Changes ahead
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From local to national and international, news outlets are told they have to innovate and keep up with technology in order to stay in the game.

But considering how quickly new platforms are nestling at the core of the news conversation, how do publishers, particularly legacy media organisations, know if they’re moving fast enough?

German language daily newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), published by the NZZ Mediengruppe in Switzerland, was founded in 1780 – and in recent years it has developed eight new products, three of which are digital.

“You have to start with the small changes to make a real difference,” said Anita Zielina, editor-in-chief of NZZ, speaking at the INMA European News Media conference today.

Zielina was also a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 2012, and she adapted the Institute of Design's principles of creativity for NZZ. Here are her five tips for taking small steps towards introducing the culture of innovation in the newsroom.

'Create and encourage diverse teams'

Changing the traditional physical layout of the newsroom can shine a new light on an editorial or development problem, Zielina explained.

“Different approaches and perspectives allow people to see a problem from multiple angles and work together to implement solutions that work better in an innovative environment.”

NZZ reshuffled its development process by bringing people from the editorial, technological and business sides together in the same room before starting the actual work on a product.

“That way, we don’t invest a great amount of time and money in something, and when rolling it out, we realise it’s a good idea but it doesn’t work in practice because there’s no business case behind it,” she said.

'Implement creative processes and methods'

“How do we bring creativity in a traditional newsroom that's not used to practising innovative brainstorming methods?”, asked Zielina.

When trying to introduce people in a newsroom to the concept of change, particularly at an organisation with a centuries-old legacy such as NZZ, it is best to break it down into “small, digestible units”.

Start off with little experiments like changing brainstorming techniques, she said, even if that means something as simple as getting people to write ideas on a whiteboard, rather than just gather around a table in the conference room.

'Foster a culture of experimentation'

“Newsrooms are not exactly the place where experimentation, innovation and failure are rewarded,” she pointed out.

But the key is helping people understand that experimentation sometimes means failure and starting things that might not necessarily work.

One approach is holding a monthly brainstorming session similar to a hackathon where everyone in the newsroom, from editors to reporters and developers, can work together on a project, but in different teams to the ones they usually work in, explained Zielina.

'Introduce agile development' in the newsroom

Developers and designers work on tight deadlines to come up with new and improved storytelling formats.

But this speed doesn’t mean that much if it takes the editorial team twice as long to learn how to actually use the tools in their work on a daily basis.

“It’s important for the editorial and technological development to be aligned and to have an overview of roles in the newsroom to help prioritise in the process,” said Zielina.

She added that creating “visual prototypes” is helpful when taking the first steps towards building an actual product and drawing a rough outline on paper or building it out of cardboard often helps “map out the journey”.

The user should be first, last, and at the centre of the process

Every news app or product developed for the newsroom is done with the reader in mind – and there is no better way of knowing if people are going to like it than by asking them.

“Get users’ feedback and build a relationship with them,” Zielina said, “and then implement what you’ve learned from it.”

For example, when NZZ started redesigning its website, several thousand beta users were involved in the development process for eight months. This included answering surveys but also open-ended questions like 'why is it better' or 'what other features can we improve on'.

In a similar experiment, NZZ readers expressed a desire for having breaking news that would update constantly on the website’s homepage, in a “confined space”.

NZZ created a rough prototype of its News Briefing with only the basic features, and received feedback from 2,500 people before moving on to the next stage of development.

In practice, this has made the process quicker and more efficient – NZZ’s News Briefing now has 60,000 readers a day and 75 per cent of the audience is coming from mobile.

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