The Future of News

Ryan Thornburg

Why ‘Robot Reporters’ Are a Good Thing

First of all, let’s not let allow the alluring alliteration to distract from we’re really talking about — not robot reporters, but robot writers.

Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff asked me what I thought about the news that Durham’s Automated Insights would be writing automated business stories for the Associated Press.

This trend excites me about the future of journalism. I’ve been talking with folks about it for about five years, since I first saw similar work that was being incubated by Northwestern’s journalism school. That effort grew into the company Narrative Science, which has been writing earnings preview stories for Forbes.com. The Los Angeles Times uses an algorithm to write earthquake stories. The Washington Post has looked into using Narrative Science for high school sports stories.

The Guardian learned how hard it is to build a robot writer, but the automated stories I’ve seen written by both Automated Insights and Narrative Science are pretty good. And 46 media and communications undergrads couldn’t distinguish a computer written story from one written by a human.

The trend in automation should free up the best writers and best reporters to add the how and why context that still needs to be done by humans. If I were a beat reporter at a newspaper I’d be working as fast I could to convince by editor to let a computer write the scut stories I have to write and free me up to do more explanatory and accountability reporting, or to craft beautifully written narratives.

One significant risk is that for the last decade we’ve seen “good enough” journalism growing in popularity. News organizations that continue to have a strategy of harvesting profits rather than investing in growth will no doubt cut reporters if machines can write commodity news at a lower cost.

If I were a young journalist looking for my first job, I’d be looking for news organizations that are sustaining a small margin and growing both expenses and revenues — the ones that are using both bots and humans.

The trend toward automation will result in an emphasis on the news value of impact. Mass customization is going to change the nouns in the leads of stories from the third person to the second — “investors” will become “you.”

The trick is how to make money off this. News organizations that continue to see themselves as manufacturers of goods will probably increase the volume of digital commodity content they publish and continue to drive down ad rates.

But smart content companies are evolving from a manufacturing industry to a service industry, and trying to create, explain and capture the value they provide to each client by getting the right information to the right people at the right time.

What we see now as data is as unsophisticated as what many of us thought of data when Google first made its mission organizing all of it. We think of data now as numbers in tables — scores, money, temperatures, but we’ll soon see data as behavior and content metadata. And we will see automated stories that incorporate the user’s data and the data of her social network as well.

That level of concierge news service, though, is going to come at a price for users. If we’ve seen the democratization of media this automation trend has the potential to create a world of media haves and have nots — the haves will pay premium subscription fees to get highly personalized news from bots. The have-nots will get generic news (maybe written by bots as well).

The one thing from which I think everyone will benefit is an increase in the quality and frequency of narrative writing, and of explanatory and accountability reporting.

To aid that transition I’m working on the idea that we can use digital public records to build a newsroom dashboard system that will alert beat reporters to possible story ideas. Automated Insights and Narrative Science are scaling commodity news stories. I want to see if we can lower the human reporters’ opportunity cost of pursuing enterprise stories that land with much bigger and much longer lasting impact.

If you want a pithy quote from a journalism prof. on the effect that robot writers are going to have on the job market for journalism students, here it is: “My C students are probably screwed. My A students are going to do better than ever.”

Written by Ryan Thornburg

July 2, 2014 at 1:19 pm

How to Cover Live Events: Create an Experience

Whenever I’m trying to figure out a new way to tell a story, there’s a quote from one of the inventors of virtual reality that always pops into my brain: “Information is alienated experience.” Or, like my middle school English teacher used to say, “Show, don’t tell.”

So when you go out to cover an event, don’t bring back a product, a widget, a good, a 10-inch inverted-pyramid story. Use multimedia and interactivity to bring your audience along for the ride. Make them feel like they’re in the room with you. Cover the event live, and then repackage your live coverage to attract the search engine audience.

For these types of stories you should consider:

  • Live tweeting.
  • Streaming video via UStream.
  • Capturing/publishing audio via SoundCloud.
  • Publishing full or editing video on YouTube.
  • Re-using in a regularly scheduled weekly podcast.
  • Posting to the website using Storify.

