Posted by: structureofnews | October 31, 2016

Just The Facts

top_stories_gjacoix-width-800Coming late to this – but then again, I’ve been late to post pretty much all of this year, so what’s new? – but wanted to flag Google’s new “fact check” links that come up in Google News.

This is huge – or yuge! – news for both consumers of news and for structured journalism more broadly.

Why, you ask? It’s just a new kind of link.

Well, yes. But it’s three other things as well.

First, it’s a link driven by Google, which means millions – hundreds of millions – of people will see it and use it, and hence drive up the value and importance of fact-checking, at least in theory.

Second, it stems from a recognition by Google – or at least I hope it does – that people’s news needs aren’t driven solely by the freshest story on the subject, and more by a desire to understand a subject in context. That explains, to some extent, why Wikipedia has become a real destination for news searches, and certainly pushes the value of depth rather than just speed. (Not that speed doesn’t matter as well, of course).

And thirdly, by highlighting only the fact checks that conform to a certain schema, Google is rewarding the notion of structured journalism, and using the best of what the idea has to offer: Building greater long-term value out of structuring the information journalists collect, analyze and publish every day.

To be sure, some don’t see that as an advantage, as this piece from Slate suggests:

Google seems to have a somewhat narrow view of fact-checking journalism, one that defines it by form as much as by function. It will likely leave out plenty of stories that could merit the tag, while including some others that might not. At least at first, it seems to be surfacing stories mainly from dedicated fact-checking organizations, such as Politifact, rather than articles from mainstream news organizations.

And it’s true that there are fact checks embedded in all sorts of types of journalism that won’t be surfaced by this new link.  On the other hand, it’s just as likely that Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | August 25, 2016

Biggest Poll Ever – And More

SOTN.pngSo we launched the Reuters/Ipsos States of the Nation project today.

It’s the biggest presidential tracking poll ever – at least as far as we can figure, and with upwards of 15,000-plus people surveyed every week, we’re reasonably confident we can make that claim.  But it isn’t just a huge poll, cool though that is.

(And one of the most cool things about a poll this size is that it means we can look into results regularly at the state level, where the U.S. Presidential election is really decided.)

It’s built around the idea that polling accuracy – and election results – hinge around good estimates and predictions of actual turnout on polling day.  So while every pollster has their own model for what percentage of each demographic group will show up to vote – as do we – the site we’ve built lets users create demographic groups on the fly and adjust their predictions of turnout for that group, and see how that would impact the results of the elections at the state level, and hence overall in the Electoral College.

So if you think less-wealthy white men will turn out in droves on election day, amp up their predicted turnout and see how the election will turn out.  What if younger voters stay home?  What if women couldn’t vote?  What if only women voted?  What about Hispanic women aged 18-30, making less than $25,000 a year and identifying as Democrats?

(OK, so you can actually create that last filter, but then again that’s not a huge slice of the population, so I’m not sure changing their turnout is going to materially affect the election.  But it’s great that you can do that.)

Go ahead.  Check it out.  I’ll wait.

(I’ll be reading the nice CJR piece about it while I wait. Had to get Read More…

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 Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | July 4, 2016

Windows At Last

So it’s been a while since I posted here – work, life and various other things got in the way.

But I’m off to Boston in a week’s time for our annual structured journalism get-together with Laura and Chris Amico and Bill Adair (David Smydra is unfortunately away).  The last two meetings have been pretty productive, so hoping and expecting this one will be as well.

Best of all, we’re meeting in a restaurant, which ought to mean a meeting that isn’t in a windowless room.  I’ll be posting (honest!) on what we discuss there, as well as (hopefully) finally catching up with some long overdue posts from NICAR and IRE.

Posted by: structureofnews | March 1, 2016

Reach and Engagement

At a recent meeting of the Institute for Non-Profit News – for my sins, I now sit on INN’s board – we learned an interesting statistic: About half the organization’s members have a strategy to drive readers to their own sites/destinations, and the other half count on distributing their content via other platforms.

Does it matter how they (you/we) reach readers? And should they (you/we) care?

Good questions, albeit without clear answers. But with the expansion of Facebook’s Instant Articles and the launch of Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, it’s clear that distribution of news is increasingly moving out of the hands of news organizations – to the point that some start-ups no longer even have websites or home pages.

For some – at least half the INN members – it just means news organizations can just focus on creating great content, and then look for ways to spread it via the huge audiences and networks that other platforms have built. To others, like Monday Note‘s Fredric Filloux, this raises questions about a worrying dependence on forces – and algorithms – beyond your control.

