Posted by: structureofnews | November 25, 2010

A Kindred Spirit

A smart post by Josh Korr, Director of Product Management at Publish2, that makes  the case, succinctly and clearly, for something akin to structured journalism: Yes, journalists need to become more data-savvy, but they also have to extend their notion of data to beyond currently-available datasets, and start creating new ones out of their daily work.

The big challenge for news organizations isn’t just how to better ingest, analyze, and present extant external (if sometimes hard-to-access) data sets…. Rather, the trickier and less-addressed challenge for news organizations is how to turn the raw materials and finished products of non-database journalism into data.

Hear, hear.  The arguments he makes – that too much of what we do on a daily basis is thrown away after it’s printed, and that we can’t invent new products if we don’t extract from our daily work the elements needed to build them – map pretty precisely onto points I keep focusing on here. Given that he used be a journalist at the St. Petersburg Times, home of Politifact – what I think if the first, and pretty much only, working example of structured journalism – it’s not surprising that he’s following this line of reasoning.

News organizations will best set themselves up for the future if journalists become more skilled at handling external data AND if traditional narrative journalism itself is data-fied (along with the non-narrative information mentioned above).

Exactly.  (Plus, how can I disagree with someone who also uses the word datafy?) The key issue isn’t the skill sets that we’re lacking in newsrooms per se; yes, we all need to be more numerate, data-savvy, etc.  But it’s newsroom culture and process that’s getting in the way of real innovation.

The hoopla over the iPad as the second coming and savior of journalism-as-we-know-it speaks to that mindset.  Journalists like it because it seems to offer a sustainable future where we get to do what we’ve always done.  In fact, with few exceptions, what newsrooms have tried to do with every new platform that’s come along is push our current product onto it, with a couple of cosmetic tweaks.

… there’s a limit to how innovative front-end wizardry can be on its own. There are only so many ways to present largely unstructured stories, blog posts, photos, and videos – still the vast majority of content produced by news organizations.

Change can really only come if we rework the newsroom processes – to create new building blocks of new products.

But that’s a cultural process, not a technological fix.  Within newsrooms, the best bet is probably to start with small, walled-off projects that can serve as demonstrations of success – Politifact being a good example.   Then, as a handful of such projects take off, and journalists get used to the notion of working in new ways, we can try to integrate those processes into a broader newsroom exercise.

Even before that first step, though, it’s important to identify what kind of product should be built – should we look at school boards; local sports teams; lobbyists; or what?  They don’t have to make money per se; but they should be topics which can build an interested and devoted audience, if only to demonstrate that there is a market for such things.

As an industry, we’re still a long ways from even taking that first step.  But if we don’t, others will do ahead of us.


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