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June 26, 2015, 10:36 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“Learning to write again”: A Duke team tests a new way of reporting on New York City government

This summer, a team of students is testing whether a database-driven, structured journalism model can work well on topics like urban policing and Uber.

When Bill Adair and his team began their first structured story a few weeks ago, it took them 40 minutes to enter a single sentence. When you consider that most of their stories will be made up of hundreds of such sentences — or “events” — you start to wonder how this new form of journalism will ever get off the ground.

And it is very new. Structured journalism, as a concept, has only been around for a few years. “Traditional journalism really has just two fields in the database — a headline and text,” Adair, director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, told me. “For more than 100 years, that’s how journalists have been presenting their work.”

Add many more fields to that database, though — present the journalism in a more structured way, with names, dates, quotations, objects, and topics all receiving their own fields — and the reader will be able to act on a journalist’s work in many more ways. That’s the argument of structured journalism, at least. “If we structure stories [and] daily work right, we get to build something where the sum is greater than the parts, and give an incentive to keep the daily reporting going,” Reg Chua, Reuters’ executive editor of editorial operations, data, and innovation and an early proponent of structured journalism, wrote back in 2010.

Adair is best known as the founder of PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning Tampa Bay Times initiative to rate the truth of politicians’ claims, in 2007. When the site launched, Adair didn’t call it “structured journalism” — he just knew that it was a new way of presenting information to readers. Over time, though, he learned that other journalists — notably Laura and Chris Amico of Homicide Watch — were experimenting with similar approaches.

What counts as structured journalism? It’s “anything that is more structured than an old-fashioned news story, and that is also continually updated,” Adair explained. The atomized elements of Circa, the recently shuttered news app, counts, for instance. Vox’s card stacks, on the other hand? They’re not really structured journalism, in Adair’s view, because they’re “not linked to each other very well.” And if a news organization publishes a static database of information, “that’s data journalism,” but doesn’t qualify as structured journalism unless it’s updated continually.

Breaking news events into their constituent parts

If you want to do structured journalism, you need a place to enter your information. Last fall, David Caswell, a former Yahoo product manager, presented his Structured Stories platform at the ONA conference in Chicago. Structured Stories is a database created expressly to work with journalistic news; reporters can use it to enter news events as data, and then stitch them together into a narrative, or “structured story.”

Adair was “truly in awe at how [Caswell] had broken news down to this very elemental level.” The Duke Reporters’ Lab received a $35,000 ONA grant to use Caswell’s platform to launch Structured Stories NYC, covering local government in New York City.

Adair is heading the summer-long project, which is based out of a coworking space in the Financial District. Working with him are Ishan Thakore, 22, who graduated from Duke in the spring, and two current students, Natalie Ritchie, 21, and Rachel Chason, 20. Thakore is covering New York City housing, Ritchie is looking at Uber’s fraught relationship with local government, and Chason is investigating Mayor Bill de Blasio’s police department.

It’s a “fundamentally different” way of covering the news, Ritchie told me, and it takes awhile to get the hang of covering stories in this way. Thakore wrote about the process on the project’s blog:

A structured story in its raw verb/noun form is not meant to be read by a human. In fact, most readers won’t see the structured view when they visit the Structured Stories platform. They’ll read the bullet-points or summaries, which Rachel, Natalie and I write after we have structured an event. Bullet-points and summaries are the “normal” human sentence behind an event. Underlying that sentence, though, is a web of connections and malleable data that will provide readers with new information they have never been able to get before.

This project makes me feel like I’m learning to write again. I’m paying extra attention to nouns and verbs and stripping events to their core meaning. There seems to be a constant tug of war between language and structure when writing these events, with the ideal falling somewhere in the middle.

And here’s Ritchie:

Making the event frames means wrestling with that fine line between specificity and simplicity. We find ourselves debating whether “presenting a plan” requires a “communication” or “submitting a document” frame. It’s a small distinction, but it is key to the bigger issue: translating language to structure.

The process gets faster over time, but at the beginning it’s tedious. Adair wrote about the project’s first week:

A couple of times, I got the sense that we were like scientists who were about to unlock the atom of news. I summarized the first day by saying, “Mind blown.”

But there also were times where I wondered if we have too much structure in our approach and that we’ll end up creating a giant database with hundreds of humdrum entries on municipal government. We need to make sure that even though we’re using a unique approach we are still creating valuable, interesting journalism.

“Initially, I thought the process would be much more reporting-heavy,” Thakore said. “Instead, a lot of our research has been through the computer and Google, not so much hands-on journalism.”

Adair notes that traditional journalism can include plenty of tedium, too. Once the events are entered into the database, “you have the economy of not having to describe all the things that came before,” he said. “It’s hard to measure how many hours of a reporter’s time are wasted writing a paragraph about things you have written before. When we get accustomed to it, I think it will actually save reporters time and readers time.” Reporters won’t have to rehash background (since stories are continually updated) and readers who aren’t familiar with a subject already can start from the beginning, while those who know more can choose to see only what’s new and skip the rehash.

This is an experiment, Adair said, and it might not work. “At the end of this, we may discover that we have a great new way of covering local news,” he told me. “We may discover that we have a great new way of covering local news, but that it needs a little bit of adjustment. We also hold out the possibility that this may not work. We go into it with realistic expectations.”

“Whenever you’re doing something that is so data-driven or stripped down, it can seem very threatening to traditional journalism,” Ritchie said. “It’s not intended to be, and shouldn’t be, a replacement. Complement is the right word. It’s offering a new way to look at things.”

Photo of a model of a tetrahydrofuran molecule by incidencematrix used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 26, 2015, 10:36 a.m.
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