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.”