Thursday, May 26, 2016

You ignore the work on structured stories at your own risk

If you are a journalist (or PR writer), you should read David Caswell's latest about his research into structured stories and follow the links, especially to the structured stories database.

Here's a definition from one of Caswell's earlier atricles
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.
This is a not-so-nascent-anymore corner of journalism thought that says, essentially, that the beautifully crafted narrative you just wrote is nothing but data. That fire story you wrote? The address is data, so is the amount of damage, the cause, the type of house, etc. And it's data insurers and others might be willing to pay for.

Adrian Holovaty famously proposed this disaggregation of journalistic stories in 2006. Matt Waite extended it seven years later.
Caswell has now been testing the idea on an operational scale in New York, Los Angeles and Missouri (Where he's a Reynolds Fellow).
You risk not paying attention to this at your own peril. 

Let me put it this way, how many of you scoffed not that long ago at the concept of computers "writing" journalism stories? How's that worked out?  (A search on "Automated Insights" will fill you in a bit more, such as the AP's wide use of the software, if you haven't been paying attention. Here's some more on AP.)

Now, if you go to Caswell's Structured Stories site and look at some of the work, to those steeped in "storytelling," the examples don't look like much. Bullet points, cards, etc. Certainly not an eye-pleasing "story" (and, let's be honest, we misuse that term a lot anyhow; much of what we do is factual exposition, not story).

But what you are seeing is Holovaty's vision beginning to be turned into reality. And here's why it's important:
  • When you break stories into data, you can repackage that data in many ways and resell it, meaning more streams of income in an era when that's guaranteed to get executives' attention (after all, what other business do you know that leaves more than half of its raw material on the shop floor?).
  • This inevitably means changes in workflows, training and, perhaps, the romantic notion of the storytelling journalist. From another of Caswell's articles: Working with structured information enables the journalist to become like an air traffic controller for news: coordinating, routing, verifying and organizing news as well as identifying gaps in knowledge and filling them by assigning journalistic resources to conduct original reporting. This level of coordination is an impossible, even meaningless, task in a media environment based on text articles, but in a structured media environment it becomes easy and valuable.
  • Caswell says he's shown in real operational situations that structured journalism can be done. 
  • Finally, if you scoff that "people will never read this stuff," I want you to think about two things. First, much of this is not designed to be read by people; it is designed to be read and repurposed by machines. Second, go to the top of any one of those story databases on the Structured Stories site and click on the "told as" drop down menu. Go down to "natural language."  I have not found a natural language version yet, though I haven't gone through all the items,. But take a close look, and what does it say? "Natural language generation by Automated Insights." Uh huh.
Oh, and there's one other. In an era where consumers more and more are accustomed to blending their information and media inputs as they wish, this is the ultimate way for them to do that with journalism.
In many ways, this is another aspect of the "semantic web," essentially, the idea of turning much, if not all, of the web into data. Projects such as Open Calais have been grniding along for several years, trying to figure out how to turn all this unstructured information (in our business = story) into structured data.

So whether the prospect makes you recoil or not, it's time to start paying attention. Your future in journalism (and PR) probably depends on it.

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SC legslators suggest Wikipedia will do over those expensive databases

(Update: 1:40 p.m. 3/26: Ron Aiken of The Nerve says the language was stricken in conference committee last night but that the sponsor, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, says he'll bring it up again next session.)

S.C.'s State Library apparently is up in arms about some legislative budget engineering that would put some requirements and restrictions on the statewide DISCUS system, the free digital library available to everyone in the state and probably one of the state's best (if somewhat hidden) resources.

First there was a House budget proviso that would have prohibited the library from licensing electronic sources "where the same information is easily found in free online products such as Wikipedia." (Oh, there's a reliable source, eh?) It also would have prohibited licensing databases of articles "from mainstream newspapers and magazines, as these can almost always be accessed free online and are easily discovered through Internet search engines."

That same proviso also would have prohibited the inclusion of scholarly articles as not "intellectually accessible to the general population," but that was stricken -- as was the whole proviso.

But now the House has amended the Senate version to insert a new proviso that says no database DISCUS buys can have more than 20% of material freely available online.

There also are a bunch of technical requirements, such as that all databases must have responsive design that allows them to be viewable "down to the smallest smartphone size" and that there be an extensive geolocation service for all users. Video would also have to be delivered as H.264, MPEG-4 AVC format.

