Digital Journalism: Focus on the software not the hardware

Journalist and professor Carl Sessions Stepp celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first published story with a series looking at 50 lessons from his 50 years as a journalist in the American Journalism Review. In the final instalment of the series, he has a great call to action to revolutionise online content:

In many ways, we’re still in the hardware stage with digital journalism, still fixated on the tools. Journalists have lagged behind other entrepreneurs in imagining revolutionary content. Their momentum should accelerate into developing mind-boggling, irresistible, until-now-impossible information services for their readers. As we have already seen, if journalists don’t do this, others will.

In the past he says, progress in journalism relied on hardware, the platforms, from printing presses all the way through to the internet. Now, it is much more about software.

When Stepp says that we’re obsessed with the tools, I think he’s saying that we’ve been focused on platforms, and I think that is true. However, I have also seen enough digital techniques come and go that sometimes we become tools of our software tools too. How many editors are saying that they want their own Snowfall or Firestorm, their own immersive multimedia stories? Don’t get me wrong, I love immersive storytelling and some of the new techniques, but it’s always worth understanding which stories are appropriate for those techniques.

Fortunately, digital journalism has matured. When blogs were first popular, every journalist wanted a blog because a lot of them saw blogs as a short-cut to their own columns. They didn’t really see them as social media, just a digital incarnation of an existing format they understood. Now that digital has become a primary platform, rather than just another channel for distributing content originally crated for another platform, we’re seeing a lot more sophistication with digital storytelling.

That said, I know that Stepp is making a broader point, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. It’s not just about telling stories in new ways. It is about delivering information and engagement in new ways. Although journalistic storytelling is my passion, I know that this is about thinking beyond stories to information services.

We are now seeing some great experiments in creating indispensable new information services. Mobile news service Circa is on to something. I’m not entirely convinced about breaking up stories in single screen swipes for mobile, but I think getting notifications about new developments on stories I would like to follow is something very interesting. Zite, which was acquired by CNN, is the first thing I open in the morning, and Watchup, the tablet app that lets me roll my own TV newscast, is my second.

All three of those groups are start-ups, but that doesn’t mean that traditional news organisations can’t create such innovative services. However, one of the hardest bits of software to manage in this process has been, and is, the culture of news organisations themselves. We already have a pretty good strategic template for rebooting a news organisation — the Newspaper Next project. Although few newspapers have followed the strategic advice that the project provided, we are seeing it in action with Clark Gilbert at the Deseret News where a core strategy is to develop print and digital separately. On a tactical level, we’re also seeing hack days and internal incubators. So companies are tackling some of these major cultural and organisational issues, but even Clark Gilbert is honest about the difficulty of this task.

I think it’s clear that we don’t have a choice but to do this hard work. Stepp is right if we journalists don’t do this, others will. But I know that journalists can and will do this.

Journalism innovation: A team effort

At the recent release of the Reuters Institute Digital News report, I got to catch up with an old friend and colleague, Alf Hermida. Alf and I worked together on the BBC News website back at the beginning. He was there right at the start and I joined not long after as the BBC’s first online journalist posted outside of the UK. It was a golden age of digital journalism, a rare opportunity to work for was was essentially a well-funded start-up inside of a big company. We had the resources (not limitless by any means) to experiment. We had the freedom and autonomy to really push the boundaries and create a new medium, and we had a team of managers, designers, developers and journalists all focused on one thing: Creating the future of journalism.

From 1998 to 2005, I enjoyed doing frontline journalism innovation with the BBC whilst based in their Washington bureau. We used big stories like presidential elections, the Oscars and the coverage after the 9/11 attacks to try new techniques including letting our audience set the agenda, 360 degree panoramas, webcasts and blogging. Long before smartphones and widespread mobile data, I made sure that I could take online journalism out from behind the desk and into the field. We were doing social and mobile journalism long before they were future of journalism buzzwords.

My role at the BBC in Washington was one of a number I’ve had where part of the job was to create a new position and work with my managers to figure out how it fit into the rest of the organisation. That last bit is really key and possibly the most challenging part of the innovation positions that I’ve had. As digital technology has become easier, more accessible and lighter weight, developing innovative journalism projects has become much easier, but the process of integrating innovation back into the beast is still hard work.

When I was in Washington, integration was a easier for a number of reasons. The Washington bureau of the BBC was exactly the right place to develop the position: It was small enough for me to easily work with my radio and TV colleagues, but well resourced enough that they had the time to work with me. I also contributed to radio and television coverage so it seemed natural that my radio and TV colleagues contributed to online coverage. The position developed into a multi-platform one organically.

The other thing that really worked at the BBC News website was that innovation was central to what we did and was driven by innovative managers. It wasn’t about sitting in Washington coming up with crazy dot.com era ideas, it was more about working collaboratively with editors and colleagues in London to refine and execute their and my ideas. One of the keys to the success of the BBC News website was its methodical way of testing and refining digital reporting and interactive presentation techniques. We had metrics for success and we built on the techniques that met those metrics.

I also learned what doesn’t work. In 2003, I was asked to do an innovation project in which I would be a backpack multi-media journalist. I had a digital video camera and I was supposed to help produce multi-platform video pieces. I had done video work before, but there is a long, steep learning curve between setting up a camera for webcasts or doing simple online video packages and shooting packages of sufficient quality for the main BBC news programmes. I did learn, however, and the video did reach the quality where it could be mixed into traditional packages. The big problem wasn’t the video but the lack of a process to use that video. The BBC was years away from multi-platform commissioning. A senior colleague suggested that we should have worked directly with a single programme, and we should have. That would have made things much easier and more successful. It would have more effectively integrated innovation into the traditional workflow in a much more manageable way.

The very next year, I blogged the 2004 election based on a suggestion from my managers in London. It started out as a test during the political conventions, and it grew and grew until I carried on through election day. It was a roaring success and it lead to my work in social media journalism for years to come. It was successful because it had a lot of support from London and my only regret, looking back, is that I didn’t simply carrying on blogging from Washington. However, I came to London in 2005  to write a strategic white paper on blogging which fed into a lot of other efforts across the BBC including efforts by BBC Scotland. Not long after, a blogs steering committee and blogs pilot was launched.

I soon realised that innovation works when it’s integrated into the organisation. I’ve had projects where, in essence, I’m been tasked with being innovative but had no real way to connect with colleagues. Predictably, while these projects might have been interesting, they didn’t have a lot of impact, either with the audience or with the rest of the organisation.

Having an innovation position sounds great on paper, but unless that position is properly integrated, it is unlikely to deliver the results the organisation wants. And from a career progression point of view, innovation positions often don’t have a clear chain of command and rarely have much advancement potential. It might sound great to be outside of the org chart and have the chance to break institutional logjams, but it rarely works. If you’re the new hire, you simply don’t have the political capital to break through the cultural blockages that have prevented the company from getting to where they want to be. In a sense, you are an innovation-shaped sticking plaster, you’re not the shot of antibiotics that’s really needed to change the direction of the organisation.

Fortunately, some things have changed in the three years since I last worked on staff at a news organisation. Digital teams have been built, through a lot of hard, persistent work. And I have deep respect for friends and fellow travellers who have fought the battles and paved the way for real, meaningful progress. But whilst I look back at my time with the BBC News website as a golden age of digital journalism innovation, I know that  those organisations that have integrated innovation are now entering a new era where the gains will be more durable.

When you’re filled with enthusiasm and dying to get projects moving, working through such cultural and organisational issues is maddening. But over the last few years, I’ve worked with some organisations that have focused not just on innovative projects but also on changing their organisations. This is going to unleash even more innovation and a new golden age, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.

Print and digital: Managing the crocodile and the mammal separately

I used to be a big booster of print-digital editorial integration, but I’ve had a change of heart for a lot of reasons, reasons which I’ll outline more broadly at some point. When I first got into online journalism in the mid-90s, to be honest, I probably was suffering from a little of resource envy. The legacy business just had a lot more money, but it also made a lot more money. However, I’ve changed my mind. Simply put, I think that print and digital are two entirely different sets of products, and they often have different audiences.

I was just summarising a Pew report on successful revenue models for local newspapers for Knowledge Bridge, the site that I edit for the Media Development Investment Fund, and I found this eloquent and excellent metaphor for managing media disruption from former Harvard business professor Clark Gilbert who is now head of Deseret Management Corporation, owner of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. He said:

In Gilbert’s theory of media evolution, the Deseret News print product is the crocodile, a prehistoric creature that survives today, albeit as a smaller animal. He believes the News, which has already shrunk significantly, is not doomed to extinction if properly managed. Deseret Digital Media is the mammal, the new life form designed to dominate the future. Armed with graphics, charts and a whiteboard that looks like it belongs in an advanced physics class, Gilbert speaks with the zeal of the cultural transition evangelist he has become. He argues that the path ahead does not involve merging the crocodile and mammal cultures, but maintaining them separately.

That makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s a sensible starting point. The next step, he admits, is the challenging part, which is to execute that strategy, which involves a lot of wrenching cultural change. However, he’s already got some success to show for his strategy. Digital revenue has grown on average 44 percent annually since 2010, and it now makes up 25 percent of the groups revenue. For those on the crocodile side of the equation, while print revenue dropped 5 percent in 2012, at least circulation numbers are headed in the right direction. Circulation is up 33 percent for the daily newspaper, and it’s up a stunning 90 percent for Sundays, due in large part to a new national edition.

It sounds like his excellent metaphor and smart strategy also is backed with some very good execution.

