The good thing about working in a newsroom with nerd chops – and resident tech expertise – is that you can have code written up chasing a wild idea. FactorDaily was the first in Asia, we believe, to work on a news chatbot in 2016. It did its stuff as a prototype but the script gods were not willing to be more benign.
We did a couple of design iterations, which needed some tech refreshes. We experimented with a WhatsApp growth hack (nothing below board here, I promise) that accelerated our distribution. We did some D3.js visualisations for stories (e.g.: here and here) and played around with some nifty WordPress tools here and here. (And, yes, there are a couple of development projects that I can’t yet talk about.)
In an age where serious journalism is all about blending storytelling, design, distribution, and technology into a distinct user experience, this is directional, for sure, but not outstanding no matter how it’s uncommon in India.
But this story is about how tech can be used to solve a big problem in journalism – the eroding faith of consumers in a news media brand – very simply and be used by newsrooms to stop being dragged down by social media in an ever-faster race to the bottom.
Wait, I am getting ahead of myself in my story. Let me back into a little context: call us acutely anachronistic or unfashionable but we believe that the FactorDaily brand – and, in turn, our revenues, the livelihood of our people, the profit expectations of our shareholders – rests on one and just one thing: our credibility. How accurate and fair are we in our stories? Did we get not just our facts right – did we get the nuance right? Did we get the tone of a reported conversation right? Did we peel and present all of the layers of a complex story? If we get these things right, we believe, we have a good shot at making a trusted brand.
In an era of alternative facts and in-your-face spin by brazen actors with no disclosure, our efforts towards accuracy and fairness will, of course, be questioned. How do we deal with it?
Early in 2016, at the beginning of the FactorDaily journey, like any brand with ambitions to outlast its founding team, we decided we had to define how we would go about our business. What would we do, what wouldn’t we do, and most importantly, how would we do it?
With its firm roots in human intellect, this task becomes especially tricky in serious journalism until, well, the bots start supplanting journalists not just supplementing them. What the reporter thinks is a cool turn of phrase is freeze-dried by a cynical editor’s “Is this what you think Hemingway would call painting with words?” comment. What a graphic designer thinks is a natural flow of information is torn to shreds by a seasoned art director who points to human habits recorded in research. What is meant to be an easy transition between two paragraphs is flagged as potentially libellous by a legal hawk. This list of everyday creative clashing goes on… (Come visit our newsroom someday.)
What’s the fix, then? Well, thankfully for us, information agents and chroniclers have grappled with this problem in the four-and-a-half centuries that journalism has been around. Like other progressive newsrooms today, FactorDaily in 2016 decided to put in place rules to minimise subjective calls made by human beings. We have a fairly deep code of conduct and ethics in place. We call it our patradharma. Think of it as the beacon for our journalism that you can trust. As the seniors in our newsroom never tire of repeating: it is not an individual showing us the direction, it is the insights about human behaviour distilled from centuries of our craft that is shining the light.
Like other progressive newsrooms today, FactorDaily in 2016 decided to put in place rules to minimise subjective calls made by human beings. We have a fairly deep code of conduct and ethics in place. We call it our patradharma. Think of it as the beacon for our journalism that you can trust.
We reiterate our code often and ask our readers to hold each of our stories to the code just in case we miss something. And, the beauty of having consumers who like to engage something they care for (and trust?) is that they reach out to you on your boo-boos. Like here and here on Twitter. This second call-out was particularly interesting: the error pointed out was not how the Indian border was depicted with on the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir side but that the Pakistan map outline included the disputed territory and, hence, was unlawful depicting in India. See if you can spot the change made on the lead visual of this story. I am sure that error would be alive on our site today if this reader had not kept us to his or her accuracy standards. Talk about brand rub-offs!
Did I introduce Gautham Sarang earlier? Oh, I didn’t. So, Gautham is quite a star for what he does in his after-hours. He has been the subject of media stories on his away-from-the-concrete-jungle life (here and, even if you don’t follow BBC Tamil, here).
