Posted by: structureofnews | May 23, 2014

The Architecture of Context (And Other Things)

Escher's_RelativityToday’s post is brought to you by the metaphors “architecture,” “apps,” and “by-product.”

There’s a unifying idea in here – honest! – and it’s around what we journalists think our core job is, and all the conscious and unconscious ways we build our world around that view of ourselves. That helps us focus and work more efficiently – but at the same time cuts us off from new ways of thinking and doing things. (And naturally, or this wouldn’t be this blog, it’s about why we might want to change that.)

Bear with me. If you ask a journalist what their main job is, I’m guessing most would talk about reporting and publishing the news, and most often in the form of stories, pictures or videos.  There are other things we do, of course, from curating and engaging social media to layout and design, but by and large those are seen as adjuncts to the core work of reporting and producing.

Then there are the less-obvious (or at least less-openly articulated) and more-detailed subsets of those aims that are built into every organization; consider the recently leaked report on innovation at the New York Times, which highlighted – and decried – the newsroom’s obsession with getting on page one. Not all news organizations have that same kind of focus on the front page – but almost all are obsessed with something, and generally something pretty similar.

And that can be – and often is – a good thing.  It’s hard to be good at all things, so focus matters.  And building the infrastructure around that focus – the “architecture” of a newsroom and its CMS – is what makes that focus stick. That’s why front-page stories at the Times (and at The Wall Street Journal, which at least during my years there had even more of an obsession with page one) generally sing.

But architecture can also be confining, as the Times’ internal report noted. Being focused on the front page hobbles the Times in its efforts to move to a more digital view of the world. (And as I’ve noted, having an even-more implicit focus on the primacy of the print story form means they don’t even really consider how they might rethink how reporters work).

So what does a completely different architecture look like?  Consider Vox, which is focused much more on the notion of context, rather than news, as its core job – and, as this piece in CJR notes, has built its entire site around that goal.

What’s new is a publicly declared ambition to be a user’s guide for the news, not only through content, but also through the architecture of the site itself; in a sense, this is a design-driven news literacy effort where brands create trusted news context tethered to the latest updates.

Vox’s card-centered approach to news – basically, bite-sized, Wikipedia-like entries written by its staff to explain discrete issues – means its users have ready access to contextual explainers as they go through the news.  And equally importantly, it means Vox can update an explainer once and have it apply to lots of stories, including those in its archive.  At most other story-centered news organizations, all that contextual information – B-matter, if you like – needs to be rewritten for each story, assuming there’s space. And stories in the archive are always out of date.

Or look at Circa, which has built its architecture around atomized paragraphs of stories that can be assembled and reassembled depending on how much readers know about a subject.  And because the information is atomized and structured, it opens up new possibilities for searching and recombining information, as Circa’s director or news David Cohn notes:

…what we’re really doing at Circa is adding structure to information — and it could be the most powerful thing we do. Indeed, there’s an increasing amount of discussion around “atoms” of news. But the interesting thing about those atoms of news isn’t that they’re short — that’s another surface observation. The interesting thing is how those atoms combine.

And then of course there are my favorite examples of structured journalismPolitifact, Homicide Watch and Connected China, all of which use radically different CMSes and working processes to produce a different kind of non-story-centered journalism. And, I’d argue – and have argued – that this can be serve the public better, lower our costs and possibly even increase our revenues.

But that kind of focus – and architecture – imposes its own limitations, too.  How well will Vox and Circa be able to scale up as cards and subjects they cover increase?  What does Homicide Watch do if armed robbery becomes a more important area to cover than murders?  How does Connected China adapt to changes in how power flows, outside of relationships? The rigor and structure of such sites locks them in fixed ways of doing things.

And traditional newsrooms have the advantage, precisely because of their lack of structured information, to be able to adapt fairly quickly (at least in theory) to new areas of coverage.

