At the Wall Street Journal, innovation is for everyone – by encouraging the of sharing new ideas and engagement around product development, the news outlet is passionate about ensuring all members of staff have the opportunity to be part of its digital evolution.
The approach to supporting an innovative environment and attitude in its newsrooms across the world has been built on a number of different strategies, from the architecture of its newsroom in New York, a model soon to be rolled out in the UK and Hong Kong, to company contests and training to encourage new skills and solutions.
“We expect everybody to participate" in innovation, executive editor of WSJ and Dow Jones Almar Latour told Journalism.co.uk, adding that this should be steered by the newsroom, "working closely with engineers and designers who also come from different departments."
He added that WSJ's move from a print-focused media outlet with digital added on, "to a digital, 24/7 global news organisation that also has a print newspaper" relies on such innovation, and in order to spread this identity across the newsroom, innovation must travel just as wide.Good ideas can come from anywhere and we want to make sure that a lot of people are engaged with thinking about how to best tell stories and how to best connect with our readersAlmar Latour, WSJ
"It has required us to think of innovation, not as something quarantined to a specific area of the newsroom, or of our company, but really something that we have to tackle from a lot of different angles.
"Good ideas can come from anywhere and we want to make sure that a lot of people are engaged with thinking about how to best tell stories and how to best connect with our readers."
This focus on making it possible for everyone to innovate, is one of a number of strategies implemented by the WSJ as part of its onward evolution. Other lessons, outlined below, include the importance of placing community engagement at the heart of the newsroom, running innovation competitions and sharing lessons learned.
Putting a spotlight on audience engagement
A recent development at the WSJ's New York office has involved a restructure of the newsroom architecture, placing an "audience engagement desk" in the middle of the newsroom, bringing together members of the mobile, social media and audience data teams in one place.
This will help drive "original" storytelling, Latour said, and it also makes it easier for "new ideas, small and large" to be shared between the journalists and those with their pulse on audience engagement, "taking strands of social, strands of mobile, of video and of traditional storytelling, and coming up with new ways to tell stories".
He added that another positive impact in the centralisation of the team means they can apply their thinking from the start of a project.
"Maybe in the past mobile, video, social were things that were tagged onto stories," Latour explained, "but now, throughout the day, as we have our various news meetings which start early in the morning and happen numerous times throughout the day, this team and people on it have a voice".
He added that "mirrors" of this model are going to be rolled out to its offices in London and Hong Kong so it becomes "a global function that can run 24/7, always focused on coming up with ideas".
Building an idea-friendly environment
Another result of the audience engagement team creation and newsroom-placement, is that it helps to spark new ideas, and also means there is a visible group of people others can go to with suggestions on how to innovate with storytelling.
"Ideas can come from that team, and because that team now combines many different media, and is truly multimedia... [it] comes up with ideas that previously we just weren't equipped to come up with," Latour explained.
He referred to one example of a video journalist who turned to this team to help him build an "explainer video" looking into the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which had a focus on the mobile audience in particular, supported by the mobile expertise shared by the desk.
"So that's a small workflow innovation, with the net effect that it's a better experience for people viewing such videos on mobile," Latour said.
Developing products in a collaborative way
As well as the audience engagement team liaising with, and supporting journalists, in their pursuit of innovative storytelling, the WSJ also has a product team "who work side-by-side with journalists to develop tools for the newsroom that will help storytelling", Latour said.
This team works on more long-tail projects, he explained, such as creating products that may "take months to put together", but then can perhaps be applied to a number of stories in the future.
"What this team tries to do is to make sure each time we build something it can be re-used in a smart way around the newsroom," Latour said.
As well as discussing project developments with journalists around certain news events or subject areas, the team may also work on projects which may have been inspired from general discussions with the editorial team. One example is the way the team has improved the experience for mobile readers when it comes to lists.
"Lists have been around for a long time but we didn't have a format that was re-usable," Latour said, "that was attractive for mobile, and that was easily utilised by our many journalists around the world.
"So when we created that tool, we created a way for a journalist to more easily sum-up and explain complex stories, breaking them down into Wall Street Journal lists", he said, in a way which valued the mobile audience as well.
The growing significance of the mobile audience is reflected in figures from the news outlet which apparently showed a year-on-year rise of almost 60 per cent in mobile traffic to the Wall Street Journal's website in December 2013.
Bringing the wider newsroom into problem-solving
The judging panel from the first iteration of WSJ's TBD competition - image by Jennifer Weiss for The Wall Street Journal
As part of its thinking that everyone should be involved in innovation in some way, the Wall Street Journal recently introduced its TBD (which stands for To Be Decided) digital innovation competition for its newsrooms to respond to.
By setting up a dedicated contest which encourages its staff to think innovatively, the news outlet can drive new thinking from potentially new sources.
"We want to make sure good ideas, maybe ones that haven't found their way to one of these [aforementioned] teams, still have a shot at being heard at the very least," Latour explained, "and also have a realistic shot at being made into a real feature."
