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4 tips to combat innovation fatigue in journalism

Relentless, high-speed pursuit of technology-driven innovation could be almost as dangerous as stagnation. Here is the best advice from 27 leading news publishers.

By Chaymae Samir | Mar 1, 2019

Long gone are the days where innovation in journalism consisted of producing slideshows, joining social networks and blogging. News organisations need to be growing entirely new departments in mobile, social, data and Al, while maintaining a healthy business model. And fast.

A recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that high-speed innovation and experimentation, although valuable, can move the focus away from content and monetization.

So, how do you embrace innovation without reverting to ‘column-inches’ journalism and spoiling resources?

Here is the best advice from 39 leading journalism innovators from around the world.

1. Define what technology means for your organization

Most of our industry’s innovation projects tend to focus on “shiny new things’’. A bunch of years after Alexa and Siri, we have our podcasts. A bunch of years after YouTube, are we actually doing something about video? After a couple of years of watching other people think about blockchain, we are all about blockchain.”

Raju Narisetti, journalism innovation leader, Columbia School of Journalism

Sound familiar? After all, the newsroom mindset is driven by new things. It can become an issue when that mindset translates into an obsessive uptake of the latest tool or trend.

Kim Bui former editor of NowThis suggests that organizations need to distance the word ‘innovation’ from chasing flashy technology. Instead, Kim suggests that you focus on foundational innovation that you can scale.

Forget about technological gimmicks and fads, Jane Barrett, global head of multimedia at Reuters, points out that:

There are a lot of needs at the base level which aren’t sexy or shiny but are actually quite cheap. They don’t get the nice bright shiny project title of ‘innovation’ but could probably make the biggest difference to our industry ”

Jane Barrett, global head of multimedia, Reuters.

Posetti, J. Towards a sustainable model of journalism, Reuters Institute. P.15 

NowThis News former editor-at-large Kim Bui on repackaging smartly for platforms

2. Think long-term

Over-focusing on innovation without a clear strategy is unsustainable. Not only does it lead to innovation burnout, it can waste time, effort and money.

Francesca Donner, gender initiative director at The New York Times, urges publishers and broadcasters to shakeup the ‘newsroom mindset’.

Drawing from her own experience (moving from Editorial to Strategy), Francesa advises to temper the urge to experiment without a concrete strategy, even when you’re part of a well-resourced news organization:

You’re basically working on the 24-hour cycle. You get the story done, deadline rolls around, you either did it or you didn’t do it, tomorrow’s a new day we start again. But in product or strategy you can (and should!) slow down, do focus groups, assess and analyse. It was totally beyond the scope of how I worked before.”

Francesca Donner, gender initiative director, The New York Times

That statement was supported by many participants in the study who expressed their frustration with never-ending lists of new tools and products to introduce.

Their suggested the following to deepen audience engagement and loyalty, professional prestige, digital capacity building and profits:

  • Reducing output
  • Formally strategizing
  • Structuring innovation

In practice, this means developing a model framework with core metrics and indicators to support journalism innovation and enable impact assessment.

Business Insider’s “less is more” growth strategy

3. Bring back the focus on audiences

Participants in the study feared that the fixation with artificial intelligence (Al), augmentated reality and automated reporting (AR), virtual reality (VR), and over-reliance on social platforms for distribution can be a distraction from core journalistic functions such as story-telling, delivering credible news and engaging and developing audiences.

Sasha Koren from the Guradian Mobile Innovation Lab was straightforward:

You need to look to your audience for signals of where you can do better.

Sasha Koren, co-lead, Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab

And that should translate into reinventing content formats and storytelling modes according to the end-users and their cultural and socio-political environments. Technology in this case, such as mobile-enabled User Generated Content, should be used to bring in new, diverse voices.

The problems of a media outlet in a repressive regime are very different from those faced by the New York Times. So, the questions ‘‘What’s your user story? Who are you trying to solve the problem for?’’ need to be asked in recognition of varied regional contexts”

Kim Bui, former editor-at-large, NowThis News

The surprising strategy to keep your audience engaged…

4. Focus on the commercial value

The study also highlighted a common concern that efforts in digital journalism innovation have focused on distribution challenges at the expense of business development. Often times what is perceived as success in journalism is different from what is accepted as success in business.

Joanne Lipman gave the anecdote of congratulating a financial executive at a media company that had just won a Pulitzer. His response: ‘It doesn’t make us any money, it doesn’t really count’. So how do you achieve an integrated journalism innovation strategy across divisions within news organizations?

Moving from being ‘technology-led’ to ‘technology-empowered is the first step, and skills development and training are central. For example, Ritu Kapur, CEO, The Quint, mentioned their experience of getting those involved in innovation-focused projects to conduct lunchtime seminars to encourage knowledge sharing.

How did the Washington Post turn quality journalism into a profitable business model?