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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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

                                   
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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=122201239 Andrew Spearin

    Your spelling of  ’Thompson’ is incorrect. There is no ‘p’ – it is Thomson.

  • http://www.justinellis.net Justin Ellis

    Complete brain flop on my part. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • http://jonathanstray.com Jonathan Stray

    I’m surprised that Reg didn’t mention the “Who Runs Hong Kong?” project that he spearheaded while editor of the South China Morning Post. This is a practical example of what you can do with a good journalistically-created database.

  • http://structureofnews.wordpress.com Reg Chua

    Jonathan, thanks for the mention of WRHK.  I really like the project, of course, but also realize there’s lots that could be improved there.  A nice step in terms of finding new ways to marry journalistic work and non-narrative forms of information. 

  • http://structureofnews.wordpress.com Reg Chua

    David, don’t disagree with you about the tenuous value of some notes
    journalists take – you should see my notebooks! I didn’t mean to say
    that we should publish everything a reporter jots down, and probably
    should have been clearer.  What
    I did mean to say is that we leave a lot of information in our
    notebooks just because it’s not immediately germane to the story we’re
    writing – everything from the interviewee’s age to address to
    relationship to another person, etc. Essentially stray facts that
    aren’t needed in the current narrative. What if we could capture
    some – not all, but ones relevant to a broader database/narrative – of
    that information on a regular, systematic basis? Couldn’t be build
    better news “products,” surface new insights, or look for the building
    blocks of new stories? Reg

  • john g

    Yes. We have become tired of chasing speed on information on direct market data. Now there is more of a trend to build and access towering data, complex events. Along with the speed on news and events. In the analyst world they are used to being tracked and ranked by all kinds of criteria. With news that is market moving or potential moving I want to know everything up to the ethical/legal limits on the the other side now  that we have the data capacity and crunch power to track this electronically.  The value added is we don’t have the time, and can’t operate the way a big media content/news/marketdata vendor gathers, and reports content and events. With exchange direct feeds we don’t need them so much now but all the other info is a different story. This should not really be news or any great secret here.  Just look at the fly on the wall lawsuit as  guide to a small part of this.  http://www.citmedialaw.org/blog/2010/barclays-v-theflyonthewallcom-hot-news-doctrine-alive-and-kicking-will-news-aggregators-be   Read this in context of court testimony:  
    According to Etergino, he checks first to see what Recommendations have been reported on Bloomberg Market News.  Then he checks Dow Jones, Thomson Reuters, and Fly’s competitors such as TTN, StreetAcount.com, and Briefing.com.  Next, he visits chat rooms to which he has been invited to participate by the moderator. . . . Etergino also receives “blast IMs” through the Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, or IMTrader messaging services that may go to dozens or hundreds of individuals.  Finally, Etergino exchanges IMs, emails, and more rarely telephone calls with individual traders at hedge funds, money managers, and other contacts on Wall Street.Id. at 34.  In other words, Fly acquires information about the reports through a process that looks a whole lot like good-old fashioned journalism.