Why Journalism Matters to the Web

The act of doing journalism has always been tied to the medium it’s delivered on. Whether it’s print, radio, broadcast television, the internet, podcasts on demand, and so on, the media can leverage the special features of whatever platform its message is distributed on to do better storytelling. To deliver the news in ways that can reach further globally or locally, to contextualize and explain complex or amusing topics.

This is why journalism matters to the web, and the web matters to journalism.

With this in mind, BBC News Labs is investing in structured journalism. Being smarter about how we do storytelling, using tools and machines to help better structure what we already know about information, will make us more efficient and creative with our journalism. Rather than spending a lot of time and resources on designing single-platform experiences every time the industry is “disrupted,” we’re emphasizing being web-native. Having a more granular structure underneath our narratives, whether broadcast television, radio or online, affords us greater flexibility to try out new views, whatever the platform, so that we can leverage the features particular to each, even beyond the web.

The other thing that makes the journalism and the web so important to each other is the tighter feedback loop between media and audiences. We have so many opportunities to engage with our listeners, getting our readers to contribute to our reporting and our viewers to ask questions about our coverage. We think we can do more to get our audiences involved via structured reporting, embracing new technologies and social media platforms. We can meet people where they are, which requires experimenting without being bogged down with the legacy generations of past formats.

Experimentation means getting out of one’s comfort zone. This can be difficult when you’re also part of an organisation running a 24/7 news operation, whether that’s broadcast television, radio, print, online or some or all of the above. Thankfully there are numerous grants and fellowships setup to help us in media innovate by getting fresh talent and ideas in our newsrooms. One is through the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews grant (applications accepted through 21 August 2015), whose past fellows have gone on to help define what measures success in journalism and how to better represent the relationships between the things we report on.

BBC News Labs believes in working across organisational and national lines to further the public good. It’s part of the BBC charter. In that spirit, we are reaching out to our colleagues who have been researching, prototyping and experimenting to figure out how journalism can better leverage the web. One way we do this is by hosting hack or design brainstorming events. At an early #newsHACK a team from the BBC created what we still regard as a stunning visualization of what’s possible with structured data as a storyline: here, an explanation of the Arab Spring. We imagine the possibilities of combining that in-depth look at continuing coverage with something like our news map view of global events.

Our most recent #newsHACK has resulted in a wonderfully productive collaboration between Goldsmiths College Masters in Digital Journalism program, The Times and Sunday Times and BBC News Labs: a Journalist Toolbox.

Outside the BBC, one can find the ideas behind structured data for journalism everywhere from Buzzfeed’s storyline coverage of the Iran nuclear deal to Structured Stories’ coverage as data for NYC local government to Explaain’s interactive articles. Most recently, the Washington Post published a story, “Why the Islamic State leaves tech companies torn between free speech and security,” enhanced with contextual, relevant information using structured data for a better audience experience of a complex topic. We encourage anyone interested in taking part in this conversation to speak up in the Structured Journalism discussion group.

Our journalists must be nimble, and we must be of the web: transparent in our methods and information wherever we can, showing different interpretations and angles of stories. It’s the public service element of journalism, which is vital for the BBC to emphasize.

Nilay Patel wrote recently in The Verge, “what we really need is a more powerful, more robust web.” What the world might need is this: a more structured and robust news experience on the web for a more powerful and engaged society.