10 tips for successful newsroom experiments
A panel of digital journalism experts discuss innovation pointers at the World Editors Forum in Italy, including 10 tips from Professor George Brock, head of journalism at City University London
In a constantly changing digital environment, newsrooms need to be able to respond quickly so as not to fall behind.
"Everyone talks about experimentation," said Professor George Brock, head of journalism at City University in London, "but people don't think about how to organise experimentation in the newsroom."
A common phrase to hear in the industry is "throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks", said Brock, speaking at the Word Editors Forum in Turin today.
However, there is less talk about "what kind of spaghetti to use, what sort of sauce sticks best and what recipe ensures the largest number of pieces stick to the wall."
"In short," he said, "you need to care about the quality of experiment as well as the quantity."
Brock shared his tips on "ten ways to throw spaghetti" to make newsroom experimentation more productive in the long run.
1. 'Distinguish between innovation and experiment'
"When people get told to innovate, they tend to freeze," Brock said, as the pressure to invent a new and successful product for the organisation can stifle creativity. "Experimentation" however, removes that pressure and allows people to play more freely.
"The key to a lot of these experiments is not being too solemn about anything," he said.
2. 'Get outsiders inside: use anthropolgists, technologists, inventors'
Creating a journalistic "skunkworks" is also important, said Brock, mixing ideas from other disciplines and industries and keeping an eye on wider technological development to help inform decisions.
3. 'Gather data relentlessly; get the best brains to use it well'
Data on reader habits, preferences and traffic to articles can help inform business and editorial decisions, so newsrooms and editors should look to gather it "relentlessly" said Brock.
Using it well is the important part though, he said.
"You can't let the data be the only arbiter of decisions," said Robert Shrimsley, managing editor of the Financial Times, also speaking on the panel.
While the Financial Times has its own analytics system, using that to inform editorial decisions alone would be "looking in the wrong direction", he said.
Shrimsley referred to data from "three or four years ago" which suggested Egypt was neither a strong source of stories or traffic.
"But we thought, 'no, Egypt is important, let's stay there'," he said. The Arab Spring began shortly afterwards.
4. 'Evaluate fads; don't chase them'
Editorial 'fads' can have a habit of taking over news organisations, but if newsrooms don't analyse the content they would not be able to apply them effectively.
Brock took the example of BuzzFeed and its Ukraine coverage to illustrate his point.
On reporting the latest events in Kiev, or elsewhere around the country, BuzzFeed articles would provide a stream of pictures, often taken by the reporter, with a few sentences of text underneath.
"Added together, those bits of text would add up to the same as a normal foreign dispatch," said Brock, "[BuzzFeed] just cut it a different way."
"What is the best way to tell the story?" added Shrimsley. "It is not going to be just with words."
5. 'Make people read books'
There are a lot of very expert journalists but if you are in the business of explaining what is going on then sometimes a lot of that knowledge is best expressed in books, he said.
"In an information-saturated world, making sense of what is going on becomes relatively much more important," Brock told Journalism.co.uk. "To succeed in these conditions journalists need to know more and it often astonishes me how few books they read."
6. 'Set up a "best failure" award'
"The paradox is that everyone is doing digital but not everyone thinks they are succeeding," Brock said. "Experiment. Fail. Learn. Try again."
David Callaway, editor-in-chief of USA Today, said that people "could generally do far more than they are doing".
"If you can get journalists excited about what they are doing then they become more productive than they would think," he said.
7. 'Demote/fire people not prepared to have the newsroom be a laboratory'
Having a journalistic "skunkworks" is important, but bringing that into the newsroom and letting the lessons and energy spread is vital, said Brock.
"Do smart, interesting, innovative things that spread out around the organisation," said Shrimsley, agreeing that innovation and experimentation should happen in the newsroom and not separately.
8. 'Drive it from the top'
Experimentation and innovation needs to be led from the top of an organisation, said Brock, if it is going to be accepted and promoted throughout an organisation.
9. 'Check: why should anyone see value in this?'
Putting the reader first and understanding what they may want is vital in any form of experimentation, said Brock, and Shrimsley agreed.
"Some people don't want to read a 2,000 word piece," he said, "so give them the option of a summary as well."
The fact that journalists may have an obsession over their words being read does not mean that everyone will want to read them, so the FT tries to give readers a choice over word length.
10. 'You can't judge experiments if you haven't fixed what success looks like'
Having a final view as to what the project will achieve should always be borne in mind, Brock said.
This does not need to be a set physical result, but can be a range of options. Learning from failure can be just as important as building a success, he said.
"When you're experimenting, failure is often very illuminating," he said.
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