According to a recent post by Latour, detailing the first winners of the competition – who were tasked with identifying new, "non-traditional" storytelling formats – their winning entries will be "realised on WSJ.com this Spring".
"We're in the process of building out the two ideas that ended up winning," Latour told Journalism.co.uk, adding that the response to the first contest was "really encouraging".
"So that's opening the doors of innovation to everybody in the newsroom... and making sure there are no barriers for those with good ideas, while at the same time being able to be selective."
Letting small teams innovate around specific 'initiatives'
As well as inviting the whole newsroom to innovate around one specific challenge, the WSJ also encourages groups to split off and focus on specific projects, where a few minds attacking the problem is considered a better approach.
Latour said that within WSJ this is referred to as its "start-up project", which features numerous "digital initiatives" at any one time.
"Whereas traditionally digital, in a large organisation like ours, is fairly centralised, we've actually now decentralised a lot of the initiatives," Latour explained. "And that means that you have smaller groups around the world, and around the newsroom, working on digital projects and having more autonomy when it comes to making decisions and choosing direction for those digital projects."
When it came to developing WSJ's technology reporting, for example, the outlet turned to the team behind it to take on the challenge of bettering the product, including on digital, supported by additional staff resources.The principle is to not quarantine to a corner of the newsroom, but to make sure that the right people around the world, for us, are engaged in thinking about what it really means to be the Wall Street Journal tomorrowAlmar Latour, WSJ
"You are the team that is accountable and responsible for building out not just our tech coverage, but how our tech coverage manifests itself digitally and throughout our publication," Latour said, explaining the challenge the team was set.
And in a short amount of time, they responded with "a new digital identity for our tech coverage" he said, which was then turned "into something that looks and feels much fresher than anything that we had before".
And the knock-on effect of this is the discovery of a successful strategy that can now be applied to other verticals, Latour said, such as markets and finance, or its lifestyle section.
"When you strive for innovation, in a large organisation like ours, I think it's been very beneficial to create smaller groups that focus on that," he said.
"Again, the principle is to not quarantine to a corner of the newsroom, but to make sure that the right people around the world, for us, are engaged in thinking about what it really means to be the Wall Street Journal tomorrow."
Being open to third-party tools, as well as own innovations
While the WSJ encourages much internal innovation, there are times when third-party tools can be a useful solution, Latour said, adding that the news outlet is certainly not averse to outside help.We shouldn't suffer from a 'not invented here' syndrome. And we don'tAlmar Latour, WSJ
"We shouldn't suffer from a 'not invented here' syndrome", he said, "and we don't".
He pointed to owner News Corp's recent purchase of social news wire Storyful, explaining that the WSJ team will continue to "draw on [Storyful's] strength" of social media content discovery and verification.
In terms of using third-party tools, he also identified "video chat service" Spreecast – which Journalism.co.uk reported on as a useful tool for journalists at the start of the year, having been alerted to its use by WSJ in particular – as an example of a tool WSJ journalists use "to be interviewed by, and answer questions from, readers".
"Sometimes it's an innovative way of using an existing tool, sometimes it's a matter of creating something – a template or a tool – that our newsroom calls for and we build it with our own means," Latour explained.
"But you want to do that in as efficient and sensible a way as possible. So we don't go in with a pre-determined 'has to be built here' or 'it can never be built here' – you want to step in with an open mind and be very rational about the decision."
Sharing lessons with industry and own staff
When you have almost 2,000 members of staff, ensuring that the lessons taken out of the innovation process are shared, and new skills sets honed, is a significant task.
To tackle this, WSJ has a number of systems in place to ensure it is both keeping its staff skilled-up on the newer techniques increasing in importance in digital newsrooms and sharing ideas with the wider industry.
Firstly, Latour referred to the opportunity to discuss WSJ's experiences with the industry, such as at journalism or digital media conferences, as this not only helps to support the development and evolution of digital journalism, but is a learning opportunity for WSJ as well.
Secondly, parent company Dow Jones runs a regular Digital Journalism at Dow Jones (DJ at DJ) conference, which brings together individuals from across the company's newsrooms with a focus on getting them "up-to-speed on every aspect of digital journalism".
"They get a full week of training, and they get a full week of interacting – without the distraction of news – with one another and with our specialised staff," Latour explained. "That has been going on for years, and has morphed into a very elaborate and effective masterclass."
Thirdly, he said the outlet is offering optional training to staff focused in the field of data journalism.
"Data-reporting has been an essential part of the Wall Street Journal for many years," Latour said. "Really, if you're a financial journalist or business journalist, data is automatically part of your storytelling. You have to have some grasp of numbers and data in order to do your job well."
Therefore, the WSJ is offering journalists the chance to attend coding and data skills training to ensure a consistent standard and to support its intentions to step further into data-driven storytelling.
"You could see that evolve into a world where we tell stories – and increasingly we actually do this – through databases and through graphics. That is already much more prevalent than it used to be but it is going to be much much more prevalent this year and beyond."
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