“Structured Stories NYC”

Week 6 of Structured Stories: Could we do this from a warehouse in Durham?

Students on the team explore whether they could actually work from a remote location far from the city they're covering.

By Natalie Ritchie & Rachel Chason – July 14, 2015 | Print this article

Field notes by the Structured Stories NYC team: Ishan Thakore, Natalie Ritchie and Rachel Chason.

When Bill visited our New York office last week, we talked about how the project was going and, more specifically, the utility of original reporting. The lesson from last week’s blog post was that attending meetings isn’t really critical for Structured Stories. At one point, Bill asked, “Could we operate Structured Stories NYC from a warehouse in Durham?”

Our quick reply — probably so.

As we mulled it over, we all agreed. We could have done this anywhere.

Because so many resources are available online, from court documents to live videos of committee hearings, remote reporting is both feasible and efficient.

Traditional reporters still need the immediate access to sources, the details of a scene and the off-hand remarks that can only be caught in person. But for us, the situation is different.

While most news organizations focus more on breaking news, we have preferred in-depth, historical research that provides background and context to recent events. And the archived news articles, historical records and statistics that we need to describe those events and stories can all be found online.

Granted, if we weren’t in New York, Ishan might not have developed his relationships with WNYC reporters, Natalie wouldn’t have talked to Josh Mohrer and Rachel wouldn’t have met police brutality protesters in Union Square.

At the end of the day, however, we all would’ve been able to create the same number of events whether in New York or in a warehouse in Durham. Remote reporting is uniquely feasible in this Structured Stories project.

But being disconnected from the stories we’re covering has been something of a downside to the project.

For three budding journalists who enjoy getting out and talking to people, Structured Stories NYC has not been quite what we expected. Inputting events has at times felt tedious, and we’re largely cloistered in our office all day. While some people might find this work rewarding, we doubt traditional journalists would if they had to do it full-time.

But we think there might be a good balance in this scenario: a beat reporter who spends most of the day covering the news in a traditional way and concludes with an hour or two structuring stories.

That would give the reporter a more well-rounded job experience and provide Structured Stories with the expertise of a skilled journalist.

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Week 5 of Structured Stories NYC: The pros and cons of leaving the office

Can you do structured journalism without covering meetings? The reporters on Structured Stories NYC discuss the pros and cons.

By Ishan Thakore & Natalie Ritchie – July 6, 2015 | Print this article

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.


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Week 4 of Structured Stories NYC: Thinking like “structured journalists”

Halfway through our New York experiment, we're focusing on clear writing that is "structurable" rather than flashy leads.

By Rachel Chason – June 29, 2015 | Print this article

At the halfway mark in our eight-week Structured Stories project on Friday, Natalie, Ishan and I decided to measure our performance.

By the numbers, we’ve made substantial progress — we’ve created 182 new events in 15 stories, all of which are now live on the Structured Stories website.

The more events and stories that we input, the more we find that our thinking about narrative stories changes. Increasingly, we notice ourselves deconstructing the news as we read it, breaking down articles into a series of finite 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,” to use a term recently coined by David.

We are, in other words, finally beginning to think like structured journalists.

But a number of questions remain. In fact, sometimes it feels like the more progress we make, the more questions — big and small, technical and editorial — we have.

We’re helping David make improvements to the content management system. As we input events for our four main topics — policing, bail reform, housing and Uber — we’ve found more than 25 bugs. The list of unresolved editorial issues currently stands at 56 — a number indicative of how much we’ve learned, but daunting nonetheless.

One of our most persistent struggles remains translating events we intuitively understand in language to structured events.

In a traditional article, for example, it makes sense to say that airports have started ticketing Uber drivers. In a structured story, however, this statement would have to be attached to a specific event — with a specific authority, time and place.

We’ve tackled issues like these in hours of daily check-in Skype sessions with David, countless messages to David on Slack and near-constant discussion among ourselves.

David has patiently reassured us that this question-filled dialogue is not only natural, but also helpful in the long term. He’s reminded us that we’ve used language for tens of thousands of years, but that this data-driven approach to narrative is still nascent.

“Finding an alternative to using language in writing is a pretty audacious goal,” he noted. “It makes sense if it feels a little weird, a little unnatural at first.”

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Week 3 of Structured Stories NYC: Getting the hang of it

We've found that explaining Structured Stories isn't easy. But as we begin loading events into the CMS, we're figuring it out.

By Natalie Ritchie – June 22, 2015 | Print this article

There’s a particular anxiety that hits me whenever someone asks me to explain what I’m doing this summer.

I fumble through an answer with phrases like “news database” and “knowledge graphs” and “combinatorial explosion” only to face blank stares and quietly confused nods. In the end, I always wind up telling people to just wait and see, promising it will all be clear(er) once our work began appearing on the site.

We finally reached that point on Wednesday when Ishan, Rachel, and I started publishing our stories online.

As Ishan explained last week, our stories are made up of events—hundreds of them so far. Each requires the creation of an “event frame,” such as “[A Character] passed [A Law]” or “[A Character] published [An Object] about [A Topic].” To then make an event, we simply put information in the brackets and tag each one with a date, location, and primary sources. The final touches are the bullet points and summaries that the reader will see.

The process strips events to their core, leaving no room for color or flowery language. In David’s words, “It’s like old school reporting from the 50’s—just the facts, just ‘who/what/when/where.’”

Interestingly enough, the most challenging part was the creation of seemingly-simple event frames. Our first efforts were markedly “off,” but through lots of trial and error––and David’s infinite patience––we’ve started to get the hang of it.

Making the event frames means wrestling with that fine line between specificity and simplicity. We find ourselves debating whether “presenting a plan” requires a “communication” or “submitting a document” frame. It’s a small distinction, but it is key to the bigger issue: translating language to structure.

As we continue to add frames, events, and stories to the website, the list of “bugs” and “issues” gets longer and longer. But far from being discouraging, this document is in many ways the most valuable output of all in our experiment this summer––”the gold mine,” as David called it.

With every little question or problem we’re coming closer to understanding Structured Stories and what it could become—and closer to having an answer when people ask just what it is we’re doing this summer.

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Week 2 of Structured Stories NYC: Nouns, verbs and learning to write again

In the second week, the Reporters' Lab team gets more familiar with the Structured Stories platform and begins some original reporting.

By Ishan Thakore – June 15, 2015 | Print this article

We hit the ground running last week, eager to begin constructing structured stories on our topics.

I Googled everything I could about “NYC Housing” and was quickly overwhelmed. For some context, I stopped by City Hall for a hearing on the New York City Housing Authority’s plan to erase its deficit. Rachel researched Mayor de Blasio’s relationship with the police, and pieced together the myriad of events that soured their bond. Natalie tracked Uber’s meteoric rise and the subsequent PR nightmares that engulfed the ride-sharing company.

We hit our stride after a few days and marched through a routine: research, input an event in a structured story, repeat. It was slow work, especially if we had to verify conflicting accounts by checking primary sources.

“There’s something noble about making sure everything is correct,” said Natalie, alluding to our satisfaction once we solved something and could (finally) move on. Every day, we managed to finish dozens of “events,” the individual units that form the backbone of Structured Stories.

But, in a testament to how different this work is from traditional journalism, we are still having difficulty adapting to the unique writing requirements.

A structured story is different than “regular” writing because it’s all about breaking the news into data.

The data comes in two flavors: verbs and nouns. Verbs can be linked back to the FrameNet database, an expansive project that tracks meaning. Amazingly, the FrameNet database can be read by both humans and computers. It translates complex human meaning into data.

Nouns come from Freebase, a sprawling database owned by Google. Freebase assigns items unique identifiers, and we use these IDs to track characters or topics over time. De Blasio, for instance, is known in the database as  /m/0gjsd3.

An example of the underlying event structure that powers the Structured Stories platform.

In Structured Stories, combining verbs and nouns creates a data-rich event. And that data can be manipulated, allowing readers to see links between stories or track events over time. That’s the power of structure.

David Caswell, the creator of Structured Stories, told us our confusion was natural. A structured story in its raw verb/noun form is not meant to be read by a human. In fact, most readers won’t see the structured view when they visit the Structured Stories platform. They’ll read the bullet-points or summaries, which Rachel, Natalie and I write after we have structured an event. Bullet-points and summaries are the “normal” human sentence behind an event. Underlying that sentence, though, is a web of connections and malleable data that will provide readers with new information they have never been able to get before.

This project makes me feel like I’m learning to write again. I’m paying extra attention to nouns and verbs and stripping events to their core meaning. There seems to be a constant tug of war between language and structure when writing these events, with the ideal falling somewhere in the middle.

For now, we’re still searching for that happy medium.

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Week 1 of Structured Stories NYC: Unlocking the atoms of news

In the first week of our New York experiment, the Duke team learns about the promise and challenges of structured journalism. Also, we visit the Daily Show.

By Bill Adair – June 8, 2015 | Print this article

On Wednesday, as our Structured Stories NYC team debated whether to use “text object” or “information artifact” to describe a field in our database, I realized we were in new journalistic territory.

The debate illustrated the unique approach of our summer experiment. Instead of publishing traditional news stories with headlines and text, two Duke students (Natalie Ritchie and Rachel Chason) and one recent Duke grad (Ishan Thakore) are segmenting the news into chunks. That approach has been tried before by Circa and a few others, but Structured Stories goes far deeper, structuring the basic elements of nouns and verb phrases to reveal new truths about the news.

That structure enables us to link the elements in a myriad of valuable new ways. For example, “The taxicab commission held a public hearing on new regulations about for-hire vehicles” can be linked with characters and entities such as Mayor Bill De Blasio, Uber drivers and the taxicab commission. That structure will  empower readers in many different ways. They can easily find the latest developments in a long-running story (“Uber drivers held a protest against new regulations”) and they can interact with the “events” to reveal new patterns and relationships.

Structured Stories Team
The Structured Stories NYC team: (from left) Rachel Chason, Natalie Ritchie, Structured Stories creator David Caswell, and Ishan Thakore

There were a few moments during the week when I got a feeling that our project will be groundbreaking. David Caswell, the creator of the Structured Stories platform and our partner in the project, began the week with an excellent PowerPoint that explained how the students’ work will be published. Structured journalism is often known as “atomizing” the news.

A couple of times, I got the sense that we were like scientists who were about to unlock the atom of news. I summarized the first day by saying, “Mind blown.”

But there also were times where I wondered if we have too much structure in our approach and that we’ll end up creating a giant database with hundreds of humdrum entries on municipal government. We need to make sure that even though we’re using a unique approach we are still creating valuable, interesting journalism.

Our discussions during the week reflected our unique perspectives. David is a computer scientist with a really cool idea; I’m a journalist with an interest in new story forms and some old-fashioned values. There were some moments where our differences were quite clear. At one point during a discussion about story structure in the database, David told the students, “Your audience is actually a machine.”

I nearly had a heart attack. But then I realized he meant that the “story structure” the students are creating are not intended for public consumption. They’re designed to work behind the scenes so readers can get the information they want.

This is the genius of David’s approach (and also the part that scares me a little). With lots of structure inside the machine, readers will be able to get information in new ways.

We took a break from structured journalism to get a first-hand look at journalism without much structure: the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

David and I recognize this is very much an experiment. We both believe in the promise of structured journalism. But we also recognize that this is a very different way of covering the news and that sometime experiments fail. On Tuesday I tweeted:

Our approach on Structured Stories NYC is inspired by the philosopher Ms. Frizzle: “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!”

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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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Reporters’ Lab wins ONA grant for Structured Stories NYC

Duke students will cover local government in New York this summer in an experimental structured journalism project.

By Bill Adair – April 24, 2015 | Print this article

The Reporters’ Lab has been awarded an ONA Challenge Grant for a project that will develop new forms of journalism to cover local government in New York City.

Structured Stories NYC will use a structured journalism approach to cover major stories in New York this summer. It will be a new form of storytelling, a networked account of local news that accumulates over time and enables the local community to quickly access, query, and contribute to sprawling and complex local government stories.

Structured Stories NYC logo shade.001The project will be run by the Duke Reporters’ Lab in conjunction with Structured Stories, a news platform being developed by former Yahoo! product director David Caswell, and WNYC Radio, New York’s flagship public radio station.

The Duke team will be headed by Bill Adair, the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy. The students are Ishan Thakore, Natalie Ritchie and Rachel Chason.

The students will spend the summer covering local government in New York and will be publishing on structuredstoriesnyc.com. They will meet periodically with journalists from WNYC’s newsroom who will help the students select topics to follow.

The Reporters’ Lab will receive $35,000 for the project. For more details about it, see our entry.

Structured journalism is a new way to present the news. Instead of the traditional news article, it dices the news into smaller fields that readers can sort, tally and combine in different ways. Examples of structured journalism include Homicide Watch, which tracks homicides in several cities, and PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter fact-checking.

ONA is the world’s largest association of digital journalists. The ONA Challenge Fund was created in 2014 to encourage journalism programs to experiment with new ways of providing news and information. This year’s winning projects cover issues ranging from poverty to juvenile justice, and food truck lines to logging.

The fund is the brainchild of a collaborative that includes the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation, and is managed by ONA, the world’s largest membership group of digital journalists.

For details about the 10 other winners, see the ONA news release.

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