Posted by: structureofnews | March 17, 2011

Molecular Journalism

An 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 theme over the past couple of years has been the attempt to blast what is currently the atomic unit of journalism, the article or “story”, into its constituent quarks, and reassemble them as something else.

It’s a theme close to my heart, of course, and in many ways the essence of what structured journalism is about.  (Matt Waite, one of the creators of Politifact, used the molecular analogy in a recent post at Nieman Journalism Labs too:  “We took the atomic parts of a fact-check story and we built a new molecule with them. And with that molecule, we built a national audience for a regional newspaper and won a Pulitzer Prize.”)

But back to the Economist. The post – and the live blog of the discussion by NPR’s Matt Thomson – describes the current state of play well, and reprises many of the obstacles to moving ahead faster.

Matt’s liveblog opens with a great analogy with computer programming: We used to write programs by specifying instructions that the computer needed to do – eg, add this number to that number, and then put it in this container.  But with object-oriented programming, we often use chunks of reuseable code that can be applied to different programs or different parts of the program.  It’s faster, easier and results in more stable programs to do it this way.

And perhaps so too with stories:  We spend hours (OK, minutes) crafting slightly different background grafs for a running story so that it won’t read like yesterday’s story; but perhaps we should be figuring out a better way to build the same kind of reusable chunks of text that could be inserted into those stories.  And, more broadly, find ways to more easily update stories with less effort.

Journalists spend enormous effort on repeating the same material with slight tweaks, and readers on wading through it. On a large and complex issue like healthcare reform or Middle East politics, it is extremely hard to understand it well by reading even a large quantity of news, because news is designed to tell you what’s new, not to provide a coherent understanding of it.

Precisely.  Putting the focus on speed – or even on “news” – is an important part of our work; but it undermines our ability to do another part of our job, which is to explain and provide context.   The Economist post lists a number of initiatives in this area – such as  Google Living Stories – but then turns to the roots of what stands in the way of faster adoption.

The question is, if these are such good ideas, then why are so few news organisations using them? The answer is that it takes a big cultural shift to get journalists to organise their work and writing along such different lines. A journalist is used to creating a sparing, self-contained portrait of the story as it stands at a moment in time. The ability to do this with elegance is part of the pride of our trade. Posting dozens of short updates or cobbling together coverage from pre-cooked elements, by contrast, feels demeaning. And more to the point, it requires tearing up editorial processes that have been in place for so long that we hardly even realise they exist.

That puts the finger precisely on the problem:  It’s more than culture, it’s the fact that what we take pride in – the careful crafting of a story, the choice of words, the flow of ideas – seems to be threatened by the notion of rethinking the story as the atomic unit of news.

Except that it shouldn’t be – and certainly no more than rushing to liveblog an event or tweeting updates does, and we don’t seem to have any problems with those activities.  Politifact doesn’t break down every paragraph or every sentence; what it does do is provide a structured format for text and other information to be entered into a database, which then allows for new “molecules” of information to be built.  Does it substitute for a wonderfully crafted 5,000-word narrative?  No.  But does it preclude doing one?  No.

And that’s part of the problem with some of the debates, which, like arguments about paywalls,  seem to turn to all-or-nothing ideological divides.  We can, and should, have both types of presentations – but we should build processes that allow us to capture as much information in a structured form, whichever way we do it.

Imagine the alternative: A world where some baseball games are reported in box scores and others in colorful and gripping detail – but without capturing the details of the game.  We shouldn’t have one without the other. We need both.


  1. […] Which really points the finger at where the issue is: Our hyper-sensitivity to, well, what we do, and less to what our readers might want. Sure, we care hugely about news – and it is the name of the business we’re in, although perhaps it shouldn’t be – but there are many more reader needs than are captured by a focus on what-happened-this-minute.  More importantly, by focusing on what we do (write stories) than on what readers/users want (information, context, insight – and news), we’re missing an opportunity to create stories and information the first time around that have extended shelf lives, whether as individual stories or as elements of information that can be recombined into new stories. […]

  2. […] So was Circa boring?  And is much of structured journalism – at least the reconstituted, recombined content that’s one of its selling points – destined to be boring?  And will that doom the […]

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