So maybe the best solution is something akin to the app model of computing that we find on smartphones: A number of specialized, single-purpose apps loosely knit together by the phone’s OS.  What if a city government-focused Politifact tied up with a crime-focused Homicide Watch and a schools-focused Education Watch and – well, you get the picture – with a core newsroom that worked across all the sites, drawing connections, writing broader narratives, and adapting quickly to breaking news that doesn’t fit into any existing structure?  If, on top of that, all the micro-sites within this newsroom had quasi-common data structures – so that a person in the education app could be clearly identified as the same person in the political and crime apps – wouldn’t that would allow for faster and deeper digging by its reporters?

To be sure, there are lots of holes in this idea.  But the current, largely unstructured nature of newsroom practices and CMSs leaves much to be desired (and information and money on the table, as Josh Benton in Nieman Labs notes), and the idea of building a one-size-fits-all-information-types structured journalism 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 notes:

Every news reporter alive knows a ton of stuff that doesn’t get expressed in her formal work product. We need better ways to capture that unused value. It’s news organizations’ jobs to build the permission structures that can make that happen. Until then, that value will keep leaking out in stray tweets.

Josh also highlights a great metaphor for thinking about capturing that value: By-product.   He cites Jason Fried, founder and CEO of Basecamp, whose experience with running workshops in his too-large startup office space helped him rethink all the things that companies produce and what kind of value might come from it. As Jason notes in this piece:

An office can be free — and even a profit center — if you start thinking about your company’s byproducts.

What do I mean by byproducts? Just like the lumber industry can sell its sawdust (a byproduct of milling trees), we discovered that we could sell our knowledge (a byproduct of running a business). And we could sell it in our spare space. Eventually, we packaged this knowledge in book form. All told, the combination of the book and the workshops has brought in revenue of more than $1 million.

The lesson here is less about real estate than it is about business itself. Whenever you make something, you make something else. Your byproducts may not be as obvious as sawdust, but they’re there. Maybe it’s the knowledge you’ve acquired by running a business. Maybe it’s a piece of software you wound up making when you made another piece of software. It’s there; you just have to look for it. You may even find a business you never knew you had.

So what are journalism’s byproducts?  Information, knowledge – and structured (or structure-able) data, certainly.

And more radically – what if we rethought what was product and what was byproduct? What is, instead of producing stories as our core business and stuff in our notebooks being the byproduct of that, we focused on gathering information, ideally in a structured form, and then used much of the underlying information to produce great stories? Would we produce better journalism?  As-good-as journalism? A better product?  A better business model?

I honestly don’t know. But if we’re going to blow up the traditional newsroom – and Vox and Circa, not to mention Politifact, Homicide Watch and Connected China, are certainly experimenting with that, we might want to go all the way and rethink what we produce and why we do it.  Just to throw in yet another metaphor.

What’s new is a publicly declared ambition to be a user’s guide for the news, not only through content, but also through the architecture of the site itself; in a sense, this is a design-driven news literacy effort where brands create trusted news context tethered to the latest updates. – See more at: http://www.cjr.org/news_literacy/explanatory_site_architecture.php?page=all#sthash.NRUWiAhy.dpuf

Responses

  1. I just finished a pair of journalists’ books: Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition and James Stewart’s Den of Thieves. It seems to me that both projects are, to some extent, “by products” of their work at The New Yorker and WSJ, respectively.

    That said, I’m very intrigued by the idea of more journalistic by products. Perhaps there are certain key questions that journalists should be asking in interviews that yield “structure-able”, saleable data.

    Very happy to have discovered your blog! Any thoughts about Simon Rogers’s Doing Journalism with Data course?

    • Stephen,

      Thanks for you note. I haven’t checked out Simon’s course, but I will now. As for key questions all journalists should ask in interviews to build a structured database: I think it depends on what product you want to build. My suspicion is that relationships work well across various beats, but it’s harder to establish what questions would be standard to elicit the most useful information.

      Reg

  2. […] Reginald Chua, former journalist and current Innovation Editor at Thomson Reuters, imagines “structured journalism” amid CMSes, apps, and micro-sites that can be sources of […]

  3. […] a good argument for that – 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 […]


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