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December 19 2010

18:00

Games, systems and context in journalism at News Rewired

I went to News Rewired on Thursday, along with dozens of other journalists and folk concerned in various ways with news production. Some threads that ran through the day for me were discussions of how we publish our data (and allow others to do the same), how we link our stories together with each other and the rest of the web, and how we can help our readers to explore context around our stories.

One session focused heavily on SEO for specialist organisations, but included a few sharp lessons for all news organisations. Frank Gosch spoke about the importance of ensuring your site’s RSS feeds are up to date and allow other people to easily subscribe to and even republish your content. Instead of clinging tight to content, it’s good for your search rankings to let other people spread it around.

James Lowery echoed this theme, suggesting that publishers, like governments, should look at providing and publishing their data in re-usable, open formats like XML. It’s easy for data journalists to get hung up on how local councils, for instance, are publishing their data in PDFs, but to miss how our own news organisations are putting out our stories, visualisations and even datasets in formats that limit or even prevent re-use and mashup.

Following on from that, in the session on linked data and the semantic web,Martin Belam spoke about the Guardian’s API, which can be queried to return stories on particular subjects and which is starting to use unique identifiers -MusicBrainz IDs and ISBNs, for instance – to allow lists of stories to be pulled out not simply by text string but using a meaningful identification system. He added that publishers have to licence content in a meaningful way, so that it can be reused widely without running into legal issues.

Silver Oliver said that semantically tagged data, linked data, creates opportunities for pulling in contextual information for our stories from all sorts of other sources. And conversely, if we semantically tag our stories and make it possible for other people to re-use them, we’ll start to see our content popping up in unexpected ways and places.

And in the long term, he suggested, we’ll start to see people following stories completely independently of platform, medium or brand. Tracking a linked data tag (if that’s the right word) and following what’s new, what’s interesting, and what will work on whatever device I happen to have in my hand right now and whatever connection I’m currently on – images, video, audio, text, interactives; wifi, 3G, EDGE, offline. Regardless of who made it.

And this is part of the ongoing move towards creating a web that understands not only objects but also relationships, a world of meaningful nouns and verbs rather than text strings and many-to-many tables. It’s impossible to predict what will come from these developments, but – as an example – it’s not hard to imagine being able to take a photo of a front page on a newsstand and use it to search online for the story it refers to. And the results of that search might have nothing to do with the newspaper brand.

That’s the down side to all this. News consumption – already massively decentralised thanks to the social web – is likely to drift even further away from the cosy silos of news brands (with the honourable exception of paywalled gardens, perhaps). What can individual journalists and news organisations offer that the cloud can’t?

One exciting answer lies in the last session of the day, which looked at journalism and games. I wrote some time ago about ways news organisations were harnessing games, and could do in the future – and the opportunities are now starting to take shape. With constant calls for news organisations to add context to stories, it’s easy to miss the possibility that – as Philip Trippenbachsaid at News Rewired - you can’t explain a system with a story:

Stories can be a great way of transmitting understanding about things that have happened. The trouble is that they are actually a very bad way of transmitting understanding about how things work.

Many of the issues we cover – climate change, government cuts, the deficit – at macro level are systems that could be interestingly and interactively explored with games. (Like this climate change game here, for instance.) Other stories can be articulated and broadened through games in a way that allows for real empathy between the reader/player and the subject because they are experiential rather than intellectual. (Like Escape from Woomera.)

Games allow players to explore systems, scenarios and entire universes in detail, prodding their limits and discovering their flaws and hidden logic. They can be intriguing, tricky, challenging, educational, complex like the best stories can be, but they’re also fun to experience, unlike so much news content that has a tendency to feel like work.

(By the by, this is true not just of computer and console games but also of live, tabletop, board and social games of all sorts – there are rich veins of community journalism that could be developed in these areas too, as theRochester Democrat and Chronicle is hoping to prove for a second time.)

So the big things to take away from News Rewired, for me?

  • The systems within which we do journalism are changing, and the semantic web will most likely bring another seismic change in news consumption and production.
  • It’s going to be increasingly important for us to produce content that both takes advantage of these new technologies and allows others to use these technologies to take advantage of it.
  • And by tapping into the interactive possibilities of the internet through games, we can help our readers explore complex systems that don’t lend themselves to simple stories.

Oh, and some very decent whisky.

Cross-posted at Metamedia.

September 22 2010

10:40

Why did you get into data journalism?

