Posted by: structureofnews | December 26, 2010

The Molecules of News

We’ve talked about the atomic unit of news before – what’s the basic building block of what we do.   For many journalists, it’s the story, because in many ways that’s what they produce each day, and what they offer to the world as a finished product.

I’ve argued here that we need to get past that thinking, because the story – and certainly the daily story – as the basic unit of news is less and less valuable in a world where readers come to it weeks and months later, and have access to a wealth of archives.  Politifact, for example, deconstructs the story and turns what are essentially data fields into the building blocks of its pages.  Jeff Jarvis has argued that the topic is the new basic unit, and he makes some fair points there, although it’s harder to see how that works in practice.

The broader issue, at least to me, and beyond communications school semantics, is how we get value out of what we do – both in monetary and public interest terms.  Articles age rapidly and are increasingly unable to cover their cost of production, at least in any scalable system.   So rethinking what we do – getting beyond just filing a story – is critical if we’re to create new journalism products that sustain us and society.  Or that’s the core idea behind structured journalism.

So a recent New York Times story that looks at it from the other side caught my eye.   The gist is that smart financial traders are building programs that vacuum up streams of information – news, comments, twitter feeds and the like – then analyzing them to get a sense of what the market is saying (or feeling) and then automatically trading on it.  This sort of thing was bound to happen – in fact, it’s a bit of a mystery why it hasn’t happened sooner.

Many of the robo-readers look beyond the numbers and try to analyze market sentiment, that intuitive feeling investors have about the markets….

Vince Fioramonti, a portfolio manager at Alpha Equity Management, a $185 million equities fund in Hartford, uses Thomson Reuters software to measure sentiment over weeks, rather than minutes or hours, and pumps that information directly into his fund’s trading systems.

“It is an aggregate effect,” Mr. Fioramonti said. “These things give you the ability to assimilate more information.”

In other words, never mind the story – what these programs do is take atoms (stories) and mash them up into molecules of ideas or sentiment.  It’s the wisdom of crowds applied to information flows.  If there are lots of mentions of IBM on twitter feeds, something is probably happening at IBM.  If lots of market reports are mentioning upbeat sentiment, then the market is probably feeling bullish.

It’s another way of creating more value out of what we do each day – for example, out of those mindless, instantly forgettable hourly market reports that wire service reporters churn out with distressing regularity. (I know – I used to do it at Reuters.)

In this case, some of that value is being captured by news organizations – the story mentions what Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters are doing – but a great deal of it is being done by other people.  Good for them – they’ve found additional value in the products we turn out, in the same way that a smart computer-assisted reporter finds value and patterns in masses of public data and information.

But it also highlights how much value we as an industry aren’t capturing.  There is value in creating not just the atoms of news, but the molecules as well – in fact, probably more value.

Smart people are deploying ever more powerful technologies to parse and understand the words we write and turning it into something more understandable and valuable in aggregate; and here we are, the people we write those words, with the ability to write them in a more structured and easily aggregatable format to begin with, so that our words will be more valuable and our readers lives easier – and we don’t.

Ánd so we cede ground to others or try to compete in an information technology arms race that only the very well-heeled can win.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t use smart – and cheap – technologies to help us report and create information products.  But we should get past the elemental things that we do and think more about what we can do with them.  And what money we’re leaving on the table.


  1. […] Journalism: The Molecules of News  —  We’ve talked about the atomic unit of news before – what’s […]

  2. […] The Molecules of News « (Re)Structuring Journalism – […]

  3. […] LER – The molecules of news: Smart people are deploying ever more powerful technologies to parse and understand the words we […]

  4. Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you! I have a technology(in category) blog. It pretty much covers related stuff.

    Come and check it out if you get time 🙂

  5. […] the atomic, story and paragraph level. Not to mention how we can aggregate what we do into “molecules” of greater value.  And then completely restructure […]

  6. […] de cette réflexion que Reginald Chua introduit l’idée de l’information moléculaire (Molecules of News). Le déclic s’est produit à la lecture d’un article du New York Time, Computers that […]

  7. One way of doing this would be to literally atomise stories, break them down into 50, 100, 300 word pieces then somehow string them together into a chain.

