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March 18, 2013, 11:58 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Monday Q&A: Washington Post’s Cory Haik on TruthTeller and prototyping in the newsroom

“We’ve sort of developed this rhythm: we come up with an idea, we do a prototype of it really quickly, and we decide do we move it forward or try it for something else.”

coryhaikCory Haik doesn’t care for the phrase “snackable content.” It’s not that Haik, The Washington Post’s executive producer for digital news, doesn’t agree with the idea of developing new formats for news — she told me the Post’s mobile traffic almost surpasses desktop during certain parts of the day. But Haik said it’s important to think in terms broader than “the commuter waiting for the train” or “the person reading on their phone while waiting in line.” Media companies like the Post have to be able to slice up their journalism in new ways, she said, for readers who are catching up on news in the evenings or looking for features on weekends.

Content parting is just one of the ideas Haik spends her time thinking about at the Post, where she helps direct data projects, news applications, mobile development, video, and more. One of the Post’s newest projects is TruthTeller, a real-time fact-checking tool that takes a Shazam-like approach to debunking misleading statements. I talked with Haik about the project, as well as how the Post creates internal tools to help reporting, their plans for a new video channel, and developing the next Wonkblog. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: Where did the idea for TruthTeller come from?
Cory Haik: Early on in the GOP primary, our national political editor, Steven Ginsberg, went out to a rally for Michele Bachmann in Iowa. He listened to her talk, literally in the middle of a field, to a small crowd of people, and he called me immediately after. He said, “Cory! Michele Bachmann’s been lying to people for 45 minutes. Can we do something about it?”

My answer is always yes we can, of course we can. They’ve all got phones in their hands, there’s something to be done there. It could have been any politician — it was Michele Bachmann, but insert anyone. My thought — because Shazam was a thing and Siri was hot at the time — I thought, “We can take the video, they can upload it, we can do something with that.” So, here we are with a prototype with funding from Knight and it works.

It’s just a prototype. It’s extracting audio from video and doing speech-to-text translation, running an algorithm that we built that looks for claims in that text and matches it to a database. We’re moving it past the prototype now, but we have something that does the job so that feels pretty good.

Ellis: What have you learned through the prototype process?
Haik: I think what we knew all along, which is that it’s sort of an aspirational project. I sort of have my sights on 2016, really, which sounds very far out. But if you think about what we’re trying to build, it makes sense. The goal of someone being in that field in Iowa and able to hold up their phone and listen to someone talking, and the Post could leverage networks that could say “that’s true,” “that’s not true,” in real time.

What we have is something that is much slower. It’s gonna take some time to close that gap and do that real-time fact-checking, because speech-to-text is hard. There’s a process time and other issues. You’ve got to the tweak the algorithm. It’s just complicated in terms of the technology. But it is doable. Somebody tell me no and then we’ll prove them wrong.

Ellis: Was the idea motivated by the growth of mobile?
Haik: Yes. I’m obsessed with mobile. Mobile, social, video — those are the key elements. Mobile, for everyone, it’s just growing. Every year was the “year of mobile,” but we’re finally here. But this is the year of responsive. This is the year where all the web is mobile web. There are times of day where our mobile traffic is close to desktop. It depends on the type of content you’re talking about, the time of day, evenings or weekends. It’s important.

We launched a new mobile website ahead of the presidential conventions because we really needed an extensible platform to be able to do the kinds of things that we did. We developed The Grid, which we put out there for the conventions, which was responsively designed. That was our first responsive project. Everything we’re doing now — in the bigger product, platform, or project way — is being designed responsively. TruthTeller was designed responsively. We imagined it, of course, as a mobile app, so we’ll see where we get with that.

Are native applications going to be a thing in 2016? We’ll see. But we do know that mobile is one of the most important things for our audiences and we’re reaching people in new places.

