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Changing The Times

Nieman Journalism Lab calls it “one of the key documents of this media age,” and I can’t say I disagree. innovation-1

To be sure, much of the contents of the leaked internal report on innovation at the New York Times aren’t surprising to anyone who’s been in the middle of the kinds of cultural and technological revolutions all mainstream/established media are grappling with – if anything, the main surprise is that even the storied NYT, with huge resources poured into its digital teams, has the same kind of problems as the rest of the mortal media world.

But it’s an important document not because of any great revelations, but because it so clearly and starkly lays out the common challenges that all legacy news organizations face – and in some ways, the issues that even some startups will have to grapple with.

There’s much to digest in the report (news of which was first broken by Buzzfeed), and you should definitely get a copy and go through it in detail. (Or at least read theNieman summary, which is a great piece of quick curation.) As Josh Benton notes in the Nieman piece:

I doubt there is a newsroom in the world that wouldn’t benefit from understanding the cultural issues laid out below.

Absolutely.  There’s much to dig into, but a couple of key points jumped out at me – with admittedly my structured journalism filter on: It highlights the value of archive and the long tail of news; the importance of metadata and structured data to enhance the content journalists are creating everyday; the need to get beyond one-off projects and build systems and platforms that can enable better, longer-lasting journalism; and the central role newsrooms should – but aren’t – playing in developing a real strategy for the digital age.

Hey – I did say I had my structured journalism blinders on.  And even then, far as the report went, I thought it could have gone even further.

Consider the value of archive.  As the report notes:

In a digital world, our rich archive offers one of our clearest advantages over new competitors.  As of the printing of this report, we have 14,723,933 articles dating back to 1851, that can be resurfaced in useful or timely ways.  But we rarely think to mine our archive, largely because we are so focused on news and new features.

Exactly.  It’s our industry’s relentless preoccupation with what Ezra Klein calls “presentism” that leads us to both undervalue the long-term worth of what we produce as well as, frankly, underserve our audience.  And the report, smartly, suggests that the Times can be much more than simply a provider of news.

We can be both a daily newsletter and a library – offering news every day, as well as providing context, relevance and timeless works of journalism.  In breaking news and long-running stories, readers can struggle to quickly get up to speed or to understand why something matters.

Yet I think it could go further – rather than simply highlighting the value of “timeless works of journalism,” why not rethink how stories are produced today, so that they’re much more likely to be more valuable tomorrow?  Why not produce great journalism today, but change the workflow and systems so as to extract facts and informationthat can be used to create new products tomorrow, ala Politifact and Homicide Watch? The report suggests that, in this area,

The best opportunities are in areas where The Times has comprehensive coverage, where information doesn’t need to be updated regularly, and where competitors haven’t saturated the market.

But perhaps the best opportunities are on issues where information does need to be updated regularly, and which an organization like the Times covers regularly enough that it’s the constant updating that really brings value to readers and builds a barrier to less well-resourced competitors.

Similarly, the report highlights the need for better systems to repackage old content, such as a collection of stories by Nick Kristof on sex trafficking.  That makes sense, but doesn’t it make even more sense to go beyond building a mechanism for easier packaging and couple it with rethinking how Nick might write or annotate his pieces to make them easier to package in the first place?

Regardless of how far you want to go along this path – and while I quibble, the Times report goes a very long ways already – all this requires good metadata, and more specifically, good structured data.  The report highlights how the paper keeps putting off revamping its metadata systems, and details how it lost a decade and a half trying to build a useful recipe database because stories weren’t tagged by ingredients and cooking time.  In the end, they had to retroactively go back and tag the stories, at great cost.

Now that’s as good a poster child for the need for structured journalism as I’ve seen anywhere.

“Everyone forgets about metadata,” said John O’Donovan, the chief technology officer for The Financial Times. “They think they can just make stuff and then forget about how it is organized in terms of how you describe your content.  But all your assets are useless to you unless you have metadata – your archive is full of stuff that is of no value because you can’t find it and don’t know what it’s about.”

And as the recipe example shows, even what we commonly think of as metadata – tags – aren’t enough sometimes.  Really structuring the information within stories – ingredients, cooking time, size of portions, etc – is critical to going beyond resurfacing the original story and being able to build something new from the original content.

Doing that takes rethinking content management systems, as much as blowing up newsroom workflows and the nature of stories or content that journalists produce.  And too much time, the report notes, is spent on big one-off projects like Snowfallthat get a lot of attention and win prizes.  (Not, I’d add, that there’s anything wrong in winning prizes.)

We have a tendency to pour resources into big one-time projects and work through the one-time fixes needed to create them and overlook the less glamorous work of creating tools, templates and permanent fixes that cumulatively can have a bigger impact by saving our digital journalists time and elevating the whole report. We greatly undervalue replicability.

Driven in part by the success of Snowfall, we have gone to extraordinary lengths in recent years to support huge single-story efforts. The ambitions of such projects are central to our brand. But Graphics, Interactive, Design and Social are spending a disproportionate amount of time on these labor-intensive one-offs. Meanwhile, we have repeatedly put off making the necessary improvements to allow our graphics to appear on mobile.

Or, as Quartz’s Kevin Delaney is quoted saying in the report: “I’d rather have a Snowfall builder than a Snowfall.”

Certainly that was the way we planned to build Connected China – as a system that could both be integrated into a new workflow in a newsroom as well as a platform that could spawn other, similar databases and sites.  From hard-won experience, it’s easier said – or aspired to – than done, so no one should be under any illusions that this is simple stuff.  But it’s a good goal to have to start off with.

Still, if there’s anyone out there who has the resources, ambition and staff to pull off the kind of reinvention the report calls for – well, the Times is certainly high on anyone’s shortlist of organizations that can.  And as technology increasingly enables– and shapes – how journalism can be re-imagined, and what kind of new products can be created, it’s critical that newsrooms, technologists and product managers develop new ways to collaborate as well as work out where new ethical lines need to be drawn, as the report suggests.

It means journalists staking out much more of a role in driving the strategy of news organizations – but it also means journalists have to be willing to dive much more deeply into the business and technology of such ventures, and have to shed theirtraditional reluctance to sully their hands with such matters.

Newsrooms that don’t, risk leaving their future to the others in their organizations – or to competitors from the industry or outside it.  As the report laments:

We’ve abdicated completely the role of strategy,” said one masthead editor. “We just don’t do strategy. The newsroom is really being dragged behind the galloping horse of the business side.”

Let’s get back in the saddle.

reg-in-bhutanReprinted from (Re)Structuring Journalism. Reg Chua has been a journalist for more than a quarter-century; he’s now Executive Editor, Editorial Operations, Data and Innovation, at Thomson Reuters. Prior to that, he was editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post and spent 16 years at The Wall Street Journal.

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