Field notes from the Structured Stories NYC staff: Ishan Thakore, Natalie Ritchie and Rachel Chason.
A few weeks ago I stopped by a City Council meeting for some context on New York City’s housing issues.
Several housing issues were coming to a head, brought on by a slew of press attention and the end of Albany’s legislative term. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) had recently released a plan to reduce its budget shortfall, but Council members were skeptical. The council’s chairman of the public housing committee, Ritchie Torres, sparred with NYCHA administrators during the meeting, questioning their estimates and decision-making. Moments like these were exciting, and helped me understand the real-world repercussions of NYCHA’s plan.
But weeks later, that’s still the only meeting I’ve been to. I continue to spend most of my days at my desk, combing through articles, picking out events and then structuring them for our website. Research, Input, Repeat.
As students working on a journalism project overseen by a journalism professor, we’ve been strongly encouraged to leave our cushy chairs and cover the news in-person. Our professor’s words went something like, “Get out of the office! Cover things!”
Why haven’t I left the office more? For one, reading older articles provides context to what’s going on in the news. To understand NYCHA’s current budget woes, I had to first read about how the agency began in the 1930s and evolved as new legislation restructured it. Reading articles is generally more productive too; I can spend an afternoon publishing dozens of events for our structured journalism site, as opposed to only a handful after a multiple-hour hearing.
But staying in the office removes a human element from Structured Stories, and makes the work more rote than I enjoy. My eyes are glued to a monitor for most of the day, and I feel a step removed from the events on the ground.
Finding a balance between original reporting versus comprehensive research is tricky. As we build out the site, I feel like the latter is more important, although that may shift as stories become developed and are up-to-date.
At my first City Council hearing on bail reform, I took dutiful notes for two hours only to realize that not a single “event” had really taken place other than: “[a character] held [a meeting].”
My second hearing, on capping Uber’s growth, was far more contentious and exciting –– for a City Council meeting. Taxi drivers would periodically cheer in the balcony while Uber employees shook their heads at Council members’ statements. I ducked out after a couple of hours to check out a protest on the front steps of City Hall, arriving just in time to hear Josh Mohrer, Uber’s NYC general manager, proclaim the imminent “end of Uber as you know it.”
Having been properly warned of the urban transit apocalypse, I approached Mohrer afterwards and asked him about a few of the stories I’d been covering over the last few weeks. It was fun to do real reporting after being cooped up in the office so much lately. But I have to agree with Ishan that there are limits to the usefulness of original reporting when it comes to Structured Stories.
For example, in a traditional story, catching Josh Mohrer in a lie could have been the hook — the splashy headline that made being there in person so valuable. But in the structured story, his false claim was just another small event alongside the two dozen or so from the day.
Was that single event worth the hours at City Hall? Or should I have spent a fraction of that time gleaning events from other sources’ accounts, even if it meant missing Mohrer’s misstatement?
The tension between efficiency and in-person reporting is by no means unique to our project. Still, the calculation is different when the end product is not an article, but chains of events.
If efficiency is measured in the number of events I write for Structured Stories, then my hour and a half at the Citizen’s Union meeting was more or less wasted.
At the annual meeting of the civic watchdog group, I watched the characters I had read about earlier that day — including Manhattan’s District Attorney and Brooklyn’s president — engage in heated discussion about subjects such as discriminatory police stops and how best to prosecute police implicated in the killing of civilians.
I realized the meeting had the right components — including colorful characters, conflict and compelling statistics — to make a lively news story.
If I had been writing a traditional article, I would have begun with the story of the main speaker, Brooklyn’s president Eric Adams, a fierce NYPD reform advocate who was a member of the department for 22 years.
A line from his speech would have made a strong lead quote: “When you love something you want to make it as good as it can be. I am not against Quality-of-Life policing. I am against the abusive policing that is too common today.”
I would have then shifted to the statistics highlighted during the meeting — noting that in 2014, 55 percent of New Yorkers stopped by the NYPD were black, and 29 percent were Latino, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Next I would’ve highlighted conflict during the meeting, focusing in particular on sparring between a victims’ rights advocate and Manhattan’s District Attorney Cyrus Vance over whether a special prosecutor should be appointed when police are involved in civilian deaths.
But in the unique format of a Structured Story, the entire scene would have been boiled down to just one Structured Stories “event,” accompanied by a bullet point and two or three sentences in a summary.
Such a format is powerful in that it would connect this event a to a permanent, sourceable web of stories on police brutality dating back to the 1990s. It’s limited, though, in that it would fail to capture the lively dialogue and atmosphere in the room.
Covering a meeting like Citizens Union revealed how important traditional reporting remains, even with this new platform. In the future, reporters could feasibly use structured journalism to complement their original reporting, writing a traditional article and then inputting events in a database.