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Structured Stories NYC: an experiment in local news

Duke students will be covering New York City Hall using a structured journalism platform developed by former Yahoo! product manager David Caswell.

By Bill Adair – May 26, 2015 | Print this article

This summer in New York City, we are going to reimagine how to cover local news.

Our project, Structured Stories NYC, will slice and dice local news into chunks that readers can combine and display in different ways. It will make it easier to follow long-running stories or track how city officials are involved in different issues. Our goal is to break away from the old way of presenting the news by giving readers the ingredients of the news and putting them in charge.

Three student journalists from the Duke Reporters’ Lab — Ishan Thakore, Natalie Ritchie and Rachel Chason — will be covering City Hall the same way as other reporters. They’ll be going to meetings and news conferences and talking with city officials.

But they will write the news in bite-sized morsels that can be displayed in several different ways.  For example, readers will be able to display bulletpoints, an article, a timeline, or a visual approach known as “cards.”

Our project is the brainchild of David Caswell, a former Yahoo! product manager with a fresh approach to journalism. He invented Structured Stories, a publishing platform that “atomizes” the news, enabling readers to see patterns and linkages they wouldn’t see in ordinary coverage. (To get a taste of David’s approach, check out his fun demo for the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which can be displayed as bullet points, a timeline or cards.)

A demo uses the tale of Little Red Riding Hood to show how Structured Stories atomizes the news.

The New York project is funded by a grant from the Online News Association Challenge Fund and is a partnership with WNYC, New York’s flagship public radio station. WNYC journalists will advise us on the biggest news stories of the summer and help us make sense of the city’s massive government.

This is very much an experiment. Although we have a framework for our project, there are many details to figure out. David has drafted a booklet of editorial guidelines that is more of a discussion document than an owner’s manual. At last count it had 67 questions that we still need to answer.

Using structured journalism for local coverage is still very new. It’s been tried by Homicide Watch, the local crime news site created by Laura and Chris Amico, as well as PolitiFact, the fact-checking website I started at the Tampa Bay Times.

PolitiFact developed campaign promise meters to track the promises of elected officials such as the Buck-O-Meter, which follows the achievements of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. A typical campaign promise item has two or three updates. But Structured Stories will be deeper and more complex, showing the intricate connections between people and events.

As David wrote in the editorial guidelines, “Sprawl is our friend. Story branches, details and interconnections are kinda the point.”

Structured Stories LogoI was thrilled to partner with David because I’m a big believer in new forms of journalism. I gave a TED talk in 2012 that said we should blow up the news story and create new story forms.

That’s what we’re doing with Structured Stories NYC.

If you’re interested in following our work, we’ll be posting it on StructuredStories.com. You can also check here on the Reporters’ Lab site for updates about how we’re doing. And I hope that by the next time you check, we’ve answered at least some of the 67 questions!

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No cold pizza: Notes from a structured journalism planning session

Structured journalists meet in Cambridge to plan more events and promotion in the next year.

By Bill Adair – February 23, 2015 | Print this article

We held Friday’s meeting in a windowless conference room because that’s where we go when we discuss structured journalism. This year, our meeting was at Google’s office in Cambridge, Mass., and our host David Smydra upheld the tradition.

It’s not that we fear sunlight. It’s just a quirk of scheduling. You may recall that last year’s meeting, our first, was in a windowless room at Reuters where we munched on cold pizza. This year, we got to enjoy Google’s amazing lunch buffet.

Around the table: David, Reg Chua of Reuters, Laura and Chris Amico, the creators of Homicide Watch, and me.

The goal for our second annual structured journalism strategy session was to assess how we did in our first year and set goals for the next 12 months.

A professorial Android greeted us at Google's Cambridge office.
A professorial Android greeted us at Google’s Cambridge office.

We discussed our successes. We held well-attended panels at the International Journalism Festival in Italy and the Online News Association meeting in Chicago and we started this mailing list. We also wrote blog posts and articles, although we each felt we could have done more.

We discussed our new structured projects: Laura did a demo of a cool one she’s leading at the Boston Globe, which should be published in the next couple of weeks; Chris did a demo of two structured sites he’s built for Frontline, Ballot Watch, which follows the changes in state voting laws, and Ebola Outbreak: How the Virus Spread.

I showed two mock-ups of websites I’m building with Duke students, one to track and rate medical studies (a project now on hold because we concluded it’s too complex a subject) and one that follows cases of athletes charged with crimes. We’re calling it Rule 46, after the NHL rule on fighting.

David did demos of some Google products that can help structured journalism: Google Consumer Surveys, which can generate revenue, and Google Newsstand, which publishes free and premium articles from various sources and can display structured content in an attractive and readable form.

Reg Chua, David Smydra, Bill Adair, Laura Amico and Chris Amico.
Reg Chua, David Smydra, Bill Adair, Laura Amico and Chris Amico.

A common theme in our discussions: the need for narrative and context in structured journalism. Questions and suggestions from the group made me realize that our sports crime project needed an additional feature — articles — to help readers better understand the structured content. Readers are interested in stories, David said, and we shouldn’t “outsource how the narrative gets built” to the user.

We discussed business goals and agreed that the long-tail potential and new, innovative content formats of structured journalism projects provide different kinds of opportunities to earn revenue. It’s important for both editorial and business-side leaders to plan for revenue opportunities from the start.

We agreed to keep speaking and writing about structured journalism. We’re holding a panel titled Why Structure is the Future of Journalism at the International Journalism Festival in April and we hope to hold another one at ONA15 in Los Angeles. We’ve also started collecting a list of structured journalism projects that I’ll be publishing on the website of the Duke Reporters’ Lab. And we’d like to get this listserv more involved in developing the ideas of structured journalism and spreading the word — perhaps a larger group meeting later this year would be useful, too. (Let us know if you would be interested in that!)

We’ll be holding another planning session next year, probably at Duke. I’ll find us a windowless room.

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