What is a computational journalist?

A friend posed this question on Facebook in response to my last blog post, and I was tempted to respond, “We’re still figuring it out.” Then I was tempted to be glib and say, “It’s CAR (computer assisted reporting) on the Information Superhighway.” There’s a sense in which both of these statements are true, and yet, there are some things that can be said with some degree of confidence.

Computational journalism is the application of computing tools and processes to the traditional task of defining, gathering and presenting news. This definition is what I was reaching for in my May 2009 essay, “How Computational Thinking is Changing Journalism and What’s Next.” As Adrian Holovaty explained in this September, 2006, blog post, computers aggregate and manipulate structured data, so we make the best use of the technology when we organize our content accordingly. This not only means cataloging our content in ways that make it easier to find (SEO metadata, tags, links and trackbacks for example), but choosing the most efficient and effective forms of information-gathering and presentation for the task and audience at hand.

One example that I used in my essay involved building a module into a local newspaper’s content management system that would pick up specific pieces of metadata from a wire service’s RSS feed (such the time stamp and the dateline) and automatically dump the headline into a breaking news field that loads on the front page.

This kind of automation is one way in which computing technologies can help make the newsgathering process more efficient and timely.  Megan Taylor’s July 2010 post for Poynter reported on how companies such as the New York Times are building applications that automate the retrieval and manipulation of certain kinds of information, such as congressional votes.  Taylor also noted that news operations routinely employ algorithms, or step-by-step procedures that can be codified, or sometimes translated into software applications that can aid reporting and editing.  The third important quality is abstraction, which is a way of generalizing about objects or processes. For example, this web page is governed by an cascading style sheet that is built on a set of abstractions such as “text,” “header,” “link,” “post” and “footer.” Each of these “objects” has properties, such as font, color and alignment  that define its “style.” The webpage interacts with a database organized according to its own set of abstractions.

Why is this useful for the non-programmer journalist to understand?  For one thing, I’ve found it helps me understand what programmers are talking about when we are collaborating. For example, when I worked with my computer science colleague Monisha Pulimood and our students to create the content management systems for our campus online magazine Unbound and our Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, our programmers had to ask detailed questions about the journalists’ workflow in order to create the databases and interfaces for each system. It took a while to understand what was most useful and relevant on both sides, when we worked on unbound, but the process was much smoother during the IJIMS project because we were more practiced at the conversation.

Computational includes, but is not limited to computer assisted reporting.

Sarah Cohen, Duke University’s Knight Foundation Chair in Computational Journalism’s 2009 report “Accountability through Algorithm: Developing the Field of Computational Jounrlaism (.pdf), , envisions new tools that will help reporters gather, analyze and present data and interact with news consumers and sources in more efficient, useful and engaging ways.

One simple example is  Gumshoe, the database manager that Pulimood  and her students built to help another TCNJ journalism colleague, Donna Shaw, analyze data she’d obtained about the disposition of gun crimes in the Philadelphia municipal courts. Using a sample of data from just a two-month period in 2006, Shaw and her students were able to document the fact that hundreds of cases weren’t going to trial, often because evidence and/or witnesses disappeared.  Shaw’s findings were part of the document trail that led to “Justics: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied” a Philadelphia Inquirer multi-part series  on problems in the Philadelphia court system that ran in 2009. (One of the reporters on that project, Emilie Lounsberry, has since joined our TCNJ journalism faculty.) (Reference)

Social network analysis is another great computational tool. I really like this 2006 project created by students from Emerson College a few years ago that illuminated how social networks affected the transmission of health information in Boaston’s Chinatown. The network maps are accompanied by a series of video podcasts about health care issues in the neighborhood.

News games are another important area of development, and I think that collaboration between journalists and game developers are going to lead to the emergence of multithreaded interarctive non-fiction narratives. Another TCNJ colleague, Ursula Wolz, has been helping me think about the possibilities of this field for the last several years. In 2007, we published a paper and a Poynter. org post outlining our idea for a multi-threaded non-fiction storytelling engine. We’ve made progress since then, which I hope to be able to demonstrate in more detail in the coming months. For the moment, here is a very primitive example of a fictional mutithreaded story that I wrote in Scratch using a simple storytelling engine that Wolz wrote for my interactive storytelling class last Spring. (This was actually part of a larger collaboration supported by the CPATH distributed expertise project, which Wolz and I will be presenting, along with our Villanova colleagues, Tom Way and Lillian Cassel, at the SIGSCE conference next March.)


