Quill: Paving the Way to the Future of Journalism

October 15, 2014 Andrew Paley

I’ve been with Narrative Science since early 2011, when we were a team of 15 in a crowded office in Evanston, Illinois. I started as the UX engineer here, designing and building the tools that became the Quill authoring interface we use today – the way we “train the brain,” so to speak.

Today, we’re in a high-rise building in downtown Chicago, with 50+ employees and offices in DC, NYC and Portland. I’m now the lead UX designer, having stepped back from the code to consider how we iterate our Quill platform towards making the hitherto unthinkable accessible: writing for possibility – providing human understanding of the world to a system that can run with it beyond anything an army of people could accomplish.

It often surprises people to hear that I came to Narrative Science from journalism grad school at Northwestern (and that I have a BA in Journalism & Mass Comm, too). The developer-journalist, the hack-hacker, is still the rare hybrid. But even after years of design and development experience across a handful of startups, at heart, I’m still a journalist.

Narrative Science has only dabbled in the media space, given Quill’s vast application across multiple industries. Still, we inevitably turn up in media stories about robo-journalism – stories that sometimes read like death knells for the contemporary journalist.

Do I blame the writers for being suspicious, especially given the media climate today? No. Just like I don’t blame the colleagues I met last month at the Online News Association conference who, upon finding out where I work, joked that I was looking to put them out of business.

But, do I wish they would see things differently? Of course I do.

Journalism is about recording and relating to the world as it stands and, in so doing, uncovering obscured or hidden truths. It’s about making the world more transparent, power more accountable and understanding more accessible.

The irony is that Quill is a tool designed to do just that. And it’s getting faster, more powerful and more accessible with each passing day – with the potential to drive a profound shift in investigative reporting (in terms of both research and presentation). In fact, it is the sort of tool that journalism requires in our information-glut age.

Quill already writes narratives for businesses every day so they can better understand their data; the possibilities across markets in a data-rich world are near-endless. We’ve gone from information dearth to overload, and the practice of journalism needs to evolve to make sense of it all. The current response? Databases and data visualization reporting tools. It’s an important step, but we can do better than that.

I’m hardly objective, but I think Quill will enable rigorous, original and impactful storytelling. Narrative Science is playing in a brand new space, building a set of tools that will help us all understand parts of the world in amazing new ways – some of which we can’t even imagine yet.

But will we kill investigative reporting in the process? No, we won’t. For all the (appropriate) stress around the failing business model of news and information, let’s not allow one of the most vital professions in the world to backslide into Luddism.

Instead, let’s envision a future in which technologies like Quill are part of a news and information renaissance, a world in which technology empowers journalists in exciting and meaningful ways.

Consider our work with ProPublica, as just one example. Or with GameChanger, where we create content at scale, writing stories that matter to small groups of readers but would not have been economically feasible before. Quill can easily manage the task of writing informative reports for the general public (see Forbes), adding value and context to deeper reporting. And someday soon, Quill could be used in newsrooms — a way to cull seeds of understanding from vast data repositories that form the basis for further in-depth reporting taken on by a human.

And those are just a few of the many reasons I’m excited about Quill. After all, at heart, I’m a journalist. And for all the hand-wringing about the financial future of news and information, fear of new tools is never the answer. Don’t be the town crier who refused to learn how to write.

Andrew Paley is the Lead UX Designer at Narrative Science.

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