    I’ve seen this work well with running news items – say a court case where there are multiple bulletins in a day – but wonder how it can be applied to bigger stories, say a takeover bid.

    • Bill,

      That’s right – and in a way, that’s exactly what Politifact does, by breaking reporting on campaign promises into individual datafields (date, who said it, what they said, etc). I could see this same structure work in any heavily templated coverage – natural disasters, market reports orcourt stories, as you suggest. That’s not to say that no reporting outside the template would be allowed, but that a template must be filled in at least, which will allow for easy re-aggregation of information.

      The real trick is to build out a taxonomy/structure of a particular kind of story and see how well reporting might fit into that template; the alternative, as Politifact did, is simply create a new type of reporting that’s built around a data structure. I’m betting the second approach makes more sense and is more successful in the long run.


  8. […] E’ quello che Reginald Chua, ex giornalista del Wall Street Journal ed ora direttore del South China Morning Post e titolare in un interessante blog sull’ evoluzione del giornalismo (Re)Structuring Journalism – , chiama informazione molecolare, Molecules of News. […]

  9. […] cleverly pull atoms of news (facts) from various sources then knits them back together to form Molecules of News. In effect this means mining raw data for useful information.In some ways this isn’t too […]

  10. […] shale. I like how down to earth it sounds. A nice contrast to, for example, Reg Chua’s The Molecules of News, which seems to assume that not caring about structured information is equal to leaving money on […]

  11. […] raw materials of information analysis (ie, news reports) as well as then analyzing it.  But we don’t do a good job of building the building blocks of news to make it easy for us to analyze our own […]

  12. […] interesting post from the Economist at the SXSW conference about how the theme of “molecular journalism” seems to be taking hold. A large chunk of SXSW is about the future of journalism, and one […]

  13. […] delved into that in much more detail elsewhere here, so I won’t repeat many of those arguments here.  But it strikes me that calling […]

  14. […] stories, and writing articles that have value in the interim. But most news organizations have bits and pieces that need to be made into bigger stories. So we could do the same thing, only in […]

  15. […] shelf-life of the content they create – whether through topics pages, archives, or rethinking basic story structure.  Pumping out more information at faster rates to game the new algorithm may be a great business […]

  16. […] And I believe there are good business reasons for doing that kind of daily reporting as the building blocks of a more sustainable business […]

  17. […] haven’t I written at least a couple of times why we have to get past the story as the basic unit of journalism?  It’s true, I have.  And I think we do.  But if we’re going to rethink […]

  18. […] cleverly pull atoms of news (facts) from various sources then knits them back together to form Molecules of News. In effect this means mining raw data for useful […]

  19. […] The Molecules of News « (Re)Structuring Journalism […]

  20. […] but it hits all the themes of structured journalism, from the rethinking of what news and the atomic structure of news should be, to the new ways people come to information, to the idea that we haven’t begun to […]

  21. […] definition, but we did define a chunk of characteristics common to these kinds of projects: They atomize the information collected in the daily course of journalism, for the purpose of reconstituting it […]

  22. […] tomorrow?  Why not produce great journalism today, but change the workflow and systems so as to extract facts and information that can be used to create new products tomorrow, ala Politifact and Homicide Watch? The report […]

  23. […] CMS is still a ways away.  Maybe this hybrid is the short-term compromise solution to extracting more value from our daily work.  As Josh […]

  24. […] but more the need to be able to automatically (or algorithmically) recombine information into new stories to serve new needs, audiences or platforms – or even […]

  25. […] but simply also enables end-users to create yet more experiences and narratives from the “molecules” of structured […]

  26. […] tools cleverly pull atoms of news (facts) from sources then knits them back together to form Molecules of News. In effect this means mining raw data for useful […]

  27. […] or at least in an ideal world as envisioned by this blog – that would come about through smart atomization of information in daily stories, channeled via databases into new configurations of stories, visualizations and other forms of […]

  28. […] Newsroom content management systems aren’t usually designed to handle stories as structured blocks of information, and newsroom culture – built around crafting great narratives, for good reason – […]

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