Live Tweeting Tips

Before the event:

  • Do background research so you have some idea of what you can expect to happen. Because news is when the world doesn’t behave as you’d expect. So first you have to know what to expect. Know the players and the rules. Look at old stories, get a copy of the meeting agenda or the speech text if possible. Check out the group’s website and social media accounts. Check out national press, too, if warranted.
  • Make a Twitter list of everyone you expect to be in attendance at the event — that includes “official” event participants as well as observers.
  • Make another list of anyone you think might be interested in the topic. You might find these are folks who already follow you on Twitter, or folks that have re-tweeted similar stories, or just people who’ve been talking about similar topics.
  • Make sure you know any hashtags related to the event. If there isn’t one, make one up and tell your followers to use it during the event. For the most important hashtags you expect to be used during the event, create a saved search on Twitter.
  • Prepare a few tweets in advance of the event. For example, if you know that someone is going to reference a particular news article or book, have a link to that article ready to send out when the person mentions it. If you use HootSuite, you can save drafts of your tweets. Twitter just added native pre-scheduling of tweets to its clients.

During the Event

  • Get there early. You never know what might go wrong — you can’t find parking, there’s no WiFi, no place to put your camera, room is full, flock of rabid seagulls attacks…
  • Tell people that you’re getting ready to start live tweeting an event. Tell them where you are. Tell them about how long you’ll be at it. You’ll be using your personal account for credibility and intimacy.
  • Listen for key quotes, and either paraphrase them or attribute them: – “Obama: ‘My role here is done.'” or “Obama says he is resigning from office.”
  • Listen for key facts that provide context: -“27% of new students hail from Antarctica.” or “Construction on Gryffindor began in 2011 and was scheduled to cost $3.1B.”
  • Listen for news: “Board voting now on whether to oppose Amendment One.” or “Board’s vote on Amendment One unanimous. Everyone’s opposed.”
  • Provide both “play-by-play” coverage as well as analysis: – “Somewhat unexpected to hear all sides agree on that issue. Where was the opposition?”
  • Use hashtags. Hashtags can be used to help your audience find other tweets on the topic, but they can also help your tweets find an audience that cares about the topic but doesn’t yet know you’re covering it. Finally, you can use hastags for commentary (but be careful with that.)
  • Ask questions of your audience during the event. Questions can either seek information: “Dept. of Labor says it’s still interviewing witnesses. I’d like to interview you, too. Did you see the Vortex collapse?” … or they can seek opinion. “Rides inspected 3x/day. Fairgoers- Is the Dept. of Labor doing enough to keep you safe?”
  • When you receive responses, re-tweet the interesting ones. Think of yourself as the host of a call-in talk show. Re-tweeting adds interesting voices to the live event and puts yourself in the position to mediate a conversation between your followers. That’s creating an experience rather than just a story.
  • Invite your readers to ask you questions: -“Petraeus taking questions now. What do y’all want me to ask him?”
  • If you make a mistake, correct it. If it’s an egregious fact error — “Thornburg found guilty of murder!” — delete the original tweet and send out a correction: “CORRECTION: Thornburg found NOT guilty of murder!” Correct anything that alters your audience’s clear understanding of the event. Misspellings and things like that probably don’t merit corrections. If someone has re-tweeted a fact error that you made, be sure to @mention them in your correction so they’ll be more likely to see it and pass it along, too.
  • Tweet photos and (brief) video. Give people a sense that they are going “behind the scenes” with you — that you’re taking them to a place they can’t go.
  • Interview participants and observers. Tweet a photo and a quote of the person. Be sure to @mention them.
  • When you end your live coverage, tell your audience that you’re wrapping up… and they they can go to your website or print publication soon to see your full wrap-up of the event.

After the Event

  • Use Storify to pull together your quotes. Embed the Storify on your site.
  • Follow-up the next day with a moderated live online discussion with one of the event’s participants. Or just allow your readers to ask you questions. Two good tools to use for live discussions on your site are CoverItLive and ScribbleLive.

Live Audio & Video

With UStream, you can turn your iPhone into a broadcast truck. It doesn’t matter whether the event has a huge following or not, imagine that suddenly you don’t just work for the newspaper of record for in your community but also the CSPAN.

If you want to host your own video talk show, try Google Hangouts On Air like Investigative Reporters & Editors has done.

You know you can use your phone as a camera, but you can also use it to record audio interviews and use SoundCloud to publish the audio on The Chronicle or to a podcast. If you want to dramatically improve the quality of your audio, try one of these little microphones that plug into your iPhone. You can also use this free iPhone app to do some pretty nice audio editing right on the phone.

None of these audio and video tools are going to win you an Oscar. They’re the tools you use when the story doesn’t merit a trained videographer.

Examples

General Tutorials

Tips for Speeches

Tips for Meetings

Tips for Festivals/Celebrations

Tips for Live Q&A Events on Twitter

Correct Audience Numbers for The Columbia Tribune

I made an error in the piece I wrote for PBS Media Shift Idea Lab yesterday. I misrepresented the audience for The Columbia Tribune. The paper’s general manager, Andy Waters, kindly brought it to my attention and I want to offer a correction here.

