Nieman Foundation at Harvard
What publishers around the world learned by sharing their climate change coverage with each other
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
March 5, 2012, 10 a.m.
Beakers in a laboratory

Reporters’ Lab searches for ways to make reporting cheaper, without cheapening the reporting

A new initiative at Duke University is building — and reviewing — software tools to take the drudgery out of investigative and public-affairs journalism.

Beakers in a laboratory

Labs are all the rage in journalism these days. There’s the Drone Journalism Lab, the Globe Lab, WaPo Labs, the New York Times R&D Lab, and more.

Duke University’s newly launched Reporters’ Lab is not building miniature helicopters or magic kitchen tables but the more practical, less sexy tools that make public-affairs journalism cheaper, easier, and faster.

Sarah Cohen, a professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, is director of the center, which formally goes by the title Project for the Advancement of Public Affairs Reporting.

“Lawyers get to have software that listens to depositions and does speech recognition on them, but we don’t have anything like that that works on our interview notes,” Cohen told me. “When we can’t get public records, we end up having to write elaborate programs to take data off the web.” Why can’t reporters have better tools?

The Reporters’ Lab is a vehicle for Duke’s computational journalism initiative, a phrase popularized by Cohen, Jay Hamilton, and Fred Turner in a series of papers. Computational journalism, Cohen says, refers to the use (and study) of technology to improve journalism production.

“Public records held in audio and video are like lost records.”

For example, a newspaper reporter covering a town meeting might be expected to live-tweet, file quickly, and maybe even get reax on video. That makes it tough to take good notes. Lab developer Charlie Szymanski is building a multi-function note-taking tool called Video Notebook. The software can line up tweets with video recordings of meetings to serve as navigation aids. As the reporter starts typing to transcribe, the video stops, patiently waiting for the typing to finish.

The Lab is also working with Carnegie Mellon University to bring usable speech recognition to audio recordings. Consumer software such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking is good at adapting to one voice in a quiet environment, not so good at making sense of meetings and press conferences. Cohen wants to eventually get high-quality transcription in the hands of reporters at a low cost. (This is, like, every reporter’s dream.)

“Public records held in audio and video are like lost records,” she said. “When I go into a courthouse and do reporting, I can no longer get a transcript in any reasonable amount of time — I have to just go listen to the audio and grab an MP3 of it. There are so many public meetings and public events that are only available on audio and video. I think that’s a huge problem.”

Sarah CohenCohen’s staff at Reporters’ Lab is small, and she wants to grab on to partnerships wherever possible. Software projects are posted publicly as “developer challenges.” The public is invited to contribute ideas and code in exchange for cash prizes and even short-term fellowships at Duke. Cohen plans to host her own unconferences and hack days to drum up interest.

Another project — just an idea at the moment — would mine RSS and Twitter feeds to identify trending topics on a reporter’s beat.

“There are maybe 100 to 150 different sources that you have to monitor every day to see whether there’s news you need to cover, from government agencies to small blogs to your neighborhoods, whatever,” Cohen said. “There’s no efficient way to monitor that and kind of group everything by topic, instead of by source or date.”

The ideas are simple, Cohen said, but no one else is tackling them. A recent conversation with a Google News engineer illuminates the difficult of attracting bright engineers to tackle problems of journalism. “They listened to my complaint about RSS feeds and they’re like, ‘Well, RSS feeds will eventually go away.’ Well, they’re not away yet!” she said. Engineers “tend not to be interested in solving today’s problems but future problems,” she said.

The Reporters’ Lab website, too, will be a public-facing resource. Managing editor Tyler Dukes is charged with writing about what the team is learning as well as how other journalists are using tools in unexpected ways to aid reporting. Dukes writes software reviews and posts FOIA’d documents, transcripts, and databases.

The project is not just about generating solutions but identifying who else is doing so, or at least trying. It is a collaborative effort to help journalists focus on the core product in a world of increasing demands of distractions.

“What we’re trying to do is find ways to cut time out of doing drudgery work in reporting,” Cohen said, “and get us back out into the field to do the good work.”

Photo of beakers by tk-link used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     March 5, 2012, 10 a.m.
Show comments  
Show tags
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
What publishers around the world learned by sharing their climate change coverage with each other
For the better part of this year, news organizations in the Climate Publishers Network have been republishing each other’s climate change stories in order to expand their coverage of the issue.
Hot Pod: Is “Why doesn’t audio go viral?” the wrong question to ask?
“What Rolltape represents to me is an attempt to carve out a whole new digital space that requests a completely different kind of social interaction: sincerely, thoughtfully, slowly.”
“Why not be all the way in?” How publishers are using Facebook Instant Articles
“If we end up making more money as a publisher, that’s fantastic. I don’t think that’s going to be an afterthought or byproduct; I think there is a way to win from the business perspective.”
What to read next
How one blog helped spark The New York Times’ digital evolution
“I certainly had editors tell me that I shouldn’t be wasting my time on Bird Week. But that was the best part of City Room…We were like unsupervised children.”
572News outlets left and right (and up, down, and center) are embracing virtual reality technology
Among those experimenting is The Wall Street Journal, which plans to open source its 360-degree mobile video and VR technology and hopes to turn VR into more of a mainstay of its storytelling.
502Podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like blogging circa 2004: exciting, evolving, and trouble for incumbents
The same trends we saw a decade ago — professionalization on one hand, platformization on the other — sure seem to be playing out again.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Fuego is our heat-seeking Twitter bot, tracking the links the future-of-journalism crowd is talking about most on Twitter.
Here are a few of the top links Fuego’s currently watching.   Get the full Fuego ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
New West
Zonie Report
Tribune Publishing
The Dish
The Huffington Post