Posted by: structureofnews | October 2, 2010

Alchemy and Chemistry

A few edits Sunday after I had a chance to think about this a bit more:

My talk at Hong Kong U’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre on Thursday involved grievous harm to a metaphor, probably punishable by death.  But it was that or be cogent, and metaphors are much more fun.

I won’t attempt to explain the metaphor – 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 toolkit we’re used to using to collect, analyze and communicate information is expanding hugely – and that not only are these tools much more widely available to everyone, but that the value people are placing on what we turn out is falling rapidly.

That would be bad news – and it is, for us – but it is in many ways a golden age for the public at large.  They have more access to information, more tools to analyze it, more ways to communicate and collaborate than they’ve ever had.   The key question is how sustainable this age is, especially if professional information analyzers – journalists – can’t make a living doing that.

We didn’t answer that question, although there were some very good questions.  What I wound up concluding on was that journalism shouldn’t try to compete in areas we don’t have competitive advantages in, and should focus more on building our skills to help explain the world and perform a watchdog function, by learning to use the new tools available to us to become better collectors, analyzers and communicators of information.

In other words, we need to remain

  • good reporters – but that means not just the skills of interviewing and getting people to talk to you, but also webscraping, trawling databases and so on;
  • good analysts – not just applying logic and experience, but also understanding statistics, social science methodologies, data mining, and so on; and
  • good communicators – not just in terms of writing a compelling narrative, but also in being able to develop web interfaces, visualizations, community building and engagement, and all that.

And because we don’t have an established business model any more – or yet – we also can’t abrogate that duty to others; we have to know enough about business, entrepreneurship and other dark arts to keep ourselves going.

That’s a long list, and of course people aren’t going to be good at everything; but they should know what’s out there, and be prepared to collaborate with people who can fill in gaps in skills and knowledge.  But it provided me, at least, with a framework for thinking about what skills a journalist needs these days, and why – given the pressures to try out more and more things (video! audio! animation!) it’s important to figure out how they fit into a broader plan than to just chase skills as they come along.

And no more metaphors, at least for a while.



  1. Reg,
    Thank you for the talk at HKU!

    I understood that you did not have the time to talk about how you think the structure of a story/storytelling will be affected by all the changes. (I think there was a website connected to this topic, that you were planning to show… not sure, if I heard you correctly)

    I would be very interested to see that website, to read more on that!

    Richard Schuster

    • Richard, the website is Politifact (; it may not be entirely apparent when you first look at it why it’s radically different from “normal” storytelling – which is also one of its strengths. The gist is that the elements of a “story” on Politifact – who said what, when, the background and factchecking, the rating given (Truth to Liar Liar Pants on Fire) – are all elements of a structured database. That allows the site to build out aggregations of metadata (how many times did Obama lie on healthcare?) as well as give much longer-term value to the day-to-day work that journalists do. There’s a much longer conversation/explanation to be had on this, but that’s the gist.

      I go into this in much more detail in all the various postings here on structured journalism. They don’t come in any particular order, but start with the tab on the home page and meander through, and hopefully you’ll get the sense of what I’m talking about.


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