Structured journalism : the next revolution in storytelling ?

Credits : Laura Wojcik

When you break the story down into something smaller, you get something bigger” said David Cohn, former chief content officer at Circa.

It is weird to start an article about a revolutionary technology with the quote from the former employee of a bankrupt journalism app that used it. Circa shutdown last June and did not find any investor willing to put money to save it. But its core idea is still alive : Atomizing news. (ie blowing up a big article into many pieces and using them again and again to rebuild many different hybrid stories)

This very principle is now imitated and improved by leading medias such as the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. Journalists and media thinkers call it Structured journalism, “an umbrella term that refers to thinking of journalism as bits and pieces of information that can be mixed and matched in infinite ways.”, according to the Colombia Journalism Review.

We could have called it “puzzle journalism” or “lego journalism”. But “structured” definitely sounds more serious .

Information like easily exchangeable and mixable lego bricks

Credits to Kenny Louis (Flickr creative commons)

To understand better what structured journalism looks like, let’s explore how Circa works.

Circa stories do not look like any other big unbreakable narrative blocks, with a beginning, a development, and an end. They are like hybrid lego constructions, made up of many little bricks. Here, bricks are paragraphs that add up to each other in a relevant way. But they can exist independently too.

A screencap of a story of the Circa News app

Let’s take an example : If Bachar Al Assad bombs Alep, this fresh information will add up to big previous stories. It can feed a big recap of the war in Syria, or another story about the weapons used by the Syrian army. It can even be used in another piece dealing with the strategy of Obama in the Middle East.

All news events are reported without any reference to previous or following content. So they can perfectly be incorporated to many different kinds of stories.

They become an easily transferable journalistic commodity. One single journalist crafts it, then stores it with precise metadata, and hundreds of his colleagues can use it in their pieces whenever they deal with similar topics.

Breaking into pieces to rebuilt flexible and adaptative narratives

You might tell yourself it is not very different from AFP or Reuters briefs. These easily transferable story bricks are actually quite different. Because unlike the news agencies’ones, these mini paragraph ambition to adapt to each user. In short, they disappear when you do not need them, and you can have them back if you lack information.

Imagine you know EVERYTHING about Bachar’s previous bombings. You might have already heard how many times he struck Alep before, what kind of weapons he used and why Barack Obama publicly responds the way he does to these attacks. Circa will not show you these stuff again if you do not want to. Because Circa knows you read already.

It is news on demand, with a bit of digital intelligence in it.

Structured journalism is more efficient both for journalists and readers :

The technology used by Circa is based on this simple conclusion : A big variety of background information is key to any journalist for his story, but not necessary to every reader.

Structured journalism tries to bridge the gap between these two very different visions of information.

More information available for journalists :

Structured journalism helps journalists writing easily transferable content that can be used again in other articles, as any other kind of data. Having a gigantic set of available pre-written background briefs, maps, timelines, and historic reminders will help journalists focus on reporting their own story, develop their angle better, and (maybe) go on the field.

But having a lot of data available does not mean structured journalism is data journalism. Here is a doodle to explain better the difference :

Data journalism starts with data. And it ends with a story. Structured journalism starts as a story. The story is used to create new data. Any kind of information that can stand in its own is isolated and stored to be used later by another journalists. Data is here a mean to many ends, and many nez different stories.

A better experience for readers :

As explained earlier, readers are free to hide content whenever they feel they do not need it. And they do not feel the difference because some paragraphs are crafted to be independent from the story.

A structured journalism piece about ISIS from the Washington Post illustrates well this flexible reader experience :

Here the reader does not know much what is ISIS. So he clicks on the question and the background story appears right next to the article in a Background section.

Another reader knows a lot and decides not to click. Nothing pops up in the right corner of the page. He does not need to know more so he will not. And he is the only one who decided. No worth saying the reading experience is more comfortable and smooth that way :

Of course, these techniques can only be applied to a certain kind of stories. Those that can be structured around several noticeable blocks : background, numbers, raw geographical data, or a recap of previous events. Some narratives cannot be atomized.

If you want to know more about this new form of journalism, you can browse the following projects :