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…

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 Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | November 24, 2015

A Sign From The Times

NYTWe must be making headway.

First the BBC News Labs published “A Manifesto for Structured Journalism,” which laid out in pretty clear terms how they think this is one key way journalism can move ahead.

And now the venerable New York Times has written a piece that – except for not using the term “structured journalism” – lays out their case for why they ought to jump on this bandwagon as well.  (OK, they wrote it a couple of weeks ago – I’ve been busy. Gimmie a break.)

And while we’re at it, there’s a nice shout out to structured journalism by Jairo Mejia of Agencia Efe at the European Journalism Observatory. (It’s also likely that they’ll be a session on structured journalism at the upcoming NICAR conference in Denver next year, mirroring the session at last year’s ONA. )

So we’re making real progress.  (And more so than the last time I wrote about this.) Structured journalism is getting to be much more of a meme at mainstream news organizations, and with luck, all that early thinking on display with Politifact, Homicide Watch and even WhoRunsHK (and later, of course, Connected China) will get embedded  in more and more newsrooms.

The Times piece – entitled “The Future of News Is Not An Article” – offers a nice and fresh argument about the insanity of how newsrooms currently treat the information we create:

Can you imagine if, every time something new happened in Syria, Wikipedia published a new Syria page, and in order to understand the bigger picture, you had to manually sift through hundreds of pages with overlapping information? The idea seems absurd in that context and yet, it is essentially what news publishers do every day.


And they also come to the conclusion that it isn’t just about better storage of what we’ve already done – although there’s a good argument for that – but more Read More…

Posted by: structureofnews | November 23, 2015

A Step Closer Towards the Borg

pollingOK, so it’s been a while since I posted here.  My day job, unfortunately, sometimes gets in the way of the blog.

On the other hand, sometimes work really helps feed it, as when we at Reuters – shameless plug time again – relaunch the Polling Explorer, a (free!) site that lets you dig into the nearly 100 million responses we’ve been collecting from Americans since 2012. It’s a great poll, a great resource, and now even easier to explore.

How much easier?  I’m glad you asked.

Because this time around it features some very new technology that helps surface interesting statistical factoids (Donald Trump’s support is weak among Republicans making $100,000 or more a year) to help users dig into data – and take us one step closer to a cybernetic newsroom.

Which is not a bad thing, even if it conjures up images of the Borg. Honest.

Poynter had a nice piece on us, which explains the gist of the idea:

…this crush of data also means that many reporters are stepping up to a proverbial dinner buffet with a butter plate. With so much information and so little time to crunch it, data journalists have to make tough choices about the kinds of data sets they dive into and how long they can afford to spend analyzing them.

To help provide context for this sprawling repository, Reuters is using algorithms that sift through the data and surface potentially interesting interpretations.

Ken Ellis, the genius head of technology at Reuters, who with Mo Tamman created the Polling Explorer in the first place, Read More…

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