What is possible with “Structured Journalism”? A response to critiques of Circa

Columbia Journalism Review did a great dive into “structured journalism” recently. It’s nice to know that this new-fangled space, which is still nascent. is getting some nods.

Circa of course was part of this growing space. And I hope will be looked at as a project that tried to break new ground.

There was also some good criticism of Circa in the post. They were indicative of other critiques I’ve heard/read and so I wanted to respond to them. It should be important to note, however, that while I’m providing some devil’s advocate here – it doesn’t mean I don’t understand the initial criticism or their merits.

The back/forth in my mind is not some deep ideological “are bloggers journalists” debate where tribes should be created. My respect for Adair and Reginald who made the critiques in the CJR post is unequivocal. I also suspect they respected Circa and all the folks who worked on it.  So with that aside – let’s jump into it.

From the CJR post:

Bill Adair, creator of Politifact and one of the early proponents of structured journalism, says one of Circa’s flaws was that it wasn’t structured enough. “Circa was like traditional journalism with a good workout for your thumb,” says Adair. The app deconstructed a story, but still  reassembled it in the linear format of a news article.

Adair and other structured journalism proponents would like to upend traditional journalistic formats. Structured journalism, they say, could evolve into a unified theory of digital journalism—though no one yet knows what that might look like.

This is an excellent point from Bill Adair, who in may ways is a godfather to structured journalism. And he is right about upending traditional journalistic formats. In fact, this was something Circa had on its radar.

Every “card” in Circa had a creation date. It also had a “retirement” date (when we pulled it from the public view because it was moot or no longer true). We always imagined a scenario where a person could come to a “storyline” and with a time-scrubber at the bottom move to see the evolution of the story through time. A ‘blowing up’ of the article in relation to time.

And of course – we also wanted to create bubble-maps of sorts where you could see how various stories were related to others through “bridges.” One would see where facts were used in multiple stories – or where stories forked/merged with others. A kind of moving through space/time manipulation of information.

So why didn’t we start with this? It was a philosophical decision. We wanted to do something different, but not require the average reader to change their behavior. People read articles from top to bottom. Therefore – our story lines would read from top to bottom as well. In fact, it was the goal of Circa to make it so that any first time reader would be able to jump in and not have to learn any new behavior. If we had to educate them in the first few steps, they’d never get past it. Everything focused on the “follow” feature as the first “new step,” because all it meant was somebody reading the story without even realizing it was “structured” and hitting a button that basically meant “keep me informed.”

Now obviously there is a critique that we didn’t lead with our most radical possibilities because of this philosophy. But that was the thinking behind the decision. We didn’t want to make people work. We wanted to go for the “average” consumer of news and they are used to certain patterns and work our way up.

All that said. I am a HUGE proponent of, as Bill Adair says, “upending traditional journalism formats.” Perhaps Circa should have done that more. It certainly was possible with the way we had set things up. No way to know now.

The next critique comes from Reginald Chua, who has been a champion of this space since before it really had a name.

Reginald Chua, an executive editor at Reuters and an early developer of structured journalism, says that structured journalism doesn’t only offer better ways to tell certain stories, it introduce new forms of journalism not considered before, which can create tension in newsrooms. Aside from the practical challenges of newsroom adoption, the question of what gets lost in structured journalism will need to be addressed. “Frankly, the narrative outcome [of structured stories] is not as exciting,” says Chua, “That was one of the big complaints over the death of Circa.”

This may have been the most common criticism of Circa. And it goes without saying – you have to have compelling content if you want to gain a loyal audience. There are two things I think are important to focus on in a response to this. One is about “structured journalism” as a genre. The other is about Circa specifically. Let’s start with the latter.

Circa consciously went with a “voice from nowhere” approach. It definitely bucked the trend. Circa was, more than anything else, a re-thinking of the wire service. If the AP were to be created today, I think it would look more like a grand visions of Circa than its current structure based off a cooperative formed in 1846. And as pointed out in this Nieman article:

“I would note, though, that Circa was not so much ‘The Future of News’ as a mobile-oriented rethinking of wire services, which have never really functioned as a consumer-facing product. Circa’s lack of traction in developing a user base was no exception.”

In short – if you wanted to compare our stuff to Buzzfeed. It was boring. If you compared it to the AP – it was on par. And we also discovered that some people absolutely loved a “wire service” voice. Interestingly enough – the most vocal people who disliked it were journalists.

The “voice from nowhere” approach didn’t mean we couldn’t do stories with drama. It just meant the drama had to exist in real life without our commentary. Stories like Manti Te’o, Tim Armstrong, General Petraeus or even following the story of Bat Kid were incredibly dramatic – even if we didn’t add any explicit “snark” or insider analysis. Sometimes real life stories are all you need. This Circa story made me cry once (keep in mind – it was a story that developed over a year).

But most of the time Circa was a ticker type service. It served an audience that wanted “just the facts, asap.” And I still believe there is a decent sized audience which values that kind of content. Bottom line, Circa adopted a neutral tone on purpose – because it thought of itself as a wire service. It didn’t adopt that tone because of technical restraints.

And that brings us to the larger issue: Is structured journalism doomed to create boring/dull narratives? Could Circa have provided Gawker level snark or Atlantic level analysis if it wanted?

I actually believe the answer is: Yes….. sorta.

The challenge of Circa was taking the concept of structured journalism as articulated by sites like Politifact, Homicide Watch, etc. – and applying it to all future stories, regardless of genre or topic. Politifact restrains itself and says “we only cover statements made by politicians” and that restraint allows it to create structure via the Truth-o-Metter. Circa wasn’t covering any specific topic. We wanted to create structure for any kind of story. And the truth is – the world is a sloppy place.

But adding order to that chaos doesn’t necessarily mean stripping out drama, narrative, humor or more. I think about how we approach stacks in our App at AJ+ and it’s very different. We aren’t always looking for structure around “facts” “quotes” etc. But instead are looking for structure in the storytelling technique. One card is the lede. Another card is the nut graph. This card is the human angle. etc. The elements that make up those cards may change – but their role doesn’t.

This does mean there is some “sloppiness” because one writers nut graph is another writers kicker. And in video structure is lost (you can’t atomize on a video timeline). But I do think there is some space between the hard structure where cards are defined by their content (fact, image, name) and their storytelling role. To Reginald’s point – I haven’t seen it successfully navigated yet. But I don’t think it should be ruled out.