Ellis: It would seem like the Post would have a good audience in the D.C. area for mobile, considering the number of people commuting and the number who are, for business or otherwise, on their phones all the time. Does that give you more incentive to find new ways to use mobile?
Haik: I think that’s right. The Post is interesting in that we’re a regional newspaper publication — we only deliver our broadsheet in the DMA. But we are a national and international digital operation. Our regional audience, they’re a commuting audience and our new mobile website we launched in early August, it actually does some interesting offline reading stuff.

Really, our job is to make sure we’re delivering you an experience that does the right thing for your device.

If you go to that site and you get on the train, a lot of that is pre-cached and then you can actually read it. That’s important. So thinking about the commuting experience is very important.

There was this concept for a while that people thought — and this word sort of annoys me — it’s a ‘snackable’ experience. Doesn’t that just sound wrong? You’re waiting in line for something or you want to quickly check in on your lunch hour — whatever it is, you’re coming in bursts. But think about what you do in the evenings. Think of what you do in the airport. Think about what you do on Sunday mornings on your couch. You’re on your phone for a long time. That’s awesome.

The desktop audience for a long time — and still is, you can look at the peak times of our site — it follows the business day. That makes a lot of sense. Traffic is different on the weekends. But guess what — on mobile, it’s happening. So it’s important for us to think about dayparting, and content parting in a whole new way.

Another thing that annoys me — even though you didn’t ask, I’ll tell you — there was this concept for a long time of “platform-agnostic.” I think that’s fine if you’re making sure your journalism can be malleable to all forms. But what about platform-specific? There are devices out there that do things you should be taking advantage of that people are using in new and different ways. Really, our job is to make sure we’re delivering you an experience that does the right thing for your device, that does the right thing for our digital storytelling, that meets you where you are when you’re at that place with that device.

Ellis: Give me an example of devices doing specific things.
Haik: The whole concept of The Grid — that truly was designed mobile-first. We developed it for the presidential conventions — and we’ve iterated way past that, which is exciting, and I’ll tell you what we’re doing with The Geo Grid — but that was designed for people walking around the conventions saying “what’s happening now and what’s happening next?” It was sort of like a convention app meets the news. But really it was designed for the experience of that person on their phone wanting to know what is happening in the moment, curating the social landscape for them, giving them the latest news. It’s beautiful on desktop as well, but we really, very much had that person in mind.
Ellis: I always like to ask people in newsroom leadership how they try to bring in new people. You’ve talked about having people who are a “disruption layer” in the newsroom. How do you find people like that? Especially now that so many people are trying to find folks who have experience outside the world of journalism?
Haik: I think that the number one thing is bring your passion, because news is the business of that. We’ve got a team — they are so talented. I like to call them the studio of specialists. They collaborate together around stories, concepts, emerging technology. We’ve sort of developed this rhythm: we come up with an idea, we do a prototype of it really quickly, and we decide do we move it forward or try it for something else. We usually try to connect it to something that is happening. We built a new liveblogging platform for the Olympics. I can’t tell you how far we’ve taken that thing. We’re liveblogging the pope. We’re liveblogging everything.

The Grid, we iterated way past that and now we have this geo view where we can segment social by geo. We built the Mention Machine that was doing social counting early on in the presidential race.

My goal was to make sure our audience knew that we cared about social as a real indicator in the race, but also I wanted our newsroom to care about it.

So we took the Mention Machine technology that we built and we’re running a query around the pope and all these terms. We didn’t end up publishing anything, but we were able to segment out social by geo, at a pretty high percentage rate. Much higher than I thought we’d really be able to do. The team is psyched.

We didn’t publish anything, but that’s okay. We sort of moved that forward so we’re ready for the next thing. It’s this really nice collection of digital journalists who care a lot about moving that ball forward, doing digital that matters, and pushing the digital storytelling forward.

