DEN: Eric Ulken: Beyond the story-centric model of the universe

After appearing virtually at a few Digital Editors Network events at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, I finally made the trip to appear in person. I really enjoyed Alison Gow talking about live blogging the credit crunch for several Trinity-Mirror sites using CoverItLive.

Eric Ulken, formerly the editor of interactive technology, spoke about an issue dear to my heart: Moving beyond the story as the centre of the journalism universe. It’s one of the reasons that I chose to be a digital journalist is that I think it brings together the strengths of print, audio and video while also adding some new story-telling methods such as data and visualistions. Eric talked about the projects he worked on at the Times to explore new ways of telling stories.

Eric started off by talking about the history of news articles.

The story article so far

  • born 17th Century
  • served us well for about 400 years
  • lots of words (800-1000 words on average)
  • unstructured, grey and often boring.

“What else is there in the toolbox?” he asked.

Some examples: (Eric suffered the dreaded no internet, links in presentation problem so am a little link light on this. You can see examples that Eric has worked on from his portfolio.)

  • text trick – lists, tables, timelines, (Eric mentioned Dipity as one way to easily create a timeline, but said it was “not quite there”. He also mentioned MIT’s Simile project (which has ‘graduated’ and is now hosted on Google Code). Licenced for use under BSD licence, it’s is easily something for more news organisations to use.) Other text formats include the q&a and what he called the q&no, eg the New York Time tech blog. They put up questions for Steve Jobs before MacWorld. His Steve-ness never answers them, but it lays out the agenda.
  • blogs are the new articles
  • photo galleries as lists, timelines
  • stand-alone UGC
  • video: short-form, packages
  • mapping, charts, data visualisation
  • database applications visualisation.

I think this is really important for journalists to understand now. They have to be thinking about telling stories in other formats than just the story. Journalist-programmer ninja Adrian Holovaty has a number of ways that stories can be re-imagined and enhanced with structured data. News has to move on from the point where the smallest divisible element of news is the article. News organisations are adding semantic information such as tags, as we have at the Guardian.

But beyond that, we have to think of other ways to present information and tell stories. As more journalists shift from being focused solely on the print platform to multi-platform journalism, one of the most pressing needs is to raise awareness of these alternate story-telling elements. Journalists, outside of the development departments and computer-assisted reporting units, need to gather the data around a story. It needs to become an integral part of newsgathering. If a department inside of your organisation is responsible with gathering this data, your data library needs to be made accessible and easily searchable by journalists. If it sounds daunting, especially for small shops, then use Google Docs as an interim solution. This is also an area ripe with opportunities for cooperation between universities and news organisations.

Eric gave one example of this non-story-centric model for news. “We did a three-way mashup”, he said. They brought together the computer-assisted reporting team, the graphics team and Eric’s team.

They worked with a reporter on the City desk. She wanted to chronicle every homicide in LA County. In 2007, there were 800 murders. She did the reporting in a blog format. It might not have been the best format, but it was easy to set up. She started building up a repository of information. I was begging people to get the tech resources to build a database. We built a database on top of the blog. We took data from the County Coroner. We took gender, race and age and put it in a database which was crossed linked to the blog. We added a map. You could filter based on age or race on the map. The result was two things. It was a way to look at the data in aggregate, and it was a way to drill down through the interface to the individual record. They took public data, original reporting and contributions from users.

“One of the things that is challenging is getting the IT side to understand what it is actually that you do,” he said.There are more tech people who are interested in journalism probably than there are journalist who are able and willing to learn the intricacies of programming.

When the floor was opened to questions, I wasn’t surprised that this one came up.

Question: Could the LATimes get rid of the print and remain profitable?
Answer: No. Revenue from online roughly covers the cost of newsroom salaries, not the benefits, not for ad staff. I don’t think he was saying that the LATimes had figured it out. He had been saying that for some time before he said it publicly. It was for morale. He was saying that it is not inconceivable for the website to pay in the future.
“There is a point where this cycle ends of cutting staff and cutting newshole,” he said.

UPDATE: And you can see the presentation on SlideShare: