one that goes in the day’s paper gets the relative reference; the other one gets written in a way that makes sense to a reader later on. So maybe the sentence is “by the middle of June 2009, the judge will rule…” Or the reporter will figure that the year is obvious in the story and will leave out the 2009 reference. The important thing is to bring some human intelligence to the exercise.

Plus, it’s a quick, cheap fix.

Down the road, some kind of technology fix would be helpful, because it probably makes sense to be able to access stories through date fields embedded in the story as much as by the date the story was written. On an ongoing story, for example, would better absolute date fields help us chain stories together in a more intelligent way?

In some ways, all this is doing is the equivalent of geocoding locations in stories. We’re date-tagging date references because we believe they’ll be of value to readers and to aggregating our content later on.

But first, let’s just make our stories easier to read six months from now.



  1. […] page should be structured.  Stories should be structured so readers don’t have to figure out date references; information and value should be extracted from stories so they can be presently easily as metadata […]

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