How Newspapers Can Make Their Data More Useful: Uncovering The Semantic Newspaper

from the stuff-to-think-about dept

Earlier this week, when we wrote about yet another weak strategy that newspaper industry-types were discussing as a plan to "fight back" against the internet, a few people complained in the comments that we only seem to focus on the negative side of what newspapers do, and never highlight the positives or come up with any suggestions on our own. Part of this may be because it just seems like so few newspapers seem to be doing much right. However, it's also not entirely true. In the past, we've discussed ways that newspapers can better customize and also why newspapers should recognize that their role has shifted from being just an information deliverer, to being an enabling party that helps its own readers spread the news -- something sites like Digg have shown many people want to do. Techmeme has pointed us to another interesting idea, this time suggested by Adrian Holovaty, who has worked for many years on the digital side of various newspapers. Rather than coming up with vague statements about blogs, tags or whatever the latest buzzword is, Holovaty points out how newspapers need to fundamentally shift how they think about the data they create. That is, they need to recognize that it's data they produce. Rather than focus on each "story" as a blackbox, they should be willing to break it up into chunks of useful metadata. That is, each story is likely to have certain consistent attributes, and making sure the newspaper database understands those attributes allows the newspaper to become a data source, rather than just a collection of news articles. This doesn't mean to get rid of the story itself, but at least make sure the database recognizes the different data attributes.

This is a very powerful idea, that may bring to mind Tim Berners-Lee's idea of the semantic web, where there's a lot more metadata for computers to understand. Of course, the big stumbling block for the semantic web over the years is often that it involves setting up too rigid a structure, eliminating much of what made the web so useful in the first place. It forces people to make choices and to assign specific labels or categories when they might just want to put the full content out there. In fact, Holovaty acknowledges some of this, when he complains that too many in the newspaper industry just see the content management system as the fastest means possible of delivering their story. They just want to be able to dump the story in and have it published. However, as Holovaty has also seen, some are beginning to see the light -- and with the consistency of certain types of news stories, there's really very little need for the "flexibility" that often holds back attempts at the semantic web. Just last month, for example, we pointed out that Thomson Financial is trying to automate the process of writing certain stories, such as on earnings releases. That takes the same concept from a different angle, easing the labor side, but at the same time inherently recognizing the metadata involved.

While some journalists may protest this attempt to "chunkify" their stories, there's nothing in this process that needs to take anything away from their traditional journalism. The story is still filed and is still important. What the additional data (or the classification/categorization of that data) does is open up a goldmine of additional information and services a newspaper can provide. Rather than just focusing on the qualitative angle, the data is exposed and can be used in a variety of ways -- many of which may not be obvious at first, but will come to light later. Holovaty uses an example of being able to break up a ton of useful weather forecast data, and easily combine it with a system for keeping track of little league games (where weather info is important). That's just a small example, but making news data, rather than stories, useful has plenty of other benefits that could revitalize the news business. As an example of how such things could be useful, I was going to point to the ChicagoCrime website that maps where crimes have occurred in Chicago -- and in looking it up, only now realized that it was actually created by Holovaty as well (no wonder). So the good news is that there are some really good ideas out there for improving the value of traditional news organizations. It's just a matter of getting more in the industry to embrace them.

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  1. identicon
    Joe Wroblewski, 7 Sep 2006 @ 6:37pm

    Only the innovators will survive

    I find myself reading the newspaper less and less all the time. I have often wondered if publishers don't understand the basic shift that is taking place or they don't know what to do about it.

    I think Adrian's idea is exactly the type of innovation the newspaper industry needs. It will surely provide a lot of value to readers and it will do it by leveraging new and evolving technologies.

    There just isnt' a need for so many newspapers anymore, so only the innovators will survive.

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