So in theory the responsive design requirement is a good one -- but will that put valuable databases/info off limits?

If you are out of state (or even on the border and your cell signal is being picked up by a tower in Georgia or NC) does that mean no access?

Sure, H.264 AVC is the advanced standard now, but things don't change much in tech, do they? So how quickly, if this is specified in state law, will it become outdated?

Generally, the success of legislating specific technology requirements has not gone well through the years.

To see the State Library's take on all this and the source docs:

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Monday, May 02, 2016

Wishful thinking, newspaper edition

From the wishful thinking dept. at Editor and Publisher.:
Returning to print shouldn’t be seen as taking a step back. Many readers still rely heavily on the print edition. A Pew Research Center study found that around half of newspaper readers in three U.S. metropolitan cities (Denver, Colo., Macon, Ga., and Sioux City, Iowa) only read in print.

With the saturation of news, the toxicity of online harassment, and the amount of poor Web experiences, readers will soon want to come back to print. This resurgence must take place if we want to keep print around for many more years, and publishers can accomplish that by immersing readers—not with virtual reality headsets—but with ink on their hands.
That's at the bottom of a mishmash, way-too-long piece that tries to make the case that poor woeful newspapers are being victimized again by technology, this time ad blockers (BTW, there's an easy way to get around Forbes' ad-blocking message and many other publishers').

That Pew statistic? It's a nice way of deception. Remember, it says half of all newspaper readers. It doesn't say what's happening to the overall number of newspaper readers (in other words, if there are still two newspaper readers and one reads only in print, you've met that stat -- but it's hardly a viable business model).

I'm a big fan of "newspapers" if you mean the term to refer to robust news orgs. If you mean it to refer to ink on paper, however, I'd like to introduce you to the dozens of students I interact with every semester. You know, the future higher income, higher educated readers your advertisers want. "Newspaper" is not in their daily universe.

This, of course, from the same people who have been telling themselves for years that as people age and buy houses, have kids, etc., they'll start reading newspapers -- despite every bit of solid social science research that's debunked that.

So how's that working out?

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Let it be stated -- stop using that word

In the flurry of coverage over the blowup in the investigation of corruption at South Carolina's Statehouse, an ugly little verb of attribution -- stated -- seems to be cropping up like spring flowers. (Just one example.)

Why ugly? I'll let Jack Cappon, one of the finest AP features editors ever (and a pretty damn good writer too), explain from his book on writing (which, BTW, should be on your desk). The bold emphasis is mine:

Asserted, stated, declared are often indiscriminately used for said. All are stronger and much more formal. ... Stated shouldn't be used at all; it is the instant mark of a wooden writer. (It fits if you're quoting from a deposition, but still looks dusty.)
 It also has connotations of increased veracity.

So let's put stated in its proper place -- on the top shelf, out of reach, to be looked at occasionally as we grab the easy-to-reach said. That way, we don't have to risk injuring our writing by reaching too high for it.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Your neighborhood dollar store wants to sell you booze

OK, technically beer and wine aren't booze, but many a moment of havoc has been carried out in their name.

So it's always interesting when I ask classes what they think make up the biggest share of alcohol purveyors (I'm careful not to say liquor) just by sheet numbers: Bars, restaurants, clubs, liquor stores, supermarkets ...?

Invariably, it's bars or liquor stores that come to the front.

But take a year's worth of permit applications, as I did, from the paper's legal ads and you'll find it's convenience stores (in blue on this map)* that overwhelmingly hold the permits, most for beer and wine for off-premises consumption.

That's brought concerns from some neighborhoods who see their areas being overrun.

Now, a new entry is crowding the field -- your local dollar store.

As I was wrapping up that track-the-permits project, I noticed a steady stream of permit applications from Dolgencorp, the operating arm of Dollar General.

Now, in recent editions of my local paper, I see Family Dollar seeking beer and wine applications for 15 of its Columbia-area stores.

This is a good little story worth noting. And doing depth/enterprise reporting projects like this -- especially on a beat -- isn't hard with modern tools like Google Fusion Tables (and maps) if you just take them a day or week at a time and methodically compile the data. The resulting maps or other graphical presentations yo can produce may give you a whole new take on the data.

And much of that raw material already is in your paper or in the documents you routinely pick up on a beat.