Numbers that Waters sent me from The Media Audit show that the news organization reaches nearly 80 percent of the 130,000 adults in its market. I used a small potential audience base and a smaller penetration rate when I wrote up the post. That number was no good and I should’ve known better than to use it. I simply took the print circulation and divided it by the Census estimate of residents in Columbia.

You could go all night quibbling about audience measurement methodologies, but whatever faults The Media Audit numbers may or may not have, they are certainly better than the way I tried to calculate it.

And I think this is a particularly important measurement to correct because of the number of unsourced posts that you can find on the Internet saying that the Tribune lost anywhere between 25 and 40 percent of its online audience when it implemented online subscriptions. I’m not fact-checking those claims one way or the other, and even if true they may not be important. I’m repeating it here only to provide context for the correction and to hopefully spur some critical thinking about any audience claims you see — including mine.

Anyway. The Media Audit numbers that Waters showed me indicate that out of a base population of 130,634 adults 18 or older, 103,260 of them – or 79 percent – say they read the Tribune either in print or online. The print edition (weekday/Sunday) reaches 62 percent of the market at least once a week, and the website reaches 52.5 percent of the market at least once a month.

I hope that gives a better picture of the kind of environment in which the Tribune’s OpenBlock experiment is taking place. And the point I was trying to make I think remains valid — that Columbia, Mo., is WAY different than Chicago or Charlotte or San Francisco.

Written by Ryan Thornburg

August 1, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Data Journalism Class Exercise (Or, Teaching Critical Thinking)

Here’s a great exercise for journalism professors who are introducing their students to data-driven journalism. It provides a good opportunity to show them that they have to get over the common perception that data is unbiased — clean and clear. It gives instructors an opportunity to talk about the need to “interview” the data.

The assignment is deceptively simple: Have the students download the Census Bureau’s list of rural and urban counties and calculate the population density for the counties in your state.

That’s it. Tell them no more. Depending on where they get stuck, slowly reveal to them the clues they need to complete the project. What you may not be surprised to find is that too many college undergrads seem to be accustomed to following step-by-step instructions and too few know how to break down a problem into smaller, sequential pieces. This is the kind of critical thinking skills that they need to be good journalists. Or, as I like to say, think journalistically regardless of their eventual profession.

Helping Them Get Unstuck

Force your students to get a quick start. Don’t let them sit and stare at their computer screens for even a second. Agitate them in whatever way you need to make them feel like an asteroid is about to smash the earth to smithereens. They can’t solve the whole problem all at once, so what are the pieces of the problem hidden inside this big problem?

  • Where can you find the Census list of rural and urban counties?

The answer — of course — is Google. So, there’s an opportunity to teach efficient search strategies.

Students will click around the Census site a bit trying to find what they want. Ask how skimmed and how many read every word on each page. A good opportunity to talk about the way people use information online.

You can help students find the data they need. And from there you can show them basic file-management and Excel techniques. Where does the file download on their computer? What’s the difference between a .csv and a .xlsx file?

With the data open in Excel, they’ll need to sort to filter out just their state. But now what? Ask the students what they think each of the columns represent. What does it mean that something has a POP_UA of 10791 and a STATE of 37?

Once they figure that out, they may note that the data includes some pre-calculated population density. But it’s not the information you asked them to find, so they’ll have to calculate population density — a commonly-needed, very simple journalism math equation.

This gives you a chance to explain that numbers are only meaningful in relation to other numbers. And how to do basic calculations in Excel.

The students will do the math correctly, but they won’t get answers that make any sense. A chance for you to talk with them about how data still has to pass the sniff test. Why doesn’t the data make sense? They can find the answer back on the Census website.

Once they’ve made the correct calculations (how many meters are in a mile anyway?), you can talk with them about how you still need to find the story in the data. Even though their calculations have added value to the data — essentially refining raw ore — mere presentation is of marginal value.

You can top off the conversation by coming back to language, and that journalistic aspiration for precision and objectivity. What does “rural” mean anyway? What does the dictionary say? Is it an abstract concept or something you can measure? How (many different ways) does the Census measure it? How is it different than the USDA’s definition? Which is better? Why?

This is a project that could take several weeks as a module in a college class, or as a MOOC or quick conference or newsroom workshop. Its strength is its scope and flexibility. Just like a good journalist.

