finishlineahead

January 5, 2016

The Structured Stories project wasn’t intended to last as long as it has. It’s purpose has been to explore whether or not it might be possible to apply computational narrative techniques to general news stories and, if so, to demonstrate that approach publicly. When I began the project, two and a half years ago, I had no idea what would be involved. I had a clear understanding of the devilishly difficult situation facing ‘post-industrial journalism‘, a frustration with the lack of proposed solutions, a background in data modeling and a keen interest in analytical approaches to ‘story’. My goal was to propose and demonstrate an original and plausible alternative to the doomed, article-centric approach to news.

It’s been a long and often challenging road since then. It took almost a year of iteration through data models using a research prototype before a stable representation of structured events and narratives emerged. It took almost another year to build an operational prototype capable of being used by others for reporting into structure and enabling anyone to explore structured narratives. And it’s taken more than six months of reporting, in three separate experiments with a total of 10 reporters, to start to understand the reality of reporting everyday news stories as structured events and structured narratives.

I’ve learned an immense amount along the way, mostly from the many talented and knowledgable people I’ve had the good fortune to meet and work with. I’ve learned how to think about structured journalism and structured narratives, where my approach fits within these fields and why there are particular opportunities from radically changing the paradigm of news. I’ve learned how to talk about the approach, how to work with journalists, and how to navigate the cultural gaps between journalism and technology. Above all I’ve learned that it really is possible for journalists to capture general, ordinary, everyday news as structured events and narratives. The constant theme along this path has been simplification, and I have a growing sense that the approach seems initially complex only because of the need for an unfamiliar perspective.

So what’s left to do? One major task remains – to create a taxonomy of event frames within a significant domain of news. The Structured Stories event frame library already contains almost 600 event frames – abstractions of ‘types’ of news events – and it has become clear that organizing these frames and standardizing their use is critical for applying this approach in real workflows. Building and publishing a taxonomy of event frames for news in a domain – specifically the local and state government domain – will complete the end-to-end demonstration of structured narrative as a viable approach to reporting and publishing news. There are many other tasks remaining. Loose ends abound, as anyone using the Structured Stories platform can see, but fixing those merely requires the time with which to attend to them. Understanding the event frame taxonomy is the last remaining area of exploration necessary before I can confidently propose a design for a real-world product.