Digital journalists: We need to build a digital ‘lifeboat’ for the burning platform

As Twitter users, we all find ourselves occasionally saying: This is a > 140 character discussion and, over Friday night, I found myself in one with Dan Pacheco, a fellow digital journalist in the US whom I know by reputation but have never met. I know of Dan through some of the great work that he did at Bakersfield California developing a very excellent social media platform, Bakomatic, and the online-to-print service, Printcasting now Bookbrewer.

We got into a discussion on Twitter about the recently announced cuts at the Times-Picayune  newspaper in New Orleans. Its parent company, Newhouse Newspapers, is cutting the print run from daily to three times a week and reportedly slashing up to one third of staff. Newhouse is reportedly rolling out a model that it tested in Ann Arbor, Michigan, (in part using a regional news site that I worked on for a year from 1997-98, MLive.com).

Dan asked on Twitter:

To which I responded:

First off, I want to clearly lay out where I’m coming from because I got the impression that Dan assumed I was coming from a print-focused position. I wasn’t. My working assumptions:

  • The present of content is digital, but most newspapers in the West squandered early opportunities to make a painless transition to digital.
  • Many, if not a majority, of newspapers won’t make it. Digital distribution erodes the advantage of geography, and digital economics simply won’t support the volume of newspapers we have now.
  • That said, we still know very little about what a purely digital local news business looks like. We only have a few examples and many are very small and focus on specific niche coverage.
  • There is a lot of work to be done to develop digital products and related revenue streams to support a local digital news offering at scale. It’s a worthy challenge, but we digital journalists, editors and sales teams have a lot of work to do.

I wasn’t trying to say that newspapers should cling to print, rather that while print is a burning platform, there isn’t yet a digital lifeboat to take news organisations to safety. While digital advertising has boomed over the past decade, taking only a brief pause during the financial crisis to decline slightly, US newspapers have only  managed to grow their digital ad revenues slightly. Digital ad sales grew from $7.3bn to a staggering $31.7bn in the US between 2003 to 2011. But newspapers there have only grown their digital ad revenues from $1.2bn to $3.2bn, according to Alan Mutter. Newspapers actually capture a lower percentage of digital ads now than they did in 2003. Many US newspapers in the unenviable position of having a radically deteriorating print business and a still nascent digital business.

As I said on Twitter, I had just read news business analyst Ken Doctor’s assessment of the News Orleans strategy. He described it as “shock therapy” and a “forced march to digital”. As Ken points out, the hope is that the paper in New Orleans can retain the vast majority of their print revenue while also cutting some of their print related costs, although he is sceptical. They might retain 80 to 90% of their print advertisers but not 80 to 90% of their print advertising revenue by going to three days a week.

The newspaper will also most likely be consolidating some administrative costs so hopefully the operation will be more efficient in other ways as well. Printing three days instead of one makes some amount of business sense, but if you cut the print run to one day, would the loss of revenue wipe out some, or all, of the advantage of the print cost savings? Are any US newspapers actually in the position digitally to shift to one-day-a-week print without cutting staff not by a third but something even more drastic, maybe 70 to 80%?

Just like Ken, I wasn’t making a pro-print argument, I was making the observation that the paper and its parent company’s digital business isn’t well positioned for this transition. Ideally, they would have laid this groundwork years ago, but they, along with most newspapers, haven’t. Ken writes:

I’d call it a forced march because it doesn’t look like the Times-Picayune, or its new successor, the NOLA Media Group, is yet ready for the digital transformation. It has been making a digital transition, and there’s a big difference between the two. It doesn’t have a digital circulation strategy yet in place; though about a fifth of U.S. dailies do. Digital circulation is key to making this work, so that core print readers become more likely to transition with the enterprise — and keep paying their monthly subscription bills.

Like many newspaper groups, there are few good, easy answers for Newhouse Newspapers. Dan believes that the time for half moves is over, and I can understand that line of thinking. He said:

Yes, the culture of newspapers needs to be shaken up. It needed to be shaken up a decade ago but the industry thought it dodged a bullet with the dot.com crash, which it viewed as a fad that it was lucky not to have invested too much money in, and sat on its laurels. I agree that newspapers need to stop talking and move purposefully in the direction of digital, but I also agree with Ken Doctor that Advance’s approach looks like shock therapy than a strategic embrace of the future.

My big fear is that by cutting print runs from seven days a week to one would necessitate traumatic cuts to editorial staffing, leaving such a small editorial staff that it would have difficulty attracting sufficient digital revenue to sustain it, even in its leaner, digitally focused form. Everyone points to the pure digital Seattle Post-Intelligencer which went from a newsroom of 150 to 20. When you make cuts that deep, you lose good people and you lose capacity. Twenty people just can’t do the work of 150, no matter the efficiencies possible with digital tools.

Digital may be the future, but the vast majority of revenue still comes from print, and we need to see more innovation in both print and digital products that will reinvigorate income streams. It can’t be all about the shiny