Posted by: structureofnews | September 24, 2010

Structuring Structure

Ross Settles, Knight Fellow helping out Malaysiakini, helpfully organizes various types of structure into four broad categories, offering more clarity to a topic that can easily spin into multiple directions.

Ross and I have been talking about structured journalism for more than a year now, but usually by the third glass of wine we’ve forgotten most of what we were talking about (or at least I have), so having a written conversation is a major improvement.  Ross talks about four kinds of structure:

  • Data (or facts).  These are the elements that can be verified and make up the main actors in online content – person, place, institution, location, date, relationship between people/things/institutions.
  • Audience:  Stretching here.  But there are clearly come structures that social networks are enabling that create audience structures around the engagement with specific content.
  • Topic:  These are subjective classifications of content by some organizing principal – topic of content, purpose of writing (review, news, opinion), or something else entirely.  Topic exists above the content.
  • Rhetoric: The organization of statements about this data to deliver a message/thought/story/argument.  Rhetoric exists within the content.

The first one, data structures, is akin to what I called plumbing in an earlier post, although Ross (and others) are much more detailed about it than I am.   And fixing the plumbing at news organizations will also require changes in process, since as he notes, filing information to databases is something that most journalists are loathe to do.  Yet the potential is there, as Ross notes, pointing to sites like China Vitae. (The compare function there is an excellent example of what you can do with a good data structure.

Rhetorical structures, as Ross notes, is a hard nut to crack.  One example – and this would take some work to test out – might be to look at coverage of a natural disaster, sort out the key types of stories and their common elements, and see what could be done to structure them in some form: Say simply filing casualty counts and damage estimates rather than writing full stories every couple of hours, so stories – and databases – could be updated easily.  But it’s not easy.   It’s probably easier to create a new story format – as Politifact did – and make people write to it.

Topic classifications make a lot of sense, but Ross points out that little is usually done to add value, other than group stories together.   Even putting them in a timeline, as I’ve noted elsewhere, doesn’t add a huge amount – what people are really looking, I suspect, for is synopsis and context rather than a collection of old stories.   Again, we need newsroom process changes to make this work better: If we throw up a quick page on an earthquake, for example, building a widget that shows the death toll at any particular moment is relatively easy; but we need it to be powered by journalists filing that number on a regular basis to a database.

Audience structure is possibly one of the more promising routes to take – probably because it doesn’t involve overcoming cultural resistance in a newsroom.   Something as simple as rating people on Hotornot pulls audience in, giving them something to engage in, making them provide data (ratings) that can be aggregated and compared, and then raises the cost of switching out for them (they’d have to rate lots of people on a rival sites), hence building value (I use the term loosely).   Sites that allow readers to contribute data (such as rating people, or wines, or house values) and find ways to connect them via that data and build status in that site should be able to build strong communities, and potentially even offer valuable information from the aggregated data.

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