Does the traditional news article still make sense as the primary unit of news in the age of the Internet and smartphone?
The text article has been around for centuries, and yet has barely changed with the arrival of digital technologies. Articles still consist of a headline and an undifferentiated block of text. They are written to be read once and then discarded, and they are usually isolated from each other and from the wider world. As communicators of detail and nuance, text articles are unparalleled. But as a method of coherently organizing news at digital scale, they might be insufficient.
For the past two years I have been pursuing a new form of journalism that seeks to replace the text article as the primary unit of news. My proposed replacement is a computer representation of news events and narratives called Structured Stories, which is based on principles from the fields of narratology and knowledge representation. I have built a prototype to explore and evaluate its potential.
Structured Stories is a form of structured journalism, an approach in which reporting is entered directly into a database and then extracted as needed to create digital news products. Early examples of structured journalism, such as PolitiFact and Homicide Watch D.C., are limited to fixed news items in narrowly defined subject areas. Structured Stories, however, attempts to encode any journalistic news — from any subject area — into structured events and narratives.
Articles are not obsolete in a structured journalism approach but instead are organized within much larger journalistic structures that provide context, coherence and flexibility. These narrative structures are then used to make news stories intelligible to computers and, therefore, available for a variety of digital applications.
For the next eight months as a 2015-2016 RJI Fellow, I will be working with the research department at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism to conduct a thorough evaluation of Structured Stories as an approach to journalism. The Missouri School of Journalism’s expertise in the rigorous and credible evaluation of journalism techniques is critical to understanding the value of such a new and unproven approach. Planning for the evaluation of news production and news consumption using the Structured Stories prototype has already begun.
Structured Stories is currently being used to report on local government news in New York City by a team from the Duke University Reporters’ Lab, led by Bill Adair and funded by a grant from the Online News Association’s Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. That reporting and the editorial lessons learned from it will enable formal experiments to be designed and conducted at RJI this fall, including additional reporting on Missouri state government by students from the Missouri School of Journalism.
If the evaluation at RJI shows that Structured Stories is capable of supporting news reporting under realistic newsroom conditions and that it can enable news consumption that delivers new value to consumers, then this approach may offer at least a partial alternative to stand-alone articles — with different economic and journalistic assumptions than are the case with articles alone. Even if the evaluation reveals insurmountable barriers to the use of structured events and narratives in journalism, it should provide a deeper understanding of the limits of structured journalism as a replacement for the article as the unit of news.