As Bill Adair notes at Poynter today, four of us – Bill, Laura and Chris Amico and myself – locked ourselves in a windowless conference room at Reuters last week, sustained only by cold pizza, and spent a day discussing… well, what exactly?
It’s not that we didn’t know what we were talking about. Let me rephrase that. We knew we wanted to talk about projects like Politifact, Homicide Watch and Connected China, and how to evangelize the kind of journalism they do, but there was also a question about what exactly to call this kind of journalism. To be sure, it wasn’t a big part of the conversation, but it was helpful to actually discuss the name.
Bill, of course, winds up calling it “structured journalism” in his piece – which works for me, not least because it means I don’t have to rename this site. But there were other ideas, including “narrative data” from Laura, “frameworks for reporting” from Chris, and “new forms of storytelling” from Bill, all of which have lots to recommend them.
But before delving into that, it’s probably worth asking what we actually mean when we talk about this kind of journalism – which is in fact the way Laura started off our meeting.
I’m not sure we settled on a firm 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 into new journalistic “information products,” for want of a better word, and are regularly updated.
Which happens, actually, to map nicely on the structural obstacles to broader adoption of these ideas that Bill identified in his piece.
We identified four forces that have stymied innovation:
Content Management Systems. They are designed to convert old media into new media and they provide little flexibility to experiment with new journalistic forms.
Newsroom culture. The rhythm in most newsrooms is based on a well-established work flow that produces predictable content. It’s not easy to suggest a wholesale change.
Product managers on the business side. They’re accustomed to selling the old recipe and often seem perplexed by new approaches.
Editors/news directors. They’ve got other priorities — such as having to choose people for another round of layoffs — and often don’t have the resources for a new venture.
In other words, pretty much the whole world. But hey, nobody said this would be easy.
But probably one of the bigger obstacles not on that list is the difficulty of explaining, in a simple, succinct way, what we’re talking about. That’s where a name that sums up the ideas neatly comes in. Say you’re working on “sensor journalism,” for example, and a lot of the ideas behind what you’re doing are immediately obvious. So what about the kind of projects the four of us worked on?
“Narrative data” is great for a host of reasons – it mashes up two words that don’t often go together, which gets people thinking; and it brings the notion of creating narrative out of data to the forefront. “Frameworks for reporting” is probably the clearest definition of what powers all the projects, and essentially puts the issue of the CMS front and center. And “new forms of storytelling” covers the broadest territory and has the advantage of being in clear English.
Naturally, I’m biased towards structured journalism, which to my mind mirrors the structure of other subsets of journalism – sports journalism, investigative journalism, data journalism, drone journalism and so on – while emphasizing the primacy of journalism as the reason we do what we do, and modifying it by a single essential characteristic: Structure.
Which is starting to make this sound more like an English major’s paper than a blog post, but apart from one long conversation back at The Wall Street Journal a decade ago or so, I’ve never really thought deeply again about what to call this, and it’s interesting to reflect on it.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter – a structured journalism project by any other made would be… just as difficult to get off the ground. But you gotta be optimistic. And the four or us are.