David Smydra is strategic partner manager for news at Google and is finishing a stint as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. He is also a former reporter at the Half Moon Bay Review, and because of that, he shared with me a really cool project. I’m about to share it with you.
He’ll explain it better than I, but the crux is that news isn’t only what has happened, but what will happen. As he points out, some upcoming news events are entirely predictable. What if we could publish those milestones before they happened? David said I could repost his blog here. If you have comments, by all means, please go here and let him know what you think. Take it away, David…
As I’ve covered in previous posts and elsewhere, news is more than what just happened — news is the important thing that has, is, or will happen. In other words, sometimes the most interesting or compelling news event is ahead of us, even though it hasn’t yet occurred.
So the question becomes: What’s the best way to track or report on future news events?
Newsrooms already gather extensive amounts of information regarding future news events. Publicists send reporters digital stacks of press releases. (I’ve worked as a publicist and a journalist, in that order. I know of what I speak.) But press releases are just the beginning — reporters also track calendars published by government agencies; they follow court dates for high-interest cases; and they subscribe to industry newsletters for their beat or obsession. Most importantly, they work their sources for leads. The heads-up for what will happen is one of the most prized tips a source can pass to a reporter. …
Yet because this gathering of “future news” information is essential to the reporting process, there are almost as many methods and systems for storing that information as there are journalists. I’ve spoken to some editors who track events in a newsroom-wide calendar, while other reporters keep events listed in a bare-bones text file. Others use spreadsheets, both private and shared among colleagues; and still others use sticky notes, both digital and the old-fashioned kind.
The fact that different reporters and newsrooms all have their own processes for an industry-wide behavior means that it’s highly likely that a lot of wasted effort is taking place within and among news outlets. For instance, multiple reporters at one publication might be tracking the same event in different ways for different stories.
Possibly the worst consequence, however, of these one-off methods is that these events are largely invisible to the audience until the events are reported on. Just because the journalist can see what’s coming doesn’t mean the reader can. Not all known future news events represent a scoop. On the contrary, I would argue that much of what fills a major news site is predictable and frequently reflects common knowledge. In addition to telling an audience where a story currently is, wouldn’t it be great to show it where the story is going?
These are some of the thoughts that have led me to imagine an industry-wide system for tracking known future news events. After 5+ weeks at the Nieman Foundation, I’ve reached a point where I can begin to outline how such a system might work, and I try to walk through this outline in the slides above.
At the center of this proposal is a new data format for future news events, which I call Future News JSON, or FN-JSON. This format, and a program to convert existing information to it, would be accessible via code that news outlets could download and install on their own servers, and share as narrowly or broadly as they wish. I have written documentation for this format and a sample feed, and posted them in the Resources area of this site. I have not written any program to perform this conversion, as I am phenomenally unskilled in writing code.
What I have so far is admittedly imperfect, and probably overreaching, and could easily fail in about three dozen different ways. For now I’m okay with that. I know I’m closer to hitting the mark than I was on Day One. For that, I’m deeply indebted to dozens of reporters, editors, site managers, and other news mavens who have already shared their time and input on my project.
And that’s where you come in. To make even further progress, I would love to know what a broader audience thinks about the future news concept. Feel free to leave comments below or email me directly.
But that’s not all…
While I’m at it, here are some FAQs, minus the Qs.
- No, none of this is technically built yet. I’m neither a programmer, nor a UX designer, nor a working journalist (though I was once one of those things) Consequently, this effort has taken the shape of a thought experiment slash research project. But if you’re interested in contributing to the idea, let me know!
- Yes, I work at Google. No, this project isn’t on behalf of Google. More here (at the bottom).
- True, I originally imagined building a massive, industry-wide calendar. Then I realized that a calendar is a pretty drab and unengaging type of UI. But the data format that could power multiple calendars, as well as countless apps, tools, and UI — that’s where the bone is buried.
- No, there’s nothing about this idea that would technically limit it to newsrooms. If city government IT departments or other organizations wanted to express their calendars and future newsworthy events in FN-JSON format and share them publicly, I think that would be just dandy. And infinitely more pleasant than making them write press releases that inundate journalists’ inboxes.
- No, the FN-JSON format is not set in stone; it’s more a proof of concept. I’m extremely open to adapting the objects and arrays pending good suggestions and advice. If you have suggestions for objects or arrays that could make it more useful, tell me or post your thoughts below.
- Yes, theoretically, this could indeed be something open to the public at a master “futurenews.org” website. I have plenty of ideas for more posts on that notion. But for now, I wanted to focus on the industry-focused element of the proposal, and see what people who work in newsrooms thought about it.