Posted by: structureofnews | July 4, 2016

What’s The Use?

car16_banner.pngVery (very) belatedly – a report from NICAR in Denver, which was a long time ago now.

That was in March. David Caswell, Jacquie Maher and I had a really good, well-attended session on structured journalism – a sign, I hope, that the concept is gaining traction in newsrooms, or at least among the nerdier of the journalism community.

And if the lively discussion at the session, and at then at an evening drinks session afterwards was anything to go by, there’s cause for some optimism. Not that it’s all smooth sailing from here – and certainly one of the bigger questions we have to address as more people try to implement structured journalism sites is: What’s the use? As in: What use do you want the site to serve?

That’s not a question that’s unique to structured journalism, of course – all news organizations need to think about who their intended audience is, and what they bring to them. But structure brings with it much more, well, structure – and that means trying to solve those questions much earlier.

But first to go back to the session for a minute. It featured a good mix: David talked about the ambition goals of his structured stories software and template, and how it fared in actual coverage, and Jacquie shared the progress she’s made in developing more standardized templates for turning out BBC stories and explainers on key topics. And I just tried to keep up with them.

The room was pretty full, and there was no shortage of comments and questions from the floor, so towards the end of the session, we extended an invite to get together in the bar (where else?) in the evening to keep the discussion going. By the time I got there, a couple of people had already gathered around David, and before too long there was a solid core of about a dozen of us around a table – sharing ideas for projects, discussing challenges they’d faced.

But a key question that kept surfacing was – nicely framed by Jonathan Stray – was about use cases, and how tightly to define it before you set up shop. And it’s a key issue, I think: Deciding what topic and questions we want to throw a light on, designing our information structure for that – and shedding everything else.

It’s a tough thing to do, because we all naturally want to preserve as much flexibility as possible. But – at least so far – it’s very hard to build and maintain a one-size-fits-all (or one-size-fits-many) data structure that can address multiple topics.

So Homicide Watch, for example, was designed to track murders in DC – following victim, alleged perpetrator, investigating officer, court hearings, and so on, through the course of the case. It does great in that role, but it doesn’t also try to follow burglaries. Or political corruption cases. Or allegations of insider trading.

Should it? Could it? How would the data structure, workflow and site have to be redesigned to expand its brief?

Part of the problem in designing too loose or generic a data structure – so that you can have more flexibility down the road – is that you force reporters to collect too much information that ultimately isn’t useful, and that hurts execution. On the other hand, collecting only exactly what you think you need can preclude deeper analysis, or expansion of your mission down the road.

And too narrow a use case can also limit your audience – although, as Homicide Watch proved, there are potentially large underserved audiences out there that would welcome highly targeted news sites. Then again, simplicity can help drive use and adoption as well.

Connected China was a broad attempt to surface and track key power relationships in one of the more opaque countries in the world; it had a wealth of information and some very smart information design, but arguably may have been presented too high a hurdle for a casual user to dive into.

Politifact hit a very nice sweet spot – a generic, and relatively simple fact-checking interface that’s easy to understand, not overly complex for reporters to use, and that can ultimately expand to cover fact-checking over a broad range of topics.  The spread of fact-checking sites around the world is testimony to that.

At the end of the day, it’s really about identifying audiences and their needs – both the casual audience that just wants a quick overview, and a more intensely focused audience that wants to dig into the data in a more detailed way. In the case of Homicide Watch, it’s both the people who want a quick sense of what the murder situation is like in the capital, and those who are following a single case from start to finish.

The beauty of structured journalism is that, with a relatively small investment of reporter time, news organizations can serve both those audiences well.

As long as they figure out in advance what use they want to be to those audiences.

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