Posted by: structureofnews | November 30, 2015

In Control

MatrixBluePillRedPill.jpgSo why is this structured journalism concept a good idea?

OK – softball question.  But David Caswell, who created Structured Stories, tackles this question with a fresh take in an interesting post on the Reynolds Journalism Institute site, where he’s currently a fellow.  In a word: Choice. In two words: Consumer choice.

Which is a great argument, especially since much of this blog has been focused on why structured journalism is good for publishers. (And I’ll throw another publisher-centric argument in, later in this post.)  But focusing on user needs, as almost any decent businessperson will tell you, is a good idea.

As David notes, the old – legacy – media model was simple, but is now outdated:

The publisher decides what is published, when and how it’s published, the language of publication, the device or print format, tone and point of view, style and imagery, the degree of detail that is published, and the background knowledge required of the reader.

The only decision traditionally left to news consumers has been whether or not to consume the article, a situation that is less tenable in a 21st century consumption environment that is essentially defined by choice.

What structured journalism offers consumers, he argues, is the opportunity to rethink what parts of news and information they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

Transferring control of content from publisher to consumer requires structure. Only if the parts and pieces of content are available for decision-making and manipulation can the presentation of that content be determined at the time of consumption rather than at the time of creation. These parts and pieces, these “atoms” or “particles” of news, can include the semantics of the content — entities, concepts and activities captured in computer-accessible form — and can enable novel news products over which the consumer has almost total control.

That’s not to say that news organizations will be relegated to fact-gathering machines that offer raw materials to users – although some people might argue, what’s wrong with that? – because newsrooms still make decisions about what to cover, how to gather information, and how to structure it.  And besides, structured journalism doesn’t prevent news organizations from creating narratives – whether long-form stories, deeply immersive visualizations, slide shows or whatever – but simply also enables end-users to create yet more experiences and narratives from the “molecules” of structured information.

An additional advantage, as David notes, is that all this should fuel more experimentation:

The rate of innovation of consumer-facing news products would also be dramatically increased by the availability of structure, because innovation on consumption would be separated from innovation on production.

All of this makes tremendous sense, and even if it implies that news organizations cede even more control of their product to others, there’s also a – somewhat contradictory – case to be made why that could be a good idea for publishers.

The point is, they’re already ceding a lot of control of distribution of articles to platforms via things like Facebook’s Instant Articles or Apple News. But creating immersive experiences, powered by structured journalism, that users can explore and that are tied to data created by a newsroom, offers an opportunity to build and maintain stronger relationships with users. It may be easy to distribute a personalized story to an end-user via Instant Articles; but if the user wants to explore the information, create a new narrative, and so on, he or she will have to come back to the news organization’s site (or app).

An example – shameless plug alert! – might be Reuters’ Polling Explorer.  We can and do write articles about interesting poll results, as well as create embeddable charts, and distribute them via lots of platforms.  But if you want to explore the data – and there’s lots of it – you have to come back to the site.

It’s one way to recreate the “bundle” of news that once drove the financial value of publishers and that the internet has essentially exploded. Structured journalism lets us get beyond the notion of the “story” as the atomic unit of the newsroom, and helps us build new value based on the collection of newsroom-gathered information.

At least that’s what I hope. And so does David, which he discusses in yet another good post, this one about the economics of structured journalism:

If society could find a way to tap the power of networks to accumulate and pay for quality journalism, then the increasingly dire economics of news media just might be reversible. There’s no going back to the old distribution-based media bundles, and proposals for viable alternatives are few. But it’s possible that journalism that is structured and networked could become a new basis for sustainable quality journalism.

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