Refocusing the "story" away from individual articles to the overarching narrative

Kill the article.

That was the theme of the Global Editors Network hackathon that I participated in with Seattle Times teammates Ben Turner and Justin Mayo. This was one of 20 hackathons happening worldwide, with winners of each event going to Barcelona to compete against each other. Unfortunately, we didn't win. But we still think our idea is pretty kickass and we're excited about implementing the concept (to some degree) into our CMS overhaul over the next few months.

We decided not to kill the article entirely, since the concept developed at the hackathon is something that's supposed to be implementable in our newsrooms, and ours isn't one to kill the article anytime soon. But we did want to take the focus of the "digital story" away from individual articles and direct it toward the individual pieces of data that connect those articles over time. Because what's an article, really, but one episodic slice of content in context of a larger, evolving narrative?

Here's a mockup of our idea, something I've been dying to sit down and think about since I wrote a post in 2011 (crap, that long ago?) about the convoluted life cycle of a story and in 2010 (yikes!) when I wrote about structuring metadata within articles.

A little explanation about what's going on here:

  • A seemingly normal story appears on the left, but what you don't see is the back end (shown below), which allows journalists to markup various components of the text — names, locations, key facts, key quotes, tweets, multimedia — to provide additional metadata about them and their relevance to this story.
  • A curated stream of content to the right, which is generated based on the metadata from all the articles in this topic over time. This means you can see where one little sliver of an article exists within the larger meaning of the story.
  • You can filter by newest or jump to the beginning if you're new to the story. If you want the high-level overview, you can see "only the important stuff."
  • You can explore by content type or data type. For example: Key people, key locations, all videos, all photos, all tweets, thematic filters (for this particular story: arena design, concerns, investors, etc.) Thematic filters are determined at a topic level, chosen by editors.

Here's what the input interface might look like:

Why we decided on this approach

Our team felt like the premise of "killing the article" may have been a little off. The internet was created as a place to easily read, share, interconnect text. What's missing is the context. How can we stitch together individual pieces of information that make up disparate articles so they make sense in the larger meaning?

This idea was born out of meshing together two concepts: the wiki(ish) approach to news, plus an activity stream. We wanted to focus not on breaking news — though this concept could be applied there — but to the stories that are most important to our mission as local, independent newspaper. We wanted a format that gives meaning to longterm reporting that impacts many sectors of our community, enterprise reporting that is watchdog in nature.

You can check out the functional prototype that Ben built. We'll let you know when the real thing is implemented into our systems.

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