Stand out from the crowd through newsroom innovation

Credit: Image by Thinkstock
Take risks, be different and be prepared to fail – these were some of the key takeaways from a panel focused on innovation in the media at the International Journalism Festival yesterday (Sunday 28 April).

The panel followed several days of sessions looking at numerous facets of the digital journalism world, including social media, data journalism, community engagement and the latest business models and revenue streams.

An experienced panel of digital journalism innovators came together on the final day of the festival to share their experiences and advice on how to stand out from the crowd. The panel included: Matthew Eltringham from the BBC College of Journalism; Paul Lewis, special projects editor at the Guardian; Mark Little, the founder of Storyful; and Luca Sofri who founded Sofri's comments are based on the simultaneous translation provided at the festival.

The panel reflected on the significant events across the world which changed the nature of news delivery and discovery. From the Tsunami in 2004, which played a key role in the use of user-generated content at the BBC, to the Mumbai attacks in 2008 which Lewis described as his "moment of realisation" upon seeing the stream of updates coming in via Twitter.

In the years since these events, news outlets and journalists have been seeking to understand the best ways to use new technology to find and tell stories. For those steering innovation there have been important lessons along the way.

And so below are five key takeaways from the innovation panel at the festival, featuring tips on how to be innovative as an individual, as well as advice for start-ups and 'big media' companies.

1. Keep looking ahead

Don't get blinded by the technology. Look to the human behaviour it liberatesMark Little, Storyful
Getting caught up in the latest technology is easy to do, but Storyful's Mark Little spoke about the importance in looking beyond that and to focus instead on the impact it has on people.

Then use that to think about what could be needed to support their activities in the future, he said.

"Innovation does not mean technology. Don't get blinded by the technology. Look to the human behaviour it liberates people to engage in."

2. Harness the power of partnerships

Mark Little went on to discuss the relationship between start-ups and bigger news organisations.

He identified a "great ecosystem developing where news companies, big establishments, are working together with smaller start-ups".

"That's the future for me in innovation. Use us, these start-ups emerging, as guinea pigs. Little R&D labs for ideas you might have in a big news organisation".

And when start-ups are approaching big media, he recommended careful thought about what exactly is being proposed.

Trying "to do something that either replaces or competes with an existing service" is a "mistake" made by many start-ups, he said.

Instead, he said he learnt that the demand is for something that will "make innovators in the news organisations look really good". It is about "giving them the tools and services that would help them break through the cultural barriers that exist", he said.

"Help people help themselves, don't solve the problem for them," he added.

3. Understand the importance of culture

Reflecting on the ability he has to innovate at the Guardian, Paul Lewis said "the most determining factor in terms of what will enable you to do interesting things and be entrepreneurial is probably in the leadership of that organisation".

From a big institution perspective it's about delivering the idea, not having the idea in the first placeMatthew Eltringham, BBC College of Journalism
The BBC College of Journalism's Matthew Eltringham said at larger media organisations "having creative thoughts isn't a problem – the problem is delivering them and driving them through".

Following the 2005 London bombings, while the BBC's UGC team was cemented "in seconds", the challenge became "driving it through the institution and getting everybody else to realise that this was a really important innovation".

"Coming at it from a big institution perspective it's about delivering the idea, not having the idea in the first place."

He added that the BBC has moved from "being quite skeptical" when it came to innovation, fearing the impact this could have on "reputation and trust", to being an "extremely innovative organisation" today.

4. Give 'permission' to fail

Paul Lewis spoke about the importance for innovators to effectively be given "permission" to fail.

You can only do good interesting things if you fail every now and thenPaul Lewis, the Guardian
""You can only do good interesting things if you fail every now and then," he said. You do need permission, if you like, to make those mistakes."

Mark Little said he is most interested in people who are "not afraid of risk" and "will come to me and say 'give me a chance to fail'".

"I've only ever learnt from my failures, never learnt from my successes," he said. "Because successes are in many ways about luck, timing, persistence, survival. If you stay around long enough you'll succeed at some point."

In light of this he offers a "six-week test" at Storyful. The challenge is to "do something in six weeks and either make it a success or failure".

"If you're comfortable with that idea of failing and failing quickly, then I want you as part of my team".

5. Don't just mirror what already exists

Luca Sofri, founder of Il Post, said young Italian journalists need "to take a leap in their thinking process".

Offering advice for those trying to make their mark on the industry, he said they need to tell him "about what they offer", rather than simply that they want to work for Il Post.

He said he still hears from students that they are looking "to find a way of being hired in a big traditional newsroom" and write "traditional articles like the kind they read on the traditional mainstream press".

What I do really want is new ideas, things that we haven't thought aboutLuca Sofri, Il Post
Il Post "needs people who can understand the new mechanisms on the web, who can use them, who can adapt them and actually make a little money out of them".

"What I do really want is new ideas, things that we haven't thought about," he said. "Don't just do what you see your elders doing."

6. Keep a tight hold on trust

The idea of standing out from the crowd is also something to be applied on social, Paul Lewis added.

Social media platforms have acted as "a real equaliser", he said.

"What I'm doing is no different to what the person next to me is doing. If we both take a video it will look and feel exactly the same, one's a journalist, the other isn't. So what can I bring to the table that's different? I think the answer is basically trust."

Lewis added that he hopes through the processes of innovation and the "rush to try new things", the importance of this trust is not lost. "If you lose that then you're really damaged," he said.

Below is a video of the innovation panel, filmed by the International Journalism Festival:

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