Written by Ryan Thornburg

July 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm

How it’s going to go down tonight. Maybe.

7p –
Romney: 44 (Ga., S.C., Ky., Ind.)
Obama: 3 (Vt.)
Undeclared: 34 (Va., Fla.)

Virginia and Florida will be our first undecided states, and in 2008 they were the ones that finally got called at 11 p.m. and allowed TV networks to project that Obama would win.

7:30 –
Romney: 49 (W.Va.)
Obama: 3 (Vt.)
Undeclared: 43 (N.C., Ohio, Va., Fla.)

In 2008, McCain conceded even while he was still ahead in North Carolina. Of course, after all precincts reported it was Obama who won became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to win the state. It will be at least 9:30 before the state is called and I suspect that the longer it stays open the worse it looks for Romney.

West Virginia hasn’t gone Democratic since 1996. Sometimes I forget that.

8 p.m. –
Romney: 130 (Tenn., Ala., Miss., Mo., Tex., Okla.)
Obama: 98 (Mich., Maine, N.H., R.I., Conn., N.J., Del., Md., D.C., Ill.)
Undeclared: 59 (N.C., Ohio, Va., Fla.)

If N.H. and Mich. don’t go for Obama right away, then he may be in trouble there.
If N.J. doesn’t get called right away, it’ll probably not be an indication of anything other than storm-related voting issues.

8:30 p.m. –
Romney: 136 (Ark.)
Obama: 98 ()
Undeclared: 59 (N.C., Ohio, Va., Fla.)

9 p.m. –
Romney: 174 (La., N.D., S.D., Neb., Kans., Wyo., Ariz.)
Obama: 152 (N.Y., Minn., N.M., Wis.)
Undeclared: 68 (Colo., N.C., Ohio, Va., Fla.)

Colorado is another of those states that didn’t get called in 2008 until after McCain conceded shortly after 11 p.m.

In 2008 at about 9:30 p.m., the networks projected Obama would win Ohio. They also projected Wisconsin going for Obama about the same time. It looks like they both may go Obama’s way this year, too – but Wisconsin before Ohio.

10 p.m. –
Romney: 185 (Mont., Utah)
Obama: 164 (Nev., Iowa)
Undeclared: 68 (Colo., N.C., Ohio, Va., Fla.)

Iowa went for Obama right away in 2008. And he eventually got 54 percent of the vote there. If the state goes to Romney, it would be the second time since 1988. A slow call for Obama here might point in that direction.

I seem to recall that Nevada is very slow to report, but a slow call in Nevada might also be an indication that the state will return to the Republican column.

In 2008 at about 10:45 p.m., Fox called Virginia for Obama.

11 p.m. –
Romney: 185 ()
Obama: 269 (Ohio, Va., Calif., Wash., Ore.)
Undeclared: 50 (Colo., N.C., Fla.)

Hope will remain for Romney if Ohio doesn’t go to Obama by 11 p.m. But also note that Ohio is expecting more than 200,000 provisional ballots, and will be forced into a recount if the difference between the two candidates is about 14,000 votes.

Of the five remaining undeclared states, Nate Silver predicts that Obama is most likely to win Virginia and Colorado. But winning Virginia would still leave Obama one electoral vote shy of the 270 he needs to win the presidency. So expect this election night to go later than it did four years ago.

Florida and Virginia got called for Obama shortly after 11 p.m. in 2008, allowing networks to project him as the winner. Obama had about 53 percent in Virginia and 51 percent in Florida when all the votes were counted in 2008.

Nevada didn’t get declared until after McCain conceded. Obama ended up with 55 percent of the vote there.

12 a.m. –
Romney: 185 ()
Obama: 273 (Hawaii)
Undeclared: 37 (Colo., N.C., Va., Fla.)

1 a.m. –
Romney: 188 (Alaska)
Obama: 273 ()
Undeclared: 37 (Colo., N.C., Va., Fla.)