  1. Shaw, Donna., Pulimood, Sarah Monisha. and Lounsberry, Emilie.The Gumshoe Project: A Model for Collaboration Between a Small College and a Large NewspaperPaper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, The Denver Sheraton, Denver, CO, Aug 04, 2010 . 2010-11-15
  2. (with U. Wolz) “ Multi-threaded Interactive Storytelling for Literary Journalism “, The New Media Consortium Summer Conference 2007, Sparking Innovative Learning and Creativity”, invited expanded paper, http://www.nmc.org/publications, pp 38 – 45, 2007

Crafting Literary Journalism

Writing Great Non-fiction: An Introduction

Like a music fan who pulls out favorite tunes before a big concert, I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite works of literary non-fiction in anticipation of our upcoming live chat with writer and teacher Helen Epstein this coming Sunday, Aug. 23, at 11 EST. I learn so much from examining the ways in which these talented writers make words sing.

A competent writer conveys information. A good writer will hold your interest long enough to get a point across. But a master of the craft can take a reader into a visceral, palpable storyworld. That mastery, combined with rigorous reporting, is the stuff of literary non-fiction.

As with all journalism, the reporting comes first. Literary journalism requires intimate knowledge, preferably gained through primary research. Think, for example, about the reporting behind this cascading lead to Epstein’s exquisite 1978 profile of pianist Vladimir Horowitz for the New York Times magazine:

“Vladimir Horowitz performs no more than 20 concerts each year, only on Sunday afternoons at 4, and only in places he likes. He does not play in Denver because he finds the altitude disagreeable or in St. Louis because he thinks the acoustics of its hall compare badly with those of his bathroom. He does not play in Poughkeepsie where, “the public is not musical enough” or in Montana or Idaho, which he has no desire to see. He does not play in Europe because he dislikes flying long distances and, although he would like to visit Japan, the mere thought of getting there casts a pall over his long, extraordinary face…”

Trust me, the ride gets even better from there. You can download it from the Times website for a fee, or get the anthologized version in Epstein’s collection of musician profiles, Music Talks.

Vladimir Horowitz, seated at the piano. From the Library of CongressHelen Epstein

I hope you noticed, by the way, that this lead is doing triple duty. First, the formality of the language sets a tone. The repetition of “only,” and “He does not..” lets you know that Horowitz is a pretty demanding fellow. We know he’s arrogant – not only must his audiences prove themselves worthy of coming to see them, they have to live in places that he’s decided are worth visiting! However, there is a hint of vulnerability too — the use of the word “pall” doesn’t just suggest that he dislikes the idea of going to Japan; he dreads it.

That tone reflects another characteristic of literary journalism, which is its use of theme. The theme is the larger lesson that elevates the reporting. Gail Sheehy, who has spent decades writing about the stages of adult psychological development, uses that knowledge to set a theme in this 2008 profile of director and actor Clint Eastwood:

He’s sitting at home, stroking his pet rabbit. His wife is out. His
latest picture is a wrap. He is content to have nothing to do.

“When you’re young, you’re very reckless,” says Clint Eastwood with
his usual economy of words. “Then you get conservative. Then you get
reckless again.” That is, if you live long enough.

Days before, I had seen Clint’s latest film, Gran Torino,
Clint Eastwood, in which he plays a bent and bitter old racist. In the
film he lopes, with his trademark dynamic lassitude, into a hail of
bullets. He does not look like a man who pets rabbits.

The theme is how one’s perspective on life changes after 70. But just as Epstein’s opening passage mimicked Horowitz’s imperiousness, Sheehy comes at us in a voice so plainspoken, it could belong to one of Eastwood’s spaghetti-western no-name cowboys. And Sheehy, too, confounds our expectations of the man even as she reinforces the persona fans have grown to love over the decades. Eastwood, the man, has a soft heart for bunnies. Eastwood on screen “lopes…into a hail of bullets.”

Students of the craft know that this style of journalism had its heyday during the 60s, although scholars such as Michael Robertson have traced the blending of fiction narrative structure with non-fiction reporting back to the work of Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Dreiser. I’d throw Richard Wright’s,” Joe Louis Uncovers Dynomite” into the mix – compare his use of sound in the opening line to the way he opens his novel, Native Son.

But it was during the 1960s that popular magazines such as the New Yorker, Esquire and Rolling Stone started publishing the writers that Tom Wolfe labeled as part of the New Journalism movement: Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Hunter Thompson, and Joan Didion among them. Gail Sheehy was in that number, but she was edged out when it was revealed that her New York magazine expose on the life of Manhattan hooker was built on a composite character. To be fair, Sheehy wasn’t the first literary journalists to play fast and loose with literal fact – longtime New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell did the same thing, and he’s still considered one of the best non-fiction writers of the 20th century.

