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Unlocking the publishing potential of NML

Markup language for news could empower editors, enrich content, lower costs

Have a peek at a newspaper publisher's desk, circa 2004. Here's what you might see:

  • A new organization chart from the newsroom. It shows how the editing staff and the library archive staff are gradually merging, saving steps and resources in the process. This new efficiency comes courtesy of new methods of annotating and keywording articles during the front-line editing process.
  • Bids from technology suppliers on a next-generation, integrated publishing system for print and electronic content. The newspaper specified a system based on industry-standard definitions of content types. As a result, software and implementation costs are surprisingly low.
  • A report from the advertising director explaining how new methods of multimedia targeting, backed by personalized content and delivery options for news consumers, helped boost delivery of qualified leads to key advertisers. That means revenue.
  • A copy of that morning's paper, a digital cellular telephone, a pocket organizer and a personal computer. All display distinct, layered, rich presentations of the day's news and advertising. Our publisher smiles as she realizes that the devices are all populated with content by a news organization that is no bigger than it was 10 years ago, when print was the lone driving force and the Web was but a baby.

Maybe it's a dream. Or maybe it's the potential of News Markup Language realized in full.

NML is being developed now in hopes of reaching that potential. Members of the Grammar for New Media symposium, led by the Media Center at the American Press Institute, conceived the idea last fall.

Technically speaking, NML is a "document type" defined under the principles of Extensible Markup Language, commonly called XML. Though XML formatting resembles HTML, the language of today's Web, its power lies in the ability to create and define specific tags and tag sets. The content marked with those tags can, in turn, be "parsed" into a variety of different output devices and presentations.

Editing tools today are focused on one output or another, typically print above the rest. Front-end and pagination systems support typesetting rules for headlines, bylines, articles, captions and other familiar data types. Online publishing systems take "aftermarket" news content from print systems, converting to HTML for Web audiences. Library archivists take that same content feed, join related elements, flag contextual references, extend and annotate the data to provide a meaningful index to old articles.

All those processes are arranged assembly-line style. Some of the work is redundant, and not all of the archiving tools at the back end are available or useful to front-line editors.

Editors and news consumers are left to tolerate the results of this process:

  • Newspapers’ Web sites lean heavily on repurposed, largely untouched content from print editions – even when writing and presentation styles for print don’t necessarily adapt well for online.
  • It remains technically and politically troublesome to attempt to re-edit or repackage print content for online delivery.
  • Newspaper deadline cycles are edition-driven, leaving online news sites scrambling to cover breaking news between cycles.

Will NML solve all these problems? Of course not – but it lays a foundation news organizations can build on to address these issues. NML makes it possible to develop integrated editing methods while delivering appropriate content to appropriate outputs.

NML passes the power of XML to gatherers, editors, presenters and distributors of news content.

This simple idea has sweeping implications. It starts with the idea that news staffs should use a common language when preparing basic elements of news content.

Call a byline a byline. Call a quote a quote. If there's a point to every story, call it by its name. Newsrooms already use a common language – with subtle dialects – to describe these elements. NML merely applies standard names, definitions and contexts to each.

And NML reaches a step beyond today’s grammar for news. Editors can use NML to mark up contextual elements within a news article, or create associations between references in an article and supporting information.

That additional editing flexibility could make it possible to feed the appetite of future news consumers:

Scenario 1: Comparing news consumers today and in the future

Today's news consumer

A future news consumer

  • Acquires news and information from print, broadcast, maybe Internet.
  • Uses broadcast as first resource for breaking news.
  • Uses print as first resource for news in detail, analysis.
  • May still use print and/or broadcast to acquire news content.
  • Likely to also acquire news content from an assortment of Internet-connected personal digital devices
  • Gets both breaking news and news in detail through those devices.

Integrating the news gathering, editing and archiving processes – made possible by systems that support NML – also plays well into the hand of the newspaper business of tomorrow:

Scenario 2: Comparing the business today and in the future

Today's newspaper business climate

A future newspaper business climate

  • Core business is print.
  • Online publishing initiatives either losing money or earning very small profit margins.
  • Struggling with how to bring online efforts into mainstream news, business organization
  • Core business is delivery of news and advertising, regardless of medium.
  • Margins may remain small, but costs per unit of information delivered also drop.
  • News, advertising, distribution organizations no longer output-specific.

A markup language built specifically for news, NML could pump new energy into the editing process in future news organizations:

Scenario 3: Comparing newsroom organization today and in the future

Today's newsroom organization

A future newsroom organization

  • Linear, assembly-line preparation of print news product.
  • Other outputs processed "aftermarket," generally repurposing print content without significant revision.
  • Gap in communications, understanding between print, online news units.
  • Multimedia newsgathering made possible by increased specialization or thorough training of reporters.
  • Editing includes annotation, extension and indexing practices for non-print outputs and archives.
  • Online outputs no longer at the end of the assembly line.

For NML to succeed, news organizations and technology suppliers must adopt the overall principle. One of the great qualities of XML subsets, such as NML, is that you don’t have to use every component of the language. And you can add your own.

As standards go, this one is among the most flexible.

The Media Center and the "grammar group" are developing draft specifications for News Markup Language. A few news organizations and technology suppliers already expressed interest in pilot projects based on NML.

To learn more about NML, contact Chris Feola (cjf@mediacenter.org) or Dave Swint (dls@mediacenter.org) at the Media Center.