Creating new forms of journalism that put readers in charge

It’s been 20 years since the Internet began to disrupt journalism. It has turned our business upside down, but it’s also given us a new canvas to invent different ways of presenting information. It’s time to start reimagining the news story.

Last week, four of us gathered in a windowless conference room in New York to explore what we can do to nudge things along.

The participants were the creators of three projects that rely on new forms:

  • Laura and Chris Amico, the founders of Homicide Watch, the highly acclaimed reporting venture that tracks homicide victims and suspects in Washington, Chicago and Trenton, N.J.


All three projects use a structured approach to present content in different ways. The animated diagrams of Connected China show you the family and government relationships that determine who has clout in that country; the lists and maps of Homicide Watch show who has been killed and where; the PolitiFact report cards reveal which politicians have earned the most Pants on Fires.

Homicide Watch, Connected China and PolitiFact are known as structured journalism because the articles contain fields of information that can be sorted and tallied. They provide readers with many ways to explore the content, both through individual articles and the data the articles create. Structured journalism puts the reader in charge.

“It’s a way of reporting that builds a comprehensive reporter’s notebook and then opens that notebook up to the public,” said Laura Amico. “There is no ‘old news’ in structured journalism, there is cumulative news. It is reporting that increases in value over time.”

There are a few other ventures that are experimenting with similar new forms, such as Circa, the app that atomizes the news into digestible chunks. But by and large, story forms are stuck in the past. We want more news organizations to experiment with structured journalism.

We began our New York meeting by trying to understand why media companies have largely failed to take advantage of the incredible power of the Web and mobile devices. We identified four forces that have stymied innovation:

  • Content Management Systems. They are designed to convert old media into new media and they provide little flexibility to experiment with new journalistic forms.

  • Newsroom culture. The rhythm in most newsrooms is based on a well-established work flow that produces predictable content. It’s not easy to suggest a wholesale change.

  • Product managers on the business side. They’re accustomed to selling the old recipe and often seem perplexed by new approaches.

  • Editors/news directors. They’ve got other priorities — such as having to choose people for another round of layoffs — and often don’t have the resources for a new venture.

Chua said editors need to get beyond the idea that “what’s new is what’s valuable. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s accumulated information and knowledge that is valuable.”

We then turned to the need for evangelism. What can the four of us do to get more news organizations to try innovative story forms?

We agreed to host a mini-conference in September before the Online News Association meeting in Chicago. It will allow us to demonstrate the promise of new story forms for industry leaders and innovators.

In the meantime, we’ll be writing and speaking about the new forms and encouraging organizations to do more experimentation. We invite you to join in these conversations by sharing your projects, ideas and hopes. #structuredjournalism

Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact, is the Knight Chair for Computational Journalism at Duke University and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter.

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