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.

Newscorp’s Price Barriers and The Survival of the Wall Street Journal – by “Alexander F”

Newscorps Head Honcho: Rupert Murdoch
Newscorp's Head Honcho: Rupert Murdoch

At a recent symposium in Washington DC, media mogul Rupert Murdoch told a room full leaders in academics, economics, and multimedia that “There’s no such thing as a free news story.” While as a blanket statement this is clearly blown far out of proportion, for big media, this is the sad but true reality.

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of news available right now IS free for viewers to read. Besides the cost of perhaps an internet connection, a person can freely access news sources from around the world, and can frequently access free version of print news that actually costs money in the tangible realm. Mr. Murdoch is trying to change all of this though. In a recent announcement, Murdoch disclosed that a new arrangement is being made between Microsoft and one of Murdoch’s media properties, The Wall Street Journal. In this deal, Google would no longer be able to sift through the WSJ’s articles and Newscorp (The parent company to the WSJ of which Murdoch is at the powerful reigns of) would allow Mircosoft’s new search engine Bing to have the exclusive search rights to their content….for a fee.

Now Newscorp is no stranger to internet pricewalls. The Wall street Journal itself actually is probably one of the most famous cases of an online news service requiring a fee for full access to its articles. Interestingly though, on the WSJ’s website, only the first two paragraphs or so are visible for “paid” articles if you don’t have the subscription fees, and as of a few months ago, Google had a loophole. If you copied and pasted the URL of the article into Google, the article could be read in whole. Clearly this was fueling some distaste between Newscorp and Google, and although Google has recently updated its “free click” policies in order to put more power into the hands of publishers, it seems to have been just a little too late.

But why start putting in pricewalls and exclusive search rights? Arianna Huffington, also at attendance for this symposium, eagerly dismissed Newscorp’s search engine dealings. In fact, she was even quoted as saying that “Promiscuity is not a good thing in relationships but it’s a great thing in news,” during the course of the two day event. While all of my touchy feely side wants to agree with her, it’s a little irresponsible to jump entirely on that bandwagon.

Unlike The Huffington Post, Arianna’s internet news source, The Wall Street Journal for instance actually pays its writers. There is no way in the foreseeable future for the WSJ to survive on a selection of “citizen journalists” and celebrities who either want to promote social ideals or get some published recognition. To do some of the things that the WSJ does, it costs substantial amounts of money, and with online ads not being nearly as profitable for newspapers as perhaps a full-page ad in their printed counterparts, many are struggling to make sure that they can financially survive. The managing editor of the WSJ, Robert Thompson even said recently that for the Journal to make all of its content free online, he’d estimate that it would cost the jobs of around 300 reporters for the news source. With this constraint in play, it’s nearly unforeseeable for some news sources to continue to function online entirely for free.

So this leads to the burning question, how much of the internet’s journalistic core will succumb to forcing some fee to be charged for its service? It seems as if much of it will be determined through the nature of the reporting and its costs. Huffington Post’s celebrity commentary on global events costs next to nothing while the WSJ’s investigative dive into something like international money laundering may cost quite a pretty penny. Since we felt comfortable so long with paying for the print news before the internet, why should the internet, a communication tool, instantly make some previously costly content absolutely free? It’s a question burning on the minds of big media as it struggle to make ends meet, and the future associated with it may start to show that in some cases, there may not be such a thing as a free story.

Journalism’s New Wave – by “Jakob W”

September 30th marked the initial invitation-only release of the “Preview” beta of the new Google Wave service. Like Google News and Maps before it, Google Wave — a browser-based app that allows one to collaborate with contacts in real time through an AJAX-based document model — arrives on the scene in a developmental stage, with little explanation and largely left to the user to figure out how best to use — it’s even open source since, as Google VP of engineering Vic Gundotra readily admits, “frankly we need developers to help us finish this product.”

Ever since its unveiling (and as more invites are made available), many have speculated on what Google Wave could mean for journalism in the Internet age.

In the moments before even the first 100,000 invites were released, Mark Milian came up with a list of potential uses for the L.A. Times technology blog that could change journalism and the way we interact with it — and in ways more clearly beneficial than other recent mutations, such as the ever-controversial citizen journalism. Possibilities the Wave allows in its current form include live editing (so writers can watch editor changes and address questions/ambiguities as they develop), and real collaborative reporting (during the pen-and-pad era of journalism, having two or three writers to a story was often messy, and rather uncommon to date) and blogging (which, in its draft/publish/edit form, is similarly cumbersome to co-author). With just a couple small tweaks, Wave could be even more revolutionary: integrating Google Voice would allow for easy integration of recorded interviews, voicemails and text messages into story notes and archives; more transparent story update/correction timelines, reader observation and perhaps even participation during the writing process of a story (almost like a Wiki); live, paragraph-by-paragraph reader commentary and discussions; combining Google’s Polly extension, live mid-story polling of readership could be possible, et cetera. In essence, Google Wave could allow citizens to take a much more active role in professional journalism, instead of trying to compete with it via questionable Twitter feeds and rumor mill bullflop.

Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine, who believes Google Wave has potential to be “the new news,” provides a lucid example of how the above dynamic might develop:

Imagine a team of reporters – together with witnesses on the scene – able to contribute photos and news to the same Wave (formerly known as a story or a page). One can write up what is known; a witness can add facts from the scene and photos; an editor or reader can ask questions. And it is all contained under a single address – a permalink for the story.

As one Scott Blanchard comments on a post in the Wired Journalists Publish2 feed, Google Wave could be especially effective in particularly temporal forms of news updates, like weather and traffic reports. Crowdsourced, real-time collaborative reportage allows for a level of “man on the street” input previously infeasible in journalism.

And yet, these exciting possibilities remain just that. Time will tell how Google Wave’s technology truly impacts journalism — but all accounts thus far point to a very promising future for what many have recently written off as a dying art.

Further reading not linked above:
Google Wave the next social media phenomenon and journalistic tool? (Editors Weblog)
Exploring Google Wave – how could it transform journalism and publishing? (iTWire)
Periodistas 21 (en Español!)