Circa was an atom in the universe of Semantic Web and Structured Journalism. I’d like to think we created a Big Bang, which resulted in apps like NYT Now, WSJ’s “What’s News”, Yahoo’s News Digest and countless others. However, we didn’t create the concept, we just built upon it and hopefully took it further than it had been executed, or conceptualized before.
We were preceded by folks like Chris and Laura Amico at Homicide Watch and the LA Times Homicide Report, Regina Chua has been at this for years, Bill Adair of Politifact, journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray, and Zach Seward at Quartz, whose earlier work at WSJ preceded ours. We took cues from Zach’s work at Quartz as well. Adrian Holovaty was talking about this as far back as 2006!
Where I think Circa took a step forward from Homicide Watch and Politifact and others — was the idea that we could add structure to ANY story. Not just those that were in their wheelhouse (homicides, political statements). It was the idea that we could take ANY story and add a structured element to it — even if the only structure was “this item read, this item unread.”
Circa wasn’t and isn’t arrogant enough to think we came up with all the concepts we built upon, we integrated some and invented others. The important thing is that we acknowledge those who came before us and their work that helped us move the ball further down the field.
I do think there are a few concepts that Circa created and executed upon that were truly “inventions” in the sense we came up with new concepts and executed on them, when others had not before. If you think I’m wrong, I’d be happy to listen but here goes. Among them:
Following the long arc of a story through atomic elements
The concept of atomizing news was not something Circa invented but the idea of using those atoms, apply metadata to them and allowing a reader to follow discrete stories which would only push to you the atomic units you had not already read had not and has since not been done before. You could follow the evolution of stories that went on for days, weeks, months and even years without ever re-reading anything you already knew. If you forgot the background information, you could still scroll back up or down and read the story as if you were coming to it fresh. We satisfied both new readers and longtime followers at the same time.
It’s such a great concept that the New York Times recently thought of it too!
The Particles approach suggests that we need to identify the evergreen, reusable pieces of information at the time of creation, so that they can be reused in new contexts. It means that news organizations are not just creating the “first draft of history”, but are synthesizing the second draft at the same time, becoming a resource for knowledge and civic understanding in new and powerful ways.
Reusable, completely customizable atomic story elements
The first point is in service of the story. This concept is in service of being able to present discrete elements of the story anywhere.
This is the basis of what is now becoming a big deal in publishing. Facebook’s Instant Articles and others are ushering in a way of taking existing stories and serving them up in more lightweight formats for specific usage. Intially the application is smartphones, but soon likely wearables and others.
Circa built everything that comprised an article in a way that it wasn’t a slave to the container you were consuming it in. This actually goes several steps further than what Instant Articles and others are doing (as far as I can tell) and allowed us to easily port and manipulate very granual story elements into limitless destinations.
Oh look, the New York Times just thought of that too!
Finally, the recent proliferation of new devices and platforms for media consumption creates new pressures for news organizations to programmatically identify the pieces of information within an article. Consider every new platform and product to which news organizations currently publish their content, and how each of those outputs requires a different format and presentation.
A publishing platform that made our team more efficient
Circa’s staff writers and editors used a completely homegrown CMS called KPS (knowledge publishing system) and were in the process of building its next generation platform, which was revolutionary. I hope we might be able to reveal all the elements of that system someday, but that decision is no longer in my hands. I can tell you that KPS allowed us to easily reuse, rearrange and add metadata to discrete atomic elements of the stories we built and allowed us to publish faster and more accurately than many of our better resourced peers.
But if Particles were treated as their own first-class elements that were encoded, tagged, and embeddable, contextual information would be easy for a journalist to find. All kinds of newsroom tools could be built to allow journalists to leverage the rich body of previous reporting to make their jobs easier and more efficient.
I think what the New York Times is conceptualizing is exciting and interesting but it’s also something that we and others have discussed and executed on already. It would be great if that was simply acknowledged.
This concept builds on ideas that have been discussed under the rubric of the Semantic Web for quite a while
…and I don’t think that is quite sufficient, as far as an acknowledgement.