It probably makes sense to figure out what problem Structured Journalism is trying to fix – since it’s a good bet that having a cool idea for its own sake doesn’t pay any rent.
The first problem it’s looking at is probably the one most of interest to journalists and the one least useful to the outside world: Finding more value in what newsrooms do, day-in and day-out, including valuing the disciplines and focus that newsrooms bring to content creation. That’s a Saving Journalism As We Know It goal, but let’s face it, no one but us cares. That said, anything that helps transform – or revalue – high-cost, transient content into more persistent content has to be worth something.
But more to the point, what is the point of Structured Journalism?
The first thing it should do is lower the cost of content creation – not in all cases, and perhaps not by a huge amount. Structuring reporting and content can lead to more focused, more directed coverage – and probably at a lower cost. In the same way that Bloomberg structured its markets reporting, Structured Journalism can help, say in disaster coverage, where reporters can file targeted data updates to build new stories rather than continue to do write-thrus that add little else beyond a new death toll.
If you look at Politifact, and the way they covered the election, they actually redefined a way of coverage that probably allowed them to do it much more cheaply than the traditional feature- and news-oriented coverage of a national campaign. They still did reporting, but they didn’t have to follow candidates all around the country, look for color, and all that. And in the end they may well have given more value to readers. Certainly the Pulitzer Board thought so.
The second problem it’s trying to solve is to provide more timely – or more temporally-relevant – content to readers. That doesn’t mean getting stories to people faster, although it can mean that: If all a reporter needs to do is file an updated death toll for a story to be generated, it should mean updated stories hit the wire faster. More importantly, it means that stories should be more relevant to readers at the time they are read, rather than fixed in the time they were written. So if we fix date references, etc, in stories, readers benefit because they get stories that are more directly addressed to them in their current time; better yet, as we aggregate structured information into new stories, readers get the most up-to-date version of a story.
Say a reporter is consistently covering the school board on some long-standing issue, and we manage to structure it so that her latest stories are being fed into some form of rebuilt form of story that pulls her latest updates together with previous analysis. news and so on. The reader gets much more context and information that way, along with all the latest developments.
The third, and most ambitious, goal, is to work towards the Magic Answer Machine: To provide readers with more relevant responses to reasonable queries, rather than simply giving them stories. So if the SCMP’s Racing Post horse-racing tips website could sort and aggregate tips, results, field conditions and so on, it could answer what are some of the likely questions that betters have about which horses are good and which aren’t – and how good tips were.
Ditto the WSJ’s Heard on the Street, which if structured properly could give people a better sense of how to correlate a large amount of ongoing information. Politifact does the same thing with a standard political question: Who’s lying, who’s telling the truth, and how often? This isn’t the whole Magic Answer Machine, of course: It can only answer questions it’s structured to answer. But it’s a big step up from where we currently are.
And finally, what Structured Journalism should do is provide the raw building blocks for another wave of information creation. I don’t know what that will be. But just as ordering addresses and phone numbers in a database allows us to map, sort, aggregate and rebuild that information into a range of new types of content, structuring journalism should give us the ability to start playing with fields of information that we’ve never even thought about.