Moving Beyond the Story, News’ Value in Data – by “Max C”

Linear story replaced with database

The age of the linear news story must end if existing news organizations hope to survive in the digital age. For as long as print news publications have been around, the story has been the atomic unit of news coverage. A reporter collects information, attends events, does research, and produces a textual article that consumers read passively. But the consumption patterns of the modern digital citizen have outpaced such linear representations, and old media organizations must adapt to this changing reality.

“Old media” news organizations are now struggling to find new sources of revenue to buoy their ancient production models as advertising prove insufficient. Numerous new business models, such as paywalls or non-profit news organizations, and new content strategies, such as hyperlocal coverage or citizen journalism, have been proposed. As Dan Conover explains in his blog post “The Imagination Gap,” the problem with these approaches is that they are limited by the imagination of people from the old system. The merits of each new business model or strategy have been debated elsewhere, but Conover posits that the solution is a fundamental shift in what news organizations produce.

News, in the form of prose about current events, is now ubiquitous on the internet: between traditional news outlets, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and others, there will never be a shortage of discussion about news. There is no paucity of facts or information on the internet, often captured in stories or comment threads or wikis. What’s missing, and what is potentially most valuable, are structured, easily accessible databases. News organizations can create considerable value by not only collecting facts into stories, but creating databases that allow searching, aggregation, cross-referencing, and other data mining techniques so that people can draw their own conclusions and use the data for their own purposes.

Newspaper websites have had a difficult job monetizing their archives online, despite the fact that there is clearly an enormous wealth of information contained within them. The problem is that, without having them in a structured format, actually extracting or finding information contained within the archives is nearly impossible. Metadata is just as important, if not more important, than the story itself. Give away the story for free–the facts are ubiquitous– but sell the structured data that people can actually use in more meaningful ways.

To affect such change, new standardized data formats and tools must be developed and adopted so that information from multiple sources can be combined and cross-referenced. The principles of open access come into play, where the creation of data silos must be avoided at all costs. That is not to say that access must be free, but if a consumer has access to multiple databases, he or she must be able to mash them together in any way imaginable.

Projects such as DocumentCloud are making important first steps towards this goal. Sites such as EveryBlock aggregate information and present it in an easily accessible manner. Even some of the large newspapers have been experimenting with opening their stores of data: the New York Times and the Guardian have created  publicly-accessible APIs. Standards for news story markup have been proposed, such as hNews, which are relatively easy to integrate into existing systems and site designs. More such efforts will, and must, continue to come; the question is whether they will be by existing news organizations or start-ups.

***

Newspapers have been lamenting the fact that people will not pay for their content, and are seeking ways to “fix” that problem. What they see as a problem with consumers is actually a problem with the product they are producing; consumers simply want information, in the format of their choosing, and will take it from whatever source is most convenient and accessible. Reporters are already skilled at collecting such information, so it is a matter of adjusting workflows and creating the requisite technical tools and systems.

When the only means of acquiring data was a sheet of paper, linear stories were an acceptable way of conveying information. If news organizations ignore the revolutionary abilities of the internet and computer software to store and present structured information, they do so at their own peril.

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