Ellis: Jumping back to the Mention Machine, so you guys used that internally? Ben Welsh at the L.A. Times is always talking about building tools for newsroom reporting. Do you guys do that a lot? Are there other examples?
Haik: I’m not sure that I could think of other examples off the top of my head. But I do know that the things that we’ve built in the last year, year and a half — really since we’ve formally moved the developers into the newsroom — everything that we do, there are no one-offs. That’s the deal. We might have custom display or a custom use for it, but if we are building some kind of back end and it’s a new technology, we want to make sure that we’re going to be able to use that for other things.

There are exceptions. But the Mention Machine was this concept of, “Hey, let’s count Twitter!” It’s very basic, but when we launched it, which was the first day of the primaries in 2012, that was way before Twitter’s Twindex, way before all these other things were doing more sophisticated sentiment analysis.

The Post built that and we displayed it in a prominent way on our site, so we said “This guy is up, this gal is down, according to Twitter mentions.’ My goal was to make sure our audience knew that we cared about social as a real indicator in the race, but also I wanted our newsroom to care about it. And they did. They blogged off of it, they took screenshots, they used the data. That was really an advancement. And now, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve used that Mention Machine technology to do social counting for projects.

We did it when the pope stepped down — we turned the Mention Machine on. We had this expertise in house and we know all the papal candidates, so we fed that into the Mention Machine with some other query terms and said “start counting.” From 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. that day, we counted, and then we built this really beautiful interactive around the number of Twitter counts by potential successor. That’s moving it forward, and that’s doing digital journalism I think is valuable and people in this room feel really good about.

Ellis: So, Wonkblog. That seems like something that has grown and taken on a life. Are there other types of blogs or people or personalities that the Post would spin off like that and create into a franchise that is part of the Post itself?
Haik: Ezra Klein, he’s of the web and he’s really paying attention. He’s fantastic and it’s great what’s he’s doing. We feel really good about it. We absolutely hope that we can develop other bloggers in the same way. We have a new blogger in World, Max Fisher, who’s writing every day, and he’s just phenomenal. People are reading him and they love it, and he’s only been here a very short time but he’s just cranking stuff out. It’s the kind of journalism people are interested in digitally, and it ties back to the core of what we’re trying to do. So the answer is absolutely yes.
Ellis: You mentioned video. I know you guys are making more investments in video and plan to launch a video channel. What would we see on a Washington Post video channel and what types of things can people expect?
Haik: We’ve been doing video for a long time. In fact, the Post has a storied tradition of video — we did some early work there and we’ve been moving along figuring out what’s the right thing for us next. People are consuming video on our site. We have journalists in the room that spend a lot of time doing things on air, and we think it’s a natural fit to move them into that forum.

I think what you’ll find is something that’s immersive, that’s interactive, that feels of the web. We don’t want to recreate something. Not stale, not boring, not just talking heads. We really do want to make it of the web. If you can turn Wonkblog into something in video, just imagine that. We want to make it something that truly is right for the time, that has the expertise, and is of the Post that way. We have access to all these politicians, all these leaders, so bringing that forth in a new medium. We hope you like it — we’re working really hard on it.

Ellis: How much do you follow where your traffic is coming from?
Haik: We do pay a lot of attention to where people come from. You can slice and dice — that’s the beauty of it. I imagine a world where, depending on where you’re coming from, you’re offering people an experience that makes sense and can be more fitting. You can imagine someone that comes from social that’s more interested in a social experience, or is interested in seeing more content that appears that way. Also, device — that same user that’s coming from social that’s on mobile. They might be more interested in something also in that same vein.

I don’t mean necessarily personalizing every single experience, but I think those are the kinds of things responsive design and a more extensible platform can allow for. We’re always thinking along those lines. Where our users are coming from is important. The days of people sitting around, of expecting people to type in “” are over. We do care deeply about where the referrers are coming from, and we also care about meeting them there and engaging them there and bringing them back.

POSTED     March 18, 2013, 11:58 a.m.
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