*Green is grocery and other stores, like dollar stores. Red is bars and clubs, yellow is liquor stores and orange is restaurants. White is for things like stadiums, banquet halls, etc.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Some interesting AP style changes

Some AP style updates came out today, and while they aren't likely to create the furor that allowing "over" for "more than" did, there are a few interesting things:

Here are the changes and a few of my thoughts:

media Generally takes a plural verb, especially when the reference is to individual outlets: Media are lining up for and against the proposal. Sometimes used with a singular verb when referring to media as a monolithic group: Media is the biggest force in a presidential campaign. (adds reference to use as a singular noun)
This will drive some of my colleagues nuts. What can I say? Welcome to a long-needed recognition of modern usage (and if you want to double up on that Advil dose, remember, data is also allowed as a singular in some uses).

mezcal Clear liquor from Mexico made from a variety of agave plants. (new entry)
Two liquor entries in one update (see whisky below). Is this an acknowledgement that AP style will sometimes drive you to drink?

horchata Spanish and Mexican drink made by steeping nuts, seeds and grains, and served cool. (new entry)

nearshore waters (new entry to show nearshore is one word)

notorious, notoriety Some understand these terms to refer simply to fame; others see them as negative terms, implying being well-known because of evil actions. Be sure the context for these words is clear, or use terms like famous, prominent, infamous, disreputable, etc. (new entry)
This is AP oh-so-carefully edging toward the reality of modern usage. However, just as the enormity/enormousness distinction has been pretty much erased in modern conversational usage, it's always good for professional writers to observe the niceties.

 online petitions Be cautious about quoting the number of signers on such petitions. Some sites make it easy for the person creating the petition or others to run up the number of purported signers by clicking or returning to the page multiple times. (new entry)
Sage advice. File this under the general guidance: Take most things you find online with a grain of salt, a derivative of the almost legendary (yeah, so smite me, I used that word): If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

spokesman, spokeswoman, spokesperson Use spokesperson if it is the preference of an individual or an organization. (adds spokesperson to entry)
Inevitable, really. So now we get to the weasel "preference" language. Just one more thing in the heat of battle that reporters will forget to ask and later rationalize. Just say "spokesperson," for all its ungainliness, is acceptable in all uses, let it go and leave it up to local style.

voicemail (now one word)
Welcome to 2016.

 whisky, whiskey Class of liquor distilled from grains. Includes bourbon, rye and Irish whiskey. Use spelling whisky only in conjunction with Scotch whisky, Canadian whisky and Japanese whisky. (adds Japanese whisky to those spelled whisky)
Have to amend one of my favorite quiz question. But really, if you say you want to be part of a profession with a history like ours, shouldn't you know the niceties?

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Headlines and prepositions

My friend and very talented designer, Ed Henniger, has a rant up complaining about seeing headlines ending their first lines with prepositions and articles.

This is one of those things that, while once considered a sign of good craft, has become largely a non-issue on most publications.

My note back to Ed:

Sorry, Ed, but it's long ago been declared a nonissue on most desks and at ACES. And readers' panels at ACES through which we tested headlines made clear it was not an issue to them. As one woman pointedly said when questioned rather severely from an audience member: "You really lose sleep over that?"

I remind folks of it as craft the first couple of times, but I don't push it anymore.

Time to declare it a shibboleth and move on.
It's especially true in an era when headlines often have to do double duty in print and online -- where how it is displayed is a function of many things, including window size.

 I know this will be a hard one to swallow in some quarters, but there are far more important things to worry about these days. Nothing we have indicates any reduction in comprehension.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Breaking news -- making sure you do it together

There's nothing like having a caption like this atop your 6-hour-old story.

Does anyone down on Shop Road talk to each other?

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Monday, October 05, 2015

With S.C. flooding, some dam resources

 (Updated with story from The State)

Another dam has been breached after the torrential rains in South Carolina, this one in Forest Acres, A close-in Columbia suburb, prompting a mandatory evacuation.

As I noted on Twitter and Facebook,  I wonder if this gets state officials to finally effectively address and fund the issue of hundreds of small, marginal dams.

It's not a new thing:
("Even more troubling, six states reported all of their state-regulated, high-hazard dams as “not rated” for structural soundness in 2010. These states are Texas, South Carolina, Hawaii, Florida, South Dakota, and Alaska. Not having a state dam-safety program, Alabama also did not report condition information on their high-hazard dams in 2010."

From NY Times: 4,400 dams nationwide "susceptible to failure."

