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Sept. 27, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

Can lessons from Thomson Reuters’ data business help transform its journalism?

Data editor Reg Chua wants the company to rethink what the news story looks like (and how it’s delivered).

As a company, Thomson Reuters is perched high atop a mountain of information. It’s what they do — information in the form of “actionable data” for lawyers, accountants, and financial professionals, but also information in the form of news. You could call them information traffickers.

That fundamental act of packaging and imparting information is what Reg Chua is concerned with. Since being hired as data editor for Thomson Reuters, Chua has set his sights on what Reuters’ journalists on the media side of the fence could learn from the more product-izable business side — namely that people have a willingness, and appetite, for new forms of expressing and delivering information. As data editor, Chua wants Reuters to think bigger than simply using databases in reporting, or building expressive visualizations to partner with stories. What if the data itself, decoupled from the trappings of newswriting, were the story?

“There’s a whole bunch of proprietary databases we don’t use as effectively as we could in terms of reporting and stories,” Chua told me. “More broadly, my job is to get us to use data more effectively in journalism.”

To be clear, Chua isn’t advocating some kind of weird Reuters-synergy where you get fed bits of Westlaw or any other database as news. It’s more about the structure and delivery of information: finding the most effective way of using current technology to meet customers needs. Which is why Chua points to outlets like EveryBlock or PolitiFact, which present non-traditional forms of information as news. PolitiFact, Chua says, “is a good example of when you take a newsroom and rethink what they do, turn it into data, and create a new kind of — for lack of a better word — news product.”

The PolitiFact method is a kind of component journalism, or, as Chua calls it, “a disaggregated story”: It’s broken down according to constituent parts, the collection of statements to be vetted and information to be assessed. It’s not written or reported like a “traditional” story: It cuts out narrative, characterizations, and location in favor of simply conveying facts. “It looks like a story but it’s actually a series of structured information,” Chua said.

Chua’s interest in the infrastructure of journalism stems from his curiosity about technology and business, and it spans his time working at the South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. Last fall, he took to writing his own blog, (Re)Structuring Journalism, which explores the the transformation of news in changing times.

But why does journalism need such a fundamental rethinking? Because journalists have to be able to make the case to readers that the work they do is important — and prove that they’re willing to adapt. “We can’t do that by insisting we get paid for doing more and more of the same thing, especially in the face of a business model that doesn’t make much sense (or at least is unraveling),” Chua said.

So it worked out quite nicely that Chua wound up at an organization that looks like it’s growing more each day and appears to be open to experimentation. What he imagines is beefing up the use of databases in reporting at Reuters and making more kinds of information available for the public to play with. One big area of opportunity for news companies, Chua says, is in what he calls “data exhaust,” or the information that is a byproduct of other, larger data sets — which can lead to things like mapping the location-tracking data from your smartphone. “Previously, you would use data to report a story and it would end. You could only print so much,” Chua said. “You can now build a whole front end for people to dive in and immerse themselves in.”

In that way, data could make journalism a little more persistent, as Chua would say, giving it a shelf life that reaches far beyond one or two days. The next big hurdle for news companies, at least as Chua sees it, is to give news longevity and usefulness over time — through (what else?) better formatting and structure. In that way, a news product (a dreadful-sounding, but accurate name) that emphasizes data and information could be more useful to readers who are, say, Googling something in the future.

What Chua is talking about is, in a sense, the sustainability of news — not in a pay-the-bills way but in a make-journalism-endlessly-useful way. Achieving that could also involve, for example, capturing all the notes and information journalists collect for stories. How much more useful would news be, Chua asks, if the notes, which are often discarded once a story goes live, became another form of data available to the public? “Leave aside that the business model is unraveling: We’re at a real, new age in journalism and information presentation,” Chua said. “The possibilities are really wide open and we can do really interesting things with technology, online distribution, and interactivity. We should be grasping these things with enthusiasm.”

Photo by Jeroen Bennink used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     Sept. 27, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
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