But I want to talk about his doggedness and chutzpah around WordPress and related technologies. (We use WordPress to publish our stories. Yeah, yeah… call us hoary for not having a custom-built content management system and all that jazz.)
Backing up once again: true to our code and commitment to truth in all we do, we flag to our readers anything that is changed in a published story. This is not an unusual practice for credible journalism brands, to be sure. But what brands us as anal custodians is that we flag even a change to a punctuation made after publishing a story. We flag typos, we flag missing context, we flag nuances, we flag changes to visuals, we flag credit added… besides, needless to say, factual errors.
If we are doing this so diligently, we should also hold the mirror up to ourselves and tell the world at any given point in time where we screwed up, right? When I tried doing that – let’s call the changes made updates, because all our changes are not correcting errors – at the end of 2017, it became clear to me barely two hours into the exercise that it was not easy. Just running a search query through all our stories threw up junk results. Manually going through upwards of 500 stories was an option but when you have a dozen fires to put out a day, that was not the best allocation of time.
We had a problem.
Cut to Seattle: one of Amazon’s leadership principles is about delivering results. The Jeff Bezos mantra – forget the bloke’s recent steamy texts for a minute – extolls employees to figure out what they want to do, line up the inputs they need, and define the mechanisms by which they will measure progress. (The bit about mechanisms is not made in the principles but is related often by senior Amazon executives. Emphasis mine.)
The stories that you see every day on FactorDaily is essentially the work of humans. Humans, despite best intentions, make mistakes. We needed a mechanism to track our human frailties. So, my ask of Gautham was simple: can you design an add-on script that I can use while updating changes to a story in the backend? After a period of time, this script would make auditing those updates – type, source, etc. – easy peasy.
He took a few days scratching his head, found an advanced custom field plug-in, came up with code, tested it, and implemented it for us.
Like most things in life, it is the small things that add up to make big, impactful change. I believe Gautham’s update-tracking script is a leg-up in the FactorDaily journey and drives home the intent of our brand to stay tight to our True North in a world of noise disguised as journalism.
Below is what we have from the updates, warts and all from our 2018 newsfile.
One too many updates?
We published nearly 300 stories in 2018. (Reminder: we started publishing one story a day from July, 2017.) Of these, 117 stories had updates. Gosh! Nearly two of five of our stories were changed after publishing? That might seem a lot but don’t forget this includes visual changes, typos and language changes, nuances and context (grouped under updated for clarity) and other updates.
The ‘updated for clarity’ and ‘typo or language’ changes made for nearly three-fourths of the updates we ran to our copies in 2018. Factual errors made for about 13% of updated stories and 5% of our total stories of the year. Ask any journalist and this is the kind of updates that we smart under. We need to whittle this number down further, no doubt, and avoid errors like this story on Binny Bansal’s possible exit from Flipkart after the Walmart acquisition. It is a good example of how we journalists can go wrong despite following best patradharma practices. The development was cross-checked with three sources. We had reached out to the company and Binny; both didn’t respond. Still, no question the onus of accuracy lies squarely with us and we got the story wrong. It was co-founder Sachin Bansal who exited Flipkart after the buyout.
In other details, most of the updates were traced to the editing layer and less to reporting and design. Which, at some level, is a good structural problem to have in a small journalism outfit: you want your errors and updates to be biased in favour of input (reporting, photography), not output (editing, presentation). We have brought in a fine editor who will help even the source of errors and updates in 2019.
One final note from Gautham: our error, update-tracking solution is on offer to anyone in journalism who needs it on WordPress. He will help talk you through what it takes to implement it and help you, hopefully, add trust to your news brand.
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Updated at 09:37 am on January 18, 2019 to correct the second name of Gautham Sarang. Earlier, the caption to his picture read Gautham Shenoy.
Updated at 03:14 pm on January 19, 2019 to correct the spelling of (Ernest) Hemingway. It went as Hemmingway earlier.
Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Jay Vijayan and Girish Mathrubootham among its investors. Accel Partners and Blume Ventures are venture capital firms with investments in several companies. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. Jay Vijayan and Girish Mathrubootham are entrepreneurs and angel investors. None of FactorDaily’s investors has any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.