S.C.'s dam safety details
(Update: The State newspaper followed up on Tuesday, reporting, as others have, that the state spends about $200,000 a year on its safety program.)

And the Army Corps dam database

S.C. has 2,439 dams in the Army Corps database, 671, or almost 28%, high or significant hazard.

This interactive map will let you search by state and county or by ZIP code.
(Make sure under "Layers" you expand "Corps of Engineers Data" and click "ALL NID Dams."

Here is part of Richland County near Columbia. All those little squares are dams, many of them less than 25 feet or lower, privately owned and earthen. (I can't give you a direct link to the map - drill down through the database above.)

Here is Lexington County:

To get details on an individual dam, click on the address option on the tool bar (highlighted in red) and then on the dam's square.

Here are a few selected screenshots of the data that gives you a sense of the issue

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Saturday, October 03, 2015

Should the correction be proportionate to the original article?

This debate still continues.

Newspapers tend to bury their corrections. (Of course, broadcasters just tend to ignore most of them -- there's always the next newscast to get it right.)

 The argument, at least one of them, goes that putting the correction in that small box on the same page every day means people will know where they are and can find them.

The counter is that people tend to look where they look every day, not necessarily at that page with the corrections box.

I can buy the same-place argument for your run of the mill brief or below-the-fold copy.

But when you banner something across the top of your business page and the central fact of your lede is wrong

Should the correction be done like this?

And when you make a strategic change in wording on your website, shouldn't the correction be noted, even to helpfully (assuming you caught it quickly online) to say it was wrong in some printed editions? (I don't see any note at all on this page giving readers any hint.)

And we wonder why the latest Gallup Poll shows a record low of trust in the media?

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Columbia, S.C.'s daily newspaper is bleeding ...

If you want the stark reality of what is happening in the newspaper business, the decline -- in hard numbers -- of  The State of Columbia, S.C., will help.

The state capital newspaper, for all the times I poke it for kind of dumb things, does good work.

And while papers like the Post and Courier in Charleston do some great work -- as evidenced by this year's Pulitzer Prize and this week's deep dive into how S.C. legislators stretch the limits on their spending accounts, There still is no substitute for a strong newsroom in the same town looking over the pols' shoulders.

So take a look at these figures.

Here is The State's circulation from 2008 as found in an archive on McClatchy's website. It was close to 100,000.


This next archive is from February 2013. the date of the page on The State's own site, though I can't be sure if those are 2009 or 2013 figures. There was a drop of about 10,000 (which would be pretty darn alarming if it were year over year).

Now, the numbers have fallen off the table to about half what they were in 2008 - about 53,000. That's down more than 2,400 from a year earlier or 4.4 percent


Interestingly, you won't find those circulation figures in the "about us" part of the current website, nor how many counties the paper circulates in. This was a paper whose owner, McClatchy, used to boast that it circulated in 23 of the state's 46 counties and was the state's largest paper.

 ( McClatchy's site does have circulation figures, but none of the other bling. You can read between the lines on that.)

Sunday circulation does seem to be holding its own and even growing. But I can also say from years of taking the paper, the ads appear to be down. (And there is some question whether those circulation numbers include people who don't take the paper but are delivered the inserts anyhow. It's allowed by the industry's circulation auditor, but is sketchy at best when talking about true circulation.)

You can spin this anyway you want, and McClatchy certainly has been hyping its digital efforts lately, even if the company was about five years late to the game on some best practices (like putting summaries on top of stories). But I know The State's digital circulation has not made up for this drop -- and there always is the problem of exchanging digital dimes for print dollars.

I'm not so much in love with the actual paper as with the ethos of a "newspaper" newsroom to uncover and dig. This is one of our biggest challenges, I think -- will we be able to somehow preserve that ethos when there is serious question whether local news will "scale" in a digital age.

This is in the American Press Institute briefing today. 

Real-time bidding offers media companies opportunities for new sources of revenue, with projected growth to reach $20.8 billion by 2017. Premium content that attracts a specific audience will be important because programmatic buyers serve ads based on data about the individual visiting the page, according to Christian Hendricks, vice president/interactive media for The McClatchy Company. 
 It will be interesting to see how that plays out and what kind of tensions it presents between the traditional ideal of covering the community versus focusing coverage on niches. Nationally and internationally, a case may be made for niches. But if one proclaims oneself to be a community voice, what does "community" mean in the digital age?

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