Innovation in the newsroom is not easy to foster and introducing shiny new tools is not enough.
Speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia (4 April 2019), four experienced innovators delivered practical advice on how to drive change within the news organisation, in a session titled “How to resist the siren call of too many chickensh*t projects.”
Lucy Kueng, senior research fellow at RISJ, spoke about three levels at which innovation takes place.
First, there is the optimisation of the old model. For example, that can mean simplifying the printing process of an existing newspaper.
Then, newsrooms need to introduce new products or services that will also ideally contribute to revenue growth. These require irreversible commitment - it is what Amazon calls a ‘one way door’ - because once you start a new, decisive project, you cannot back out. This type of innovation also requires serious investment of time and money.
Finally, there are future projects where newsrooms test new options and it is not important whether they succeed as both success and failure are important part of the learning curve. Future projects are also crucial to attract new talent and build the organisation’s profile as well as that of the individuals working on the projects themselves.
These are often deep change projects which are almost always underestimated in terms of cost and time needed for their implementation and they take a huge toll on the people who are leading them.
Lyndsey Jones, executive editor at Financial Times has been leading newsroom innovation for years.
“I was the bridge between the C-suite vision of where they wanted the organisation to be and how to get there,” she said.
During her career, Jones simplified the print paper process and also implemented a broadcast schedule, which means FT started publishing content online targeted at different geographical regions at different times to ensure maximum impact, saving the best stories for the homepage.
Another change Jones implemented was content reduction: the publisher reduced its published articles by 20 per cent, getting rid of underperforming content.
To determine what needed to be axed, Jones came up with a list of criteria to help editors decide what content not to commission. For example, stories with less than 3,000 views started to be monitored and soon trends emerged, helping to define what causes underperformance.
Not everyone in the newsroom was happy about these changes though. To deal with this, FT offered its employees the possibility of voluntary redundancy so those who thought the new editorial model does not suit them could leave, Jones explained.
Inga Thordar, executive editor, CNN Digital International said that innovation is a massive undertaking for the broadcaster that still very much operates as a one-platform medium, but it is necessary for survival.
“You need to take part in big, structural changes but also define new business models and work out how to deliver it,” she said.
“The role of an editor in a legacy organisation has changed massively over the past five or six years. You need to keep adding new strings to your bow to be able to do that.”
She and her team were focusing on optimising the old but also instigate new, deep changes.
Innovation also meant starting something brand new that is not linked to breaking news, something CNN is best known for.
An example of this was an interactive series called 'The Circus Singer and the Godfather of Soul' which explores the controversies around singer James Brown. The series received more than 3m views, proving that there is an appetite for something other than breaking news.
Finally, Helje Solberg, news director at NRK, said that when you want to do something new, you need to add something new, otherwise you can expect change. That can range from a piece of technology to a certain mindset or skill.
“Premise in innovation is that you need to change to move forward. It’s not possible to know in advance whether it will work out, whether it will need minor tweaks or a massive overhaul,” she said.
“But if you don’t inject in anything new, you will end up producing more of the same.”
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