Of all the great non-fiction published in those years, one of the most admired is Gay Talese’s 1966 profile of the man some still call the Chairman of the Board, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” One of the most stunning things about this story is that Talese followed Sinatra around for weeks – and never got an interview. But he talked to enough people around Sinatra and dug up so much information about him that he gave readers a panoramic vision of Sinatra’s life — and maybe some clues to what really made the crooner tick. Observing Sinatra in a bar one night, Talese poignantly juxtaposes the intimacy of his music with the remoteness of the man:

But now, standing at this bar in Beverly Hills, Sinatra had a cold , and he continued to drink quietly and he seemed miles away in his private world, not even reacting when suddenly the stereo in the other room switched to a Sinatra song, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”

It is a lovely ballad that he first recorded ten years ago, and it now inspired many young couples who had been sitting, tired of twisting, to get up and move slowly around the dance floor, holding one another very close. Sinatra’s intonation, precisely clipped, yet full and flowing, gave a deeper meaning to the simple lyrics — “In the wee small hours of the morning/while the whole wide world is fast asleep/you lie awake, and think about the girl….” — it was like so many of his classics, a song that evoked loneliness and sensuality, and when blended with the dim light and the alcohol and nicotine and late-night needs, it became a kind of airy aphrodisiac. Undoubtedly the words from this song, and others like it, had put millions in the mood, it was music to make love by, and doubtless much love had been made by it all over America at night in cars, while the batteries burned down, in cottages by the lake, on beaches during balmy summer evenings, in secluded parks and exclusive penthouses and furnished rooms, in cabin cruisers and cabs and cabanas — in all places where Sinatra’s songs could be heard were these words that warmed women, wooed and won them, snipped the final thread of inhibition and gratified the male egos of ungrateful lovers; two generations of men had been the beneficiaries of such ballads, for which they were eternally in his debt, for which they may eternally hate him. Nevertheless here he was, the man himself, in the early hours of the morning in Beverly Hills, out of range.

Read more: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold

Did you catch that strategic use of passive voice? “[D]oubtless much love had been made” – as if Sinatra’s voice had an inexorable power to draw bodies together in spite of themselves. What a sad irony, Talese is telling us – the man behind the siren voice is utterly alone.

This kind of juxtaposition is powerul. So is the use of dialogue, another staple of literary journalism. Just take this conversation between a renowned origami artist and a clueless spectator, captured by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean:

“My God, look,” she said, pointing to Lang. “He’s in a suit!”

Lang stopped folding and looked up at her.

“It’s just … to see an artist all clean and dressed, and in a suit,” she sputtered.

Lang smiled and said, “Well, my kimono was at the cleaners.” He resumed folding.

“You’re good at the origami,” the woman said. “Have you done other jobs?”

Lang said, “Yes, in fact, I have. For years, I was a physicist.”

The woman grabbed her husband’s arm again and gasped, “Oh, my God!”

Blogger Birdie Jaworski displays a great ear for dalog in many of her rich vignettes. One example that I especially like is her retelling of an encounter between her sons, then 9 and 7, and James Doohan. , the actor who played “Scotty” in the original Star Trek series:

“Uh, Sir, may I ask a question?” I closed my eyes and bit my tongue and sent a quick prayer to whoever might be listening that 9 didn’t put Scotty on the spot. The old man nodded and grinned. 9 plowed ahead, asked a question about a specific time-traveling episode where Scotty pulled a miracle out of his uniformed butt, saved the Enterprise, the crew, a lost-cause planet, and the whole friggen universe at large. “So,” 9 continued, “how is this possible?” He didn’t stop talking, pointed out the temporal inconsistencies, the ways in which science declares These Things Impossible.

Oh man, I thought. Here it comes. I waited for Scotty to tell 9 that these things simply aren’t real, they are figments of some writer’s imagination, and he just acted, just pretended to fix a starship. 9 knows this already, I knew. But who wants to hear it from an idol?

I’ll let you read the post to find out what he said, but you can take a hint from Birdie’s title: “The Day Scottie Saved the Future.” Birdie also has a gift for the nuances that can make your writing conversational, but not mundane. She could have quoted 9 word-for-word, but most of us aren’t Trekkies, so why bother? Instead, she has this child talking about “temporal inconsistencies.” By contrast, Scotty the adult, “pulled a miracle out of his uniformed butt.” She could have said, “Scotty pulled off a miracle,” but that wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

If you want to hone your writing chops, there are a number of good blogs out there to help you along. BlogHer CE Virginia Debolt’s First 50 Words offers great practice at writing concisely and compellingly in response to a prompt. The Diary of Why has a writing prompt that works like a party game. April at The Little Writer That Could also has exercises, and she is looking for critique partners.

Finally, for her inventive experiment with structure, dialog, description and symbolic detail, it’s hard to beat the opening essay in Joan Didion’s White Album. “I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself…” she explains, and what follows is a pastiche of random acts of cruelty, encounters with mysterious strangers, behind the scenes lunacy with the likes of Jim Morrison and a very definitive nervous breakdown. And you know what? It feels like the 60s. In just 17 pages, she’s got most of the truth of it, at least from her privileged and idiosyncratic position. It’s more than factual; it feels true. And that’s the essence of literary journalism.

Cross-posted at Blogher