In researching my book chapter I asked a group of journalists who worked with data what led them to do so. Here are their answers:

Jonathon Richards, The Times:

The flood of information online presents an amazing opportunity for journalists, but also a challenge: how on earth does one keep up with; make sense of it? You could go about it in the traditional way, fossicking in individual sites, but much of the journalistic value in this outpouring, it seems, comes in aggregation: in processing large amounts of data, distilling them, and exploring them for patterns. To do that – unless you’re superhuman, or have a small army of volunteers – you need the help of a computer.

I ‘got into’ data journalism because I find this mix exciting. It appeals to the traditional journalistic instinct, but also calls for a new skill which, once harnessed, dramatically expands the realm of ‘stories I could possibly investigate…’

Mary Hamilton, Eastern Daily Press:

I started coding out of necessity, not out of desire. In my day-to-day work for local newspapers I came across stories that couldn’t be told any other way. Excel spreadsheets full of data that I knew was relevant to readers if I could break it down or aggregate it up. Lists of locations that meant nothing on the page without a map. Timelines of events and stacks of documents. The logical response for me was to try to develop the skills to parse data to get to the stories it can tell, and to present it in interactive, interesting and – crucially – relevant ways. I see data journalism as an important skill in my storytelling toolkit – not the only option, but an increasingly important way to open up information to readers and users.

Charles Arthur, The Guardian:

When I was really young, I read a book about computers which made the point – rather effectively – that if you found yourself doing the same process again and again, you should hand it over to a computer. That became a rule for me: never do some task more than once if you can possibly get a computer to do it.

Obviously, to implement that you have to do a bit of programming. It turns out all programming languages are much the same – they vary in their grammar, but they’re all about making the computer do stuff. And it’s often the same stuff (at least in my ambit) – fetch a web page, mash up two sets of data, filter out some rubbish and find the information you want.

I got into data journalism because I also did statistics – and that taught me that people are notoriously bad at understanding data. Visualisation and simplification and exposition are key to helping people understand.

So data journalism is a compound of all those things: determination to make the computer do the slog, confidence that I can program it to, and the desire to tell the story that the data is holding and hiding.

I don’t think there was any particular point where I suddenly said “ooh, this is data journalism” – it’s more that the process of thinking “oh, big dataset, stuff it into an ad-hoc MySQL database, left join against that other database I’ve got, see what comes out” goes from being a huge experiment to your natural reaction.

It’s not just data though – I use programming to slough off the repetitive tasks of the day, such as collecting links, or resizing pictures, or getting the picture URL and photographer and licence from a Flickr page and stuffing it into a blogpost.

Data journalism is actually only half the story. The other half is that journalists should be **actively unwilling** to do repetitive tasks if it’s machine-like (say, removing line breaks from a piece of copy, or changing a link format).

Time spent doing those sorts of tasks is time lost to journalism and given up to being a machine. Let the damn machines do it. Humans have better things to do.

Stijn Debrouwere, Belgian information designer:

I used to love reading the daily newspaper, but lately I can’t seem to be bothered anymore. I’m part of that generation of people news execs fear so much: those that simply don’t care about what newspapers and news magazines have to offer. I enjoy being an information designer because it gives me a chance to help reinvent the way we engage and inform communities through news and analysis, both offline and online. Technology doesn’t solve everything, but it sure can help. My professional goal is simply this: make myself love news and newspapers again, and thereby hopefully getting others to love it too.

August 23 2010

14:34

The middle tier: data journalism and regional news

Data journalism and regional news – a relationship that presents challenges, but far more opportunities, according to a post by Mary Hamilton on her Metamedia blog.

Following on from the first UK Hacks/Hackers event last week, she reflects on the use of data by reporters across what she calls “three-tier journalism”: national, regional and hyperlocal. For the first and last, there are clear-cut differences in the data they need, she says. But for regional press, it can be a bit more tricky.

National news needs big picture data from which it can draw big trends. Government data that groups England into its nine official regions works fine for broad sweeps; data that breaks down by city or county works well too. Hyperlocal news needs small details – court lists, crime reports, enormous amounts of council information – and it’s possible to not only extract but report and contextualise the details.

Regional news needs both, but in different ways. It needs those stories that the nationals wouldn’t cover and the hyperlocals would cover only part of. Data about the East of England is too vague for a paper that focuses primarily on 1/6 of the counties in the region; information from Breckland District Council is not universal enough when there are at least 13 other county and district councils in the paper’s patch. Government statistics by region need paragraphs attached looking at the vagaries of the statistics and how Cambridge skews everything a certain way. District council data has to be broadened out. Everything needs context.

But the opportunities for great stories within all of this is “unending” she says, and something well worth regional press investing in.

The question is how we exploit them. I believe that we start by freeing up interested journalists to do data work beyond simply plotting their stories on a map, taking on stories that impact people on a regional level.

See her full post here…Similar Posts:



August 16 2010

09:48
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