For many years I used to be a journalist in Norway´s largest newspaper Aftenposten. This included a period when I was responsible for prioritizing and producing the front page of the newspaper.
Why am I telling this? Because making the front page at the time was not an easy task. In fact, I had two people – one journalist and one typographer – spending a full 8 working hours to make the next day´s front page perfect. We moved headlines, adjusted pictures, kept changing our minds about which stories to include and was never completely satisfied.
Most media houses transferred the same way of working into the online news era. A front page editor was always on duty to handpick the right stories to be published on the front page of the news site. The mix of stories and visual look and feel of the front page was continuously tweaked throughout the day.
The personalized front page
Today more and more media houses realize that one size no longer fits all. Each reader has different interests and news habits and requires a personalized front page.
And here comes Chinook, the winner of this years Schibsted Tech Polska´s Improvement of the Year Award. It was made by the skilled Aftenposten team in Schibsted Tech Polska, consisting of Katarzyna Włodarska, Michał Misiarek, Krzysztof Słonka, Wojciech Kabała and Robert Tekielak.
In short, Chinook is a clever tool that takes any set of articles and stacks them together in a given set of beautiful and predefined layouts. Or, to compare it with my past experience as a journalist: It puts front editors out of work and introduces a radical new way of producing news sites.
Here is the presentation that was given by team leader Robert Tekielak during Schibsted Tech Polska´s Winter Event in Warsaw on March 9.
Four blog articles about Chinook
Team leader Robert Tekielak has also written four excellent articles about the Chinook project in Schibsted Tech Polska´s Developers Blog. They give an in-depth insight into the thinking behind the project and how the team solved the many challenges. Especially read these articles if you are interested in the technical solutions and architecture behind Chinook.
- The history of news: From printed newspapers to social media
- A front page dilemma
- Chinook: Cracking the front page dilemma
- Under the hood of Chinook: The front page demystified
Even better journalism
So is Chinook putting journalists out of work? Is it another way to automate news production in order to save money? Should I, as a former journalist, be worried about the editorial quality of once-respected news sources when there is no longer a journalist handpicking each element on the front page?
The answer is no.
And I say that as a veteran journalist who has spent years of my working life prioritizing front pages.
Rather it is all about the user experience.
Let us go back to the old manual model of editors handpicking and adjusting each story on the front page. Besides being extremely time-consuming, this way of working always had two major limitations:
- It only works for making one version of the front page. But one size does not fit all readers!
- One editor cannot serve all readers. A moderns news front page may have as many as 100 stories displayed. It is extremely hard, if not impossible, for one human being to have the full overview over so many stories.
Mixing editorial judgment with data and algorithms
The beauty of Chinook is how it plays together with the Curate component in Schibsted Publishing Platform. While Chinook takes care of the layout, Curate delivers a personalized list of stories that should be presented on the front page. Together Chinook, Curate, and the algorithms behind provide the reader an individual and elegant front page incorporating editorial judgment, visual guideline and data about the user.
One of the biggest challenges in the Chinook project was to make the front page look as visually appealing as when it was manually edited with a WYSIWYG tool. For Aftenposten, just listing out stories in one column, as many sites do, was not good enough. A much more sophisticated layout was required to make the site appealing. Robert Tekielak explains this in the blog posts mentioned above.
Did they succeed?
Check the city guide part of Aftenposten – Osloby! Compare it to Aftenposten´s main front page. Are you able to see that the first is generated automatically using Chinook, while the latter is manually put together by an editor? To be honest: I cannot. And probably you are not able to either.
Chinook is still in its first test phase. But as the tool evolves and is connected to even richer data sources, it can be powerful. It is taking part in redefining both journalism and the news experience each of us enjoys as readers.
And even though I spent so much of my career prioritizing front pages, I am convinced this is a contribution to increase the editorial quality, not diminish it.
Therefore Chinook deserved the Schibsted Tech Polska Improvement of the Year Award! And the dream day with a Tesla cars that goes along with it!