There’s a balance, of course, in the middle. No news organization can afford to ignore social platforms or how its stories are surfaced via search. But the real question between distributed and direct strategies seems to hinge around whether the news site wants to prioritize reach, or engagement.

There’s no way a news site can build the size of audience Facebook has, so it makes sense, if you want to reach millions, to focus your distribution strategy on getting your content on social platforms. And it especially makes sense if you’re a relatively small start-up that likely doesn’t have much brand recognition or is unlikely to be destined to become a destination site. Non-profits, too, are often incentivized to maximize their reach and impact by getting their content to as many people as possible. That speaks to following a distributed strategy.

On the other hand, it’s generally hard to make money that way, whether through ever-falling ad rates or in converting readers to subscribers or members. (Buzzfeed is a real exception, of course, but then its business model is really based on selling its expertise at creating viral content for advertisers, not ad rates for its content.)

Not that generating revenue is the most important thing – although it helps, even for non-profits – but engagement is likely to be better if you have a destination site, or even better, destination app.  As Ken Doctor notes:

While only 8 percent of those accessing news on smartphones and tablets use apps, they account for 45 percent of all mobile time spent on news.

Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | February 29, 2016

And The Winner Is…

spotlightSo in a surprise win, Spotlight bagged the Oscar for Best Picture – a very nice victory for a great movie about investigative journalism.  In fact, probably the best film about journalism since All The President’s Men came out in 1976.

If you haven’t seen it, you should: It’s a nicely nuanced look at the long, dogged process of investigative reporting, both wonderfully acted and directed, that features no car chases, meetings in dark carparks, or secret leaks – just hard work.  And a spreadsheet.

And that’s probably one of the nicest things about the movie, at least for me. There’s a point in it when the reporters figure out that priests who have been caught molesting children are sent off for a period of “recovery” somewhere else – so now the team can, instead of looking for tips about abusive priests, start working the other way, but building a database of priests who have been warehoused for a year or so.

As Matt Carroll, one of the reporters on the story notes in an essay on Medium:

It’s also wonderful because it shows the power of investigative journalism, through the tedious grind of slowly building a major story, thread by thread. One scene pays homage to the gritty work involved in building a spreadsheet of suspect priests. A spreadsheet, of all things! And the scene is great. (OK, so I’m biased: I was the data geek. But I still think the scene is fantastic.)

Hear, hear. So here’s to a great movie on investigative journalism where the star of the show is a spreadsheet.  OK, so I’m stretching it.  But it’s still a nice win for data journalism as well.

Posted by: structureofnews | February 25, 2016



Great news!  There’s going to be a panel discussion on structured journalism at next month’s NICAR conference, in Denver.  Getting on the program at the biggest collection of data journalists and all-around news geeks marks a real step ahead for embedding the ideas of structured journalism into newsroom.

Entitled “Structured Journalism: Creating the Atoms of News,” the session will feature David Caswell, creator of Structured Stories, and Jacqui Maher of the BBC’s News Labs, and moderated by yours truly.

We’re still going over what we plan to cover, but it should be a good session that goes over some of the new structured journalism projects, addresses questions about the viability of some of the earlier projects, and tries to look ahead at new developments over the horizon.

We’ll definitely want a lot of discussion with people in the room, so if you’re going to be at NICAR, please come by.  It’s on Friday, March 11 at 11:30 a.m, in rooms Colorado G-J (wherever that is.)

I’ll also be moderating a session on data teams and where we’re going with them, and that should be a pretty interesting panel too.  It’ll have Sarah Cohen, Scott Klein, Jennifer LaFleur and Ben Welsh – as good a group to talk about the subject as you’ll find.

So come by to that as well if you can.  And just head to Denver and NICAR in general.  It’s a great conference, a wonderful way to network and stay on top of the field, and a good bunch of people to drink with. And, oh, there are some decent panels to attend too.

Posted by: structureofnews | February 24, 2016

Gaming the Elections

campmanager1Just a quick plug for Reuter’s new White House Run app, a news game that lets players create a virtual candidate and see how their positions on key issues match those of the public’s.

As Jason Fields, who helped come up with the idea and then steer the creation of the app, put it in a blog post on

Reuters has been looking for new ways to tell the story of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, along with our text, photos, videos and polling data.

And this is certainly another new way to get the great Reuters/Ipsos polling data out in front of people – after coming out with machine-generated summaries of automated analysis of data last year in the revamped Polling Explorer, we’ve now ventured into the news games space.

