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The Age of Structured Journalism?

By Drasko Vlahovic

Speed is an important part of news publishing business. After all, news are supposed to tell us what’s new, right? Structured journalism turns this mindset upside down. It’s all about the long term value of news – the value which increases as the time goes by.

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Executive editor at Reuters Reginald Chua is one of the developers of the structured journalism concept. (Source: Linkedin)

In the traditional approach to writing news, stories are written for single use and in a linear style. Every reader is presented with the same story. When new events related to the same topic happen, another story is written. This new story can then use some background info from previous stories. Again, this background info is the same for everyone, regardless of how much knowledge each reader already has on the topic.

Structured journalism aims to go beyond that, writes Reginald Chua, an executive editor at Reuters and one of the main developers of the whole idea. It’s about writing news stories with a bigger picture in  mind, updating them accordingly as the time goes by for later consumption, and organizing the data gathered through previous news items to present “metastories”.

These metastories can then be read by anyone who is interested in learning about a topic or one of its aspects. The readers can find a wealth of information about what they want to explore, without having to read about details they find unnecessary. That’s what Chua calls the “pull” model, as opposed to the “push” model employed by the traditional approach. Take a look at this Reuters’ project called Connected China. It’s about power in China – its social, institutional and ideological aspects.

social power in China
This page on Connecting China explains how social power in the Chinese society works.

 

This website offers a bird’s-eye view on how powerful individuals and groups in China are connected and how they work. It also explains the paths leading to power, as well as how different state institutions and organizations work and what their roles are. Apart from offering visual depictions and profiles, there is a section called “featured stories” where you can read news analyses about different aspects of this broad topic. Every story is rich in annotations which briefly explain who is who and what is what when you click on them. If you want to learn more, you can click on the icons in the explanation boxes. Here’s how it looks like.

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Connecting China offers texts rich with annotations that help the readers learn about the topic.

 

Structured journalism is sometimes confused with data journalism. Editorial manager at Google Play Newsstand David Smydra explained the difference between the two in an interview for Columbia Journalism Review:

Data journalism is the practice of analyzing data in order to unearth new stories. Structured journalism is the practice of turning one’s reporting into data that can be repurposed in any number of ways.

Another example of the ideas of structured journalism is Homicide Watch D.C. This website gathered information about the murders in Washington, D.C. Based on their original coverage of the murders, primary source documents and social networking, Homicide Watch managed to build searchable databases that allowed for studying each individual case, but also for observing patterns. Homicides were tracked from crime to conviction.

Another example is Politifact, a website dedicated to fact-checking the statements of politicians and other people involved in political debates, such as NGO activists. Selected claims are rated from true to false on the Truth-O-Meter, with the lowest rank “pants on fire”. The database can be easily searched for individual people, for example, presidential candidates. It can also be searched based on other categories, such as subjects of discussion.

Politifact's Truth-O-Meter ranks politicians' statements from true to false.
Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter ranks political statements from true to false.

 

As any other journalism venture, Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter has its critics.

Structured journalism has been increasingly receiving attention in the outlets such as the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. But it still has its own pitfalls. First of all, it’s new. And that can be a problem in the newsrooms characterized by increasing competition, massive layoffs and financial cuts. Furthermore, research shows that journalists are generally reluctant to any changes in their routines, and this has been a recurring topic in many studies.

Secondly, Reginald Chua observed that narrative outcomes aren’t as exciting as they can be in the linear form of storytelling. However, the idea of structured journalism seems promising, and in combination with other new approaches, such as scrollytelling, we can use it to make the best out of the news.