The Cortico Newsroom

What’s it’s like to be a journalist? Where do stories come from? How does the reporting process actually unfold and produce the news we consume each day?

Journalism is essential to a healthy public sphere, but right now it’s struggling to be a sustainable business, especially on the local level. So Cortico is developing AI-powered tools that will help journalists find voices and stories that reflect the reality of life in the communities they cover.

One is Earshot, which allows reporters to track and search the local public-sphere conversation — currently talk radio and Twitter, with more data sources to come — on any topic. While building it, we’ve been thinking and talking a lot about how journalists work.

Early in the development process, our colleague Peter Beshai interviewed dozens of journalists about their work and wrote up his findings for the team. Two of us, Andrew Heyward and I, bring our past experience as journalists to the effort each day.

I recently sat down and used Earshot as if I were a local reporter using it to write a story. My assignment was to write the first installment of a weekly “Heard in Boston” column that my imagined employer, a newspaper, had just started. Deadlines are central to the journalism experience, so I gave myself one hour to find the material that drives the column: good local quotes about topical issues and events. I did this twice and each time wrote a narrative of the reporting experience, noting strengths and weaknesses of Earshot for this particular task. The team found these reports useful.

But to really learn about a craft, there’s nothing like doing it yourself. So I organized an exercise called The Cortico Newsroom. One day last week, nine of us gathered in our workspace here in Cambridge, with Andrew (game for the exercise, though he’s reported countless news stories) joining remotely from New York City.

I divided the group into five teams, each assigned to pull together a “Heard in…” column for one of three cities, Boston, MA, Phoenix, AZ or Madison, WI, using only Earshot. The goal was to produce a complete “Heard in…” piece with five good quotes, on a one-hour deadline. I would serve as editor, helping with any questions and watching the clock. I would then read all the finished pieces and select the one best suited for publication. The winning team would receive a journalism-themed prize: copies of the soon-to-be-published Bob Woodward book about the Trump White House.

Everyone dove in with enthusiasm, the competitive juices clearly flowing. They had very few questions for their hovering editor, and impressively, everyone made deadline. The winning entry, by Boston team Laura Powell and Brandon Roy, stood out for its topic choices — local people speaking up about 1) the Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandal, and 2) a controversial Massachusetts casino proposal — and pithy talk-radio and Twitter quotes on same.

Though this was a brief exercise, the team came away with a new understanding of how journalism works and, crucially, ideas for making Earshot better.

Written by William Powers