Posted by: structureofnews | September 26, 2010

The Alchemy of Information

Paul Bradshaw at the Online Journalism Blog has a great post about data and journalism in which he writes about the impact data will have – is having – on the industry, and how we need to adapt.  It’s a smart overview and he presents it in a very nice metaphor about the alchemy of information; and he also points to the inherent long-term unsustainability of the existing advertising-driven business model –  ‘the mass market was a hack.’

For the past two centuries journalists have dealt in the currency of information: we transmuted base metals into narrative gold. But information is changing.

At first, the base metals were eye witness accounts, and interviews. Later we learned to melt down official reports, research papers, and balance sheets. And most recently our alloys have been diluted by statements and press releases.

But now journalists are having to get to grips with a new type of information: data. And this is a very rich seam indeed.

All very true.  And journalists and media organizations are still only beginning to come to terms with the skills and mindset needed to grapple with information and data that is becoming available to them.  And, probably more importantly, only starting to come to terms with the fact that many of the old advantages they had in the information-intermediation business don’t hold up as well in this new world.

Media organizations still have preferential access to newsmakers, for example; but increasingly bloggers and other non-professionals are being courted by those in power.  The ability to print and distribute ‘news products,’ whether newspapers, magazines or TV shows, is of course being undercut by online distribution.  It’s true that journalists have – or should have – better skills at interviewing, analyzing, writing and so on; but we don’t have a monopoly on this by a long shot.  And in terms of the new skills that are needed – data analysis, web development, information design, and so on – newsrooms are far less prepared than they should be. 

To be sure, those skills are in short supply everywhere; but audiences will go to the people who can deploy them best – the new alchemists of the data age, if you like – whether they’re in legacy newsrooms or in new organizations.

It’s true that one advantage newsrooms should have – if they deploy it well – is discipline and process.  They should be able to take on new tasks, perform them to a required standard, and quickly create a product, in a way that a group of non-professionals organization can’t.  In theory.  In practice, as anyone who has ever tried to herd cats knows, newsrooms are much less manageable entities.

Of course, even if you could turn newsrooms around, there still is the question of getting paid for doing all of this.  And no one yet has a viable business model.

What’s clear is that for news organizations to even be in the game – even if it turns out to be a money-losing game – they need to find more ways to add value to what they do, and embracing data skills is the clearest way forward. As long as we don’t go overboard.

As Bradshaw notes:

There is a danger of ‘data churnalism’ – taking public statistics and visualising them in a spectacular way that lacks insight or context. Editors will need the statistical literacy to guard against this, or they will be found out.

We shouldn’t worship data any more than we worship narrative. More than anything else, we need to be more product-centric, for what of a better phrase: To think about the elements that provide value to our audience – whether they pay us directly, through data they provide, advertising they consume, or whatever – and the structure and process needed to produce that on a cost-effective basis, and with a enduring competitive advantage.  I think structured journalism is one route to this, but I confess I’m biased.

And if all that sounds too much b-school-ese, well, I plead guilty.   I’d like newsrooms – in whatever new form they evolve to be – to be viable, sustainable entities.  And that means getting paid.

There are great hopes of a increasingly collaborative world, where open standards will allow more and more information to be analyzed and understood by a broad range of people; and that’s almost certainly a good thing for society.  The issue for news organizations is that, at some level, the value they provide is in information that isn’t widely publicly available – especially if it’s not being subsidized by advertising, and needs to be paid for in some kind of subscription fee.  In theory, at least, the more free and open something is, the less value news organizations can extract from it.

Squaring that circle – unpicking the advertising-led model that offered the happy confluence of expensively-obtained, nearly-free information to large audiences – may well be the real challenge of transmutation in the data age.



  1. Reg, there is a ton to talk about in this post. But on everything I think we would agree.

    1. There are two directions for value-added “journalism”, reporting. One is to provide value through data access (FOI applications), aggregation and smart insightful analysis. The other more long form narrative, something like the reportage of the French or the 报告文学 of people like Qian Gang and sundry.

    2. The organization that supports this product need to be re-thought. We will disagree about this, but I am skeptical that any news organization can be converted to this type of organization.

    3. The skills in the news organization of the future must include a level of technology literacy if not fluency. The days when news organizations both on the content and business side all begged forgiveness for their lack of technology prowess have to be over.

    Maybe a longer post on this, later this weekend.

    • I suspect (fear) you’re right about some of this – certainly it’s clear that it’s hard for any single organization to be good at a multitude of things, especially in an age of disaggregated functions. So what will journalism/media organizations be good at?

      Reporting? (Gathering information, whether through interviews, web scraping, etc)
      Analyzing? (Applying brainpower, statistical analysis, CAR, data mining?)
      Communication? (Narrative, visualization, web apps, platforms?)

      There is room to be a middleman in some of this, but I think any organization, media or otherwise, will have to be much clearer about what it brings to the table.

  2. […] – you had to be there – other than to say it took off from an earlier post on the Alchemy of Information and was entitled The Alchemy of Information In an Age of Chemistry.  The gist was simply that the […]

  3. […] on creating that structured data plays to the strengths inherent in large, professional newsrooms – discipline, verification, regularity of updates, etc. That offers some competitive advantage in […]

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