Learning how to ‘Build the News’

By Liam Corcoran, Journalism Diversity Fund recipient 2013-14

Liam CorcoranRecently, a group of Kingston University students, myself included, went along to ‘Build the News’, an event set up by The Times/Sunday Times, where students could combine with developers to create a tool/system.

A sort of hack day, but not, as that made it sound too much like it was solely for developers.

There were four categories that needed challenging, and all of which are a real pressing issue for the industry today. Stretch (making long-form interesting), Tactile (making people read the news on Sunday again), Crowd (developing a system for campaign journalism) and Noise (creating some form of tool to enable journalists to wade through the sheer level of data out there).

As the group consisted of three hacks and only one hacker, we decided to try to reinvent long-form, creating a way for dense and information heavy pieces to be easily read by readers, created for readers, with their interests at the heart of the project.

Unlike Snowfall and Firestorm, we wanted to create journalism not for journalists, but for the man on the street, busy, fast-moving, and viewing news in increasingly unique ways.

That meant turning it completely on its head.

During the opening presentations on Saturday, we were told that long-form was about making text interesting, ensuring readers viewed all the accompanying data/graphs/videos and made it to the end of the piece.

This seemed odd though. For us, the most interesting thing about the internet is not the text, which is why we don’t just but newspapers in the morning anymore, and circulation has fallen off the cliff.

We use the internet because it is a mix of everything. There is always something to grab your attention and it is interactive. People are far too happy to click on something new. Keeping attention is key nowadays.

Because of this, we devised a prototype of a system based on these rules. Rather than making text interesting and TL;DR pieces, let’s make pictures interactive and embed them with data.

We came up with Slide (not its final name and the prototype is not quite there yet, being built-in just two days).

We created a three picture story-board-type product that made the pictures the centre piece, with short news stories, videos, data, graphs, audio, or whatever is necessary for the piece, to be embedded in markers throughout. This allowed for the full, coherent story to be told, but in a bite size way.

While the reader can follow their own path, a progress bar and marker colour changes allow them to see what they have already read yet ensures they can, if they choose, easily read all the content.

On the other hand, if the story had to be presented in a set order, the markers could be locked, with the next only appearing after the previous is read.

By turning the idea of long-form on its head, we had created something people could easily digest and subsequently were the winners of the Stretch category.

But what next?

Well, we intend to move forward with the idea and build a back-end template tool that would allow any journalist to tell a story in this new and unique way.

From local to international news, it has a place. Be it in Somerset wanting to tell the story of the floods, from case studies to local politics on the issue, or Ukraine, as we did ourselves.

The content is quick to create and with news stories being written anyway, there would be no difficulty in just dropping them in, creating short videos or data, and making a full rounded product.

We are close to securing some funding from Kingston University to move forward, so now it is just a case of us putting in the work and seeing our project come to life, allowing for interesting stories to be told anywhere they are needed.

On another note, I would like to congratulate City/Imperial for their creation of Low Pass. A genius idea that allows you to search tweets before the noise that comes with other news sites picking them up. It was a deserving winner and I hope to use it in a newsroom one day.

Other projects from the day can be viewed on HackDash.

Finally, I would like to thank the team who put together the amazing weekend, and News International for funding the entire event, including a substantial bar tab. Without both of those elements, it would not have been what it was. I truly hope this comes back year after year.

All that’s left to say is, watch this space.