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July 5, 2011, 2:30 p.m.

With its newest round of Knight funding, DocCloud will figure out how to scale reader annotations

Two years ago, DocumentCloud received $719,500 from the Knight News Challenge to build a tool that news organizations could use to upload, share, and then collaboratively read and analyze documents. Since then, the project has not only made good on its promise to “turn documents into data,” introducing its tool into the workflows of investigative reporters in newsrooms across the country, but it’s also found a way to ensure the tool’s sustainment, at least into the near future: In early June, DocCloud’s staff announced that the project would merge operations with, appropriately enough, Investigative Reporters and Editors. And more good news for DocCloud came later in June, when Knight made it a rare double-winner in its News Challenge, granting the project $320,000 to develop an additional feature: reader annotations.

The idea for an annotation mechanism actually originated, indirectly, with the Online News Association, says Amanda Hickman, DocCloud’s program director. She and the team had been thinking about how to include readers more broadly in the process of collaborative document-parsing; at last year’s ONA conference, Hickman began talking with the Public Insight Network‘s Andrew Haeg about how DocCloud might integrate what it already had — an interface that allows a small group of registered users to upload documents and make annotations — with what Public Insight has been up to: finding, and then tracking, a large group of potential story sources. Their conversations, Hickman told me in an email, resulted in “a very whittled down tool for identifying specific experts and asking them to review specific documents, pre-publication.”

That tool is currently in place in the DocCloud system — with the important caveat that, to use it, you have to be invited by a newsroom to do so. From the news organization’s perspective, “there’s a practical limit to who you can invite,” Hickman points out, and “there’s a certain degree of trust involved,” since a public document means, also, public annotations. “It’s a tool that makes sense,” she notes, “if you’re dealing with a few people who aren’t part of your newsroom who need to look over a document.”

It’s a tool that makes less sense, though, if you want broader public input in a given document — which, increasingly, news orgs do. So the reader annotations project faces a tricky task: taking the interplay between expertise and trust that has worked so well in the invite-only annotations system…and building it, somehow, to scale.

And that’s where the Knight funding comes in. With it, DocCloud will figure out how, exactly, to build out the tool’s existing efficiencies to facilitate, and encourage, broader public participation. The goal is pretty much the same as it was when Hickman and Haeg first chatted: to marry DocCloud’s existing annotations infrastructure with the Public Insight approach that helps newsrooms to connect with more sources, more diverse sources, and untapped sources of expertise.

An added twist, though: Whatever system the DocCloud team builds will likely need to interface with outlets’ existing comments infrastructures. Which is both practical and problematic. “We’re not here to reinvent anyone’s moderation system,” Hickman noted in a phone call, “so we’ll have to sort out how to let newsrooms moderate reader annotations” — in basically the same way they already moderate comments. They’ll have to build flexibility, in other words, into a single system to accommodate different outlets’ different approaches to reader commentary.

And they’ll also have to figure out a UI that leverages both the (hoped for) abundance of contributions and the (definite) need for operational efficiency. Visual and otherwise. “If one or two reporters annotate a document, they can make their own decision about how cluttered or uncluttered a page should be,” Hickman points out; with lots of people annotating, on the other hand, “there’s going to have to be some way to access an uncluttered page if you just want to read the document.”

That necessity will only expand as the tool’s document set does. As will the necessity of cleanly visualizing annotations that play out over time — since a document whose content is meaningful in one way, at one point in time, might take on an entirely different relevance later on, in a different context. So DocCloud will be tasked in part with “figuring out how you present a document that’s annotated in a different context,” Hickman notes. “It’s a really interesting puzzle.”

POSTED     July 5, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2011
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