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March 8, 2011, 10 a.m.

Matt Waite: To build a digital future for news, developers must be able to hack at the core of old systems

Editor’s Note: Matt Waite was until recently news technologist at the St. Petersburg Times, where — among many other projects — he was the primary developer behind Politifact, which won a Pulitzer Prize. He’s also been a leader for the movement to combine news and code in new and interesting ways.

Matt is now teaching journalism at the University of Nebraska and working with news orgs under the shingle Hot Type Consulting. Here, he talks about his disappointment with the pace and breadth of the evolution of coding and news apps in contemporary journalism.

Pay attention to the noise, and you start to hear signal. There’s an awakening going on — quiet and slow, but it’s there. There are voices talking about data and apps and journalism becoming more than just writers writing and editors editing. There are labs starting and partnerships forming. There was a whole conference late last month — NICAR in Raleigh — that more than ever was a creative collision of words and nerds.

It’s tempting to say that a real critical mass is afoot, marrying journalists and technologists and finally getting us to this “Future of Journalism” thing we keep hearing about. I’ve recently had a job change that’s given me some time to reflect on this movement of journalism+programming.

In a word, I’m disappointed.

Not in what’s been done. There’s some amazing work going on inside newsrooms and out, work that every news publisher and manager should be looking at with jealous, thieving eyes. Things like the Los Angeles Times crime app. It’s amazing. The Chicago Tribune elections app. ProPublica’s Docs app. The list goes on and on.

I’m disappointed on what hasn’t been done. Where we, from inside news organizations, haven’t gone. Where we haven’t been allowed to go.

To understand my disappointment, you have to understand, at a very low level, how news gets published and the minds of the people who are actually responsible for the newspaper arriving on your doorstep.

Evolution, but only on the edges

To most journalists, once copy gets through the editors, through the copy desk, and onto a page, there comes a point where magic happens and poof — the paper appears on the doorstep. But if you’ve seen it, you know it’s not magic: It’s a byzantine series of steps, through exceedingly expensive software and equipment, run in a sequence every night in a manner that can be timed with a stopwatch. Any glitch, hiccup, delay, or bump in the process is a four-alarm emergency, because at the other end of this dance is an army of trucks waiting for bundles of paper. In short, it’s got to work exactly the same way every night or piles of cash get burned by people standing around waiting.

Experimentation with the process isn’t just uncomfortable — it’s dangerous and expensive and threatens the very production of the product. In other words, it doesn’t happen unless it’s absolutely necessary and can demonstrably cut costs.

Knowing that, it’s entirely understandable why many of the people who manage newspapers — who have gone their whole professional lives with this rhythmic production model consciously and subconsciously in their minds — would view the world through that prism. Most newspapers rely on gigantic, expensive, monolithic content management systems that function very much like the production systems that print the paper every day. Inputs go in, magic happens, a website comes out. It works the same way every day or there’s hell to pay.

And around that rhythmic mode of operation, we’ve created comfortable workflows that feed it. And because it’s comfortable, there’s an amazing amount of inertia around all of it. Change is scary. The consequences down the line could be bad. We should go slow.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that experimentation is forbidden in the web space, because it’s not. But that experimentation takes place almost entirely outside the main content management system. Story here, news app there. A blog? A separate software stack. Photo galleries? Made elsewhere, embedded into a CMS page (maybe). Graphics? Same. Got something more, like a whole high school sports stats and scores system? Separate site completely, but stories stay in the CMS. You don’t get them.

In short, experiment all you want, so long as you never touch the core product.

And that is the source of my disappointment. All this talk about a digital future, about moving journalism onto the web, about innovation and saving journalism is just talk until developers are allowed to hack at the very core of the whole product. To argue otherwise is to argue that the story form, largely unchanged from print, is perfect and to change it is unnecessary. Hogwash.

The evolution of the story form

Now, I’m not saying “Trash the story form! Down with it all!” The story form has been honed over millennia. We’ve been telling stories since we invented language. A story is a very efficient means to get information from one human to another. But to believe that a story has to be a headline, byline, body copy, a publication date, maybe some tags, and maybe a photo — because that’s what some vendor’s one-size-fits-all content management system tells us is all we get — is ludicrous. It’s a dangerous blind spot just waiting to be exploited by competitors.

I believe that all stories are not the same, and that each type of story we do as journalists has opportunities to augment the work with data, structure, and context. There’s opportunities to alter how a story fits into place, and time. To change the atomic structure of what we do as journalists.

Imagine a crime story that had each location in the crime story stored, providing readers with maps that show not just where the crime happened, but crime rates in those areas over time and recent similar crimes, automatically generated for every crime story that gets written. A crime story that automatically grabs the arrest report or jail record for the accused and pulls it up, automatically following that arrestee and updating the mugshot with their jail status, court status, or adjudication without the reporter having to do anything. Then step back to a page that shows all crime stories and all crime data in your neighborhood or your city. The complete integration of oceans of crime data to the work of journalists, both going on every day without any real connection to each other. Rely on the journalists to tell the story, rely on the data to connect it all together in ways that users will find compelling, interesting, and educational.

Now take that same concept and apply it to politics. Or sports. Or restaurant reviews. Any section of the paper. Obits, wedding announcements, you name it.

Can your CMS do that? Of course it can’t. The amount of customization, the amount of experimentation, the amount of journalism that would have to go on to make that work is impossible for a vendor selling a product to do. But it’s precisely the kind of experimentation we need to be doing.

Building from the ground up

The prevailing notions in newsrooms, whether stated explicitly or just subconsciously believed, is this print-production mindset. Stories, for the most part, function as they do in print — a snapshot in time, alone by itself, unalterable after it’s stamped onto a medium and pushed into the world.

What I’ve never seen is the complete counter-argument to that mindset. The alpha to its omega. Here’s what I think that looks like:

Instead of a single monolithic system, where a baseball game story is the same as a triple murder story, general interest news websites should be a confederation of custom content management systems that handle stories of a specific type. Each system has its own features, pulling data, links, tweets and anything else that can shed light on the topic. Humans + computers. Automated aggregates where they make sense, human judgment where it’s needed. The home page is merely a master aggregation of this confederation.

Each area of the site can evolve on its own, given changes in available data, technology, or staff. It’s the complete destruction and rebuilding of every piece of the workflow. Everyone’s job would change when it came to producing the news.

Crazy, you say? Probably. My developer friends and readers with IT backgrounds are spitting their coffee out right now. But is it any more crazy than continuing to use a print-production approach on the web? I don’t think it is. It is the equal and opposite reaction: little innovation at the core vs. a complete custom rebuilding of it. Frankly, I believe neither is sustainable, but only one continues at mass scale. And I believe it’s the wrong one.

While I was at the St. Petersburg Times, we took this approach of rebuilding the core from scratch with PolitiFact. We built it from the ground up, augmenting the story form with database relationships to people, topics, and rulings (among others). We added transparency by making the listing of sources a required part of an item. We took the atomic parts of a fact-check story and we built a new molecule with them. And with that molecule, we built a national audience for a regional newspaper and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Not bad for a bunch of print journalists experimenting with the story form on the web.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed that PolitiFact’s success didn’t unleash a torrent of programmers and journalists and journalist/programmers hacking away on new story forms. It hasn’t and I am.

But I’m not about to blame programmers in the newsroom. Many that I talk to are excited to experiment in any way they can with journalism and the web. The enemy is what we cling to. And it’s time to let go.

POSTED     March 8, 2011, 10 a.m.
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