Thanks to:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/11/02/us/politics/paths-to-the-white-house.html

http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1012/82595.html

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/2012_elections_electoral_college_map.html

http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/results/president/map.html

http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-250_162-4571254.html

Written by Ryan Thornburg

November 6, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Storify Tips for Journalists

Students in my “Social Media for Reporters” class have been working with Storify this semester, most recently on an assignment to cover University Day — UNC’s birthday. This year, the usually low-attention affair was interrupted by the news of the death of one of UNC and higher education’s most influential people of the last half century — Bill Friday.
Here’s what we learned about using Storify as a reaction piece:

  • Students agreed they would be inclined to use it primarily as a tool for summarizing reaction or public sentiment, rather than a tool for replaying the tick-tock of a breaking news event. That may have been because of the nature of the assignment.
  • Don’t write a placeholder headline for your Storify. Once you save it, it permanently becomes the URL of your Storify.
  • If possible, lead with a photo. Perhaps this is a visual convention that comes over from news article Web pages. But images often set the scene for reaction pieces. Images can quickly show the reader the “what” in what might otherwise be called the lead of the piece, allowing tweets and other content to focus on the “so what”. The images that work best are also images with some text on top of them.
  • Transitions are critically important, making the difference between a narrative and what otherwise is merely a spreadsheet of quotes. The transitions you write between Storify elements must introduce the immediate next item. If you describe a state of shock at the news of Friday’s death, the next piece of content can’t be a photo of students standing in line for waffles, which is then followed by a tweet reacting to Friday’s death.
  • Transitions are the paragraph that sets up the quote. Be sure not to repeat in your transition all the information in the quote. Your writing is the “what” and the following tweet is the “so what”.
  • Tweets work better than Facebook posts as content components of Storify, perhaps because of the visual nature of Storify and the brevity of the tweets.
  • Also, we found the interaction between Storify and Facebook to be both unwieldy and unreliable. For example, Storify links would disappear from Facebook pages as we navigated through the site, increasing significantly the amount of time it took us to add content from Facebook. We also experienced unpredictable reliability of Storify links on Facebook — sometimes they would work and sometimes they wouldn’t. We tested across browsers, platforms, privacy settings of content and types of content. But we couldn’t discern a clear pattern.
  • We had two reports of students who said they had to essentially do the assignment twice because of technical difficulties curating and editing the pieces of content in Storify. One had to do with inability to arrange a YouTube video within Storify once it had been added. Solution was to close the browser and re-open Storify.
  • Note that there’s an important ethical issue to consider when using Storify on Facebook content — you can Storify any content that you can see and then make it public — not “Friend” public, or even Facebook-only public. But Everyone public. You cannot do this with tweets.
  • The ending of your Storify is critical. Good endings seemed to be a tweet that either spun the story forward, summarized public sentiment or drove the reader to further interactivity and engagement — a place where the reader could react to the story.
  • As in any reaction piece, you have to be aware of the diversity of your sources. First, consider which kinds of diversity might contribute to different viewpoints. Sometimes it’s racial diversity and sometimes geographic and sometimes political, depending on the story. When journalists mix personal and professional uses on their social networks, they are more likely going to see content that looks like them. Compounding that social and cultural bias is the algorithmic bias — Facebook and Twitter are going to try to give you content its algorithms think you will like. This will be based, presumably, on your previous interactions with content as well as your demographics and the demographics of the people you follow. When using Storify to create a reaction piece, journalists have to go out of their ways to look for different viewpoints. Using custom lists on Twitter and Facebook, geo-targeted searching in HootSuite, and following partisan hashtags or accounts can help mitigate against algorithmic and personal tendencies toward homogeneity.
  • It’s an old conversation, but one worth bringing up again in this context — understand that reaction pieces on Storify are inherently anecdotal and not a valid survey of public opinion. That said, consider whether you should give an equal amount of space to competing points of view regardless of how frequently you see each perspective. Or, whether you should instead try to weight the balance of space in your piece to reflect the frequency of each point of view you found in your search for content.
  • Finally, the mix between “inside” and “outside” sources can dramatically change the tone of your Storify piece. In our case, we had reactions to Friday’s death from both University officials as well as students and alumni. Reaction from officials adds the news value of prominence to your piece, but broad public reaction can increase the news values of magnitude and impact.

We didn’t discuss these in class, but here are a few use cases for Storify I’d like to see:

  • Virtual debate between two or more people on opposing sides of an issue. Take unprompted content from a community and splice it together to create the kind of conversations that seem to be less common in our disaggregated media world.
  • Fact checking of what people say on social media. Use tools to determine assertions that are both common on social media and appear to be based on fact. Even better would be to find assertions made by different sides on an issue, but based on the same set of facts. It might be interesting to note whether we spin each other just as much as our candidates do.

What are your tips for Storify? Share them in the comments below or on Twitter, to @rtburg.

Written by Ryan Thornburg

October 16, 2012 at 9:06 am

What Makes a Good Twitter Bio for Journalists?

Take the poll and see Sree Sreenivasan’s examples.




Written by Ryan Thornburg

September 12, 2012 at 8:00 am

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.