Atomizing The News To Make It Smarter

Let’s blow up the story and create new forms Politifact Founder and Journalism Professor Bill Adair urged his 2012 Ted talk audience.

And that’s exactly what he’s done. Together with with David Caswell, former product manager of Yahoo, Adair is “atmoizing” the news and writing stories for computers to read. They’ve designed a new platform, structured journalism, that breaks a news event into small pieces enabling readers to see new patterns and linkages.

This data-driven approach to reporting is still nascent, according to Caswell. “With lots of structure inside the machine, readers will be able to get information in news ways,” says Adair. Unlike traditional news stories, structured writing includes a ‘hidden’ web of connections that is malleable and intelligent. The result is dynamic and individualized information readers have never been able to get before.

What makes this work so exciting is that its innovating the actual composition of the news story. Structured journalism uses the power of networks and databases to create dynamic narrative structures that are unique to each reader. This is a major step in digital journalism’s evolution because most technological advances are focusing on the delivery of news: this news experiment fundamentally changes how news stories are written to take advantage of the algorithmic capabilities of networks.

Young Duke university reporters had a chance to practice this hybrid form of traditional reporting and database development covering New York City government. “This project makes me feel like I’m learning to write again,” says Ishan Thakore, a member of the Structured Stories NYC team. “A structured story is different from ‘regular’ writing because it’s all about breaking the news into data,” says Thakore.

Here’s how it works, according to Thakore. The data comes in two forms: verbs and nouns. Verbs can be linked back to the FrameNet database, an expansive project that tracks meaning. The FrameNet database can be read by both humans and computers. It translates complex human meaning into data. Nouns come from Freebase, a database owned by Google that assigns items unique identifiers. (You can see a five-minute demo at the site.)

“Increasingly, we notice ourselves deconstructing the news as we read it, breaking down articles into a series of events, and dicing those events into their primary nouns and verbs. We’ve learned not to worry about engaging leads or colorful language. Instead, we focus on crafting clear, concise, and specific events that are easily ‘structurable,’” says Rachel Chason, another member of Duke’s NYC team.

Using structured journalism for local coverage is still very new. Some examples include Homicide Watch, the local crime news site created by Laura and Chris Amico and PolitiFact, the fact-checking Adair built at the Tampa Bay Times that earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

An elegant and impressive example of structured journalism is the Marshall Project’s “The Next To Die,” a real-time countdown of death row prisoners. It’s main page is stark and dramatic, but the site also includes more traditional news forms, such as case summaries, historical data, relevant graphics, and recent updates. Another feature is an embeddable widget for easy sharing.

The BBC issued its own Manifesto for Structured Journalism and the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets are experimenting with this new form of writing, reporting, and designing news stories.

“Discovering how structured journalism might work in practice for news producers and consumers requires nothing less than a complete reimagining of what news can be,” says Caswell. But the payoff for such bravey and innovation is enormous. “If society could find a way to tap the power of networks to accumulate and pay for quality journalism, then the dire economics of news media just might be reversible.”

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