Check it out: Once you download the app – only for iPhones, I’m afraid – you can sign in via Facebook or as a guest, then create a candidate of your choice. Then:

After answering five setup questions, including party affiliation, gender, race/ethnicity, religiosity and top policy priority, players are then asked to give “stump speeches” on important issues. Reuters/Ipsos polling data will measure how in tune with voters the “candidates” are.

And how well your views mesh with those of the general public determines your “electability” score.  Players also get quizzed on general knowledge at “debates” and “town halls,” and their scores there also get factored into electability.  (After all, candidates are supposed to stay on top of news and know what’s going on around the world.)  And they get to compare their scores with that of their friends (or enemies).

OK, so it’s not the most scientific model of the elections.  But the positions players take will be measured against real polling data from the ongoing Reuters/Ipsos poll, so they will get a better understanding of what the electorate is thinking about various issues. And the quizzes are just tough enough to be interesting, but no so full of arcane questions that only news junkies can get through them.

And if that gets people more involved, and more engaged, in the issues of the elections, why not have some fun in the process?

Posted by: structureofnews | February 17, 2016

The Future of Automation

hugo_automatonBelatedly – very belatedly – I just wanted to point out Andreas Graefe’s Guide to Automated Journalism, a report published a month ago for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

It’s a smart summary (full disclosure: I’m quoted in it) of what’s going on in the field, and flags a couple key questions that the industry will have to grapple with as automations – or machine-generated stories – play a bigger role in journalism.

As Andreas notes in the executive summary:

  • Automated journalism will substantially increase the amount of available news, which will further increase people’s burden to find content that is most relevant to them.

  • An increase in automated—and, in particular, personalized—news is likely to reemphasize concerns about potential fragmentation of public opinion.

  • Little is known about potential implications for democracy if algorithms are to take over part of journalism’s role as a watchdog for government

All true, and all important questions. Which is why, in many ways, the real path forward for automation is – as with all disruptive innovations – to start in places that existing journalism doesn’t really serve well, or at the scale it should.

Andreas points out, for example, that automated journalism is highly dependent on the quality and structure of data, which is one reason it’s flourished in the world of finance and sports, and that data just isn’t as readily available (or accurate) elsewhere. True enough – but what then about journalist-collected or –created data, built from their daily reporting? That’s essentially what Politifact and Homicide Watch (and to some extent, Connected China) did, and in the process introduced – in a limited way – machine-generated content to new fields.

Likewise, while it’s true that machine-generated stories aren’t the compelling narratives out there – and hence Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | December 7, 2015

(Not) Getting It Wrong

It’s terrible when we make a mistake in a story.  True, that’s an ongoing occupational hazard in a business that’s often rushing to write the first draft of history, so it’s safe to conclude that we’ll never completely eliminate errors.  But how can we reduce them?

There’s an interesting piece in Nature about a very similar problem in science – essentially about how too many studies can’t be replicated, indicating there’s an accuracy issue in what should be rigorously reported and peer-reviewed work. What the piece concludes – and it has resonance for journalistic work as well – is that unconscious bias plays a big part in when we get things wrong.

In today’s environment, our talent for jumping to conclusions makes it all too easy to find false patterns in randomness, to ignore alternative explanations for a result or to accept ‘reasonable’ outcomes without question — that is, to ceaselessly lead ourselves astray without realizing it.

Which is probably as much of an issue in some journalism as well – especially when it comes to figuring out what’s a likely narrative or hypotheses for facts we’ve gathered or data we’ve crunched.  Nature has a word for it: Hypothesis myopia.

One trap that awaits during the early stages of research is what might be called hypothesis myopia: investigators fixate on collecting evidence to support just one hypothesis; neglect to look for evidence against it; and fail to consider other explanations.

In other words, only looking for evidence, quotes, data that supports one narrative, and not really asking the tough questions that might point to another explanation.  The Nature piece cites a case where a woman in the UK was convicted of murdering two of her infant sons because of statistical evidence that the chances of both of them dying of sudden infant death syndrome only 1 on 73 million – which is a pretty damning statistic, until you consider that the chances of a parent murdering two children is even lower.  (The conviction was later reversed).

The trick is to make sure there are skeptical voices at every stage of a story, rather than have everyone so invested in the outcome that they rush to publish.  That can be hard on deadline, obviously, but it’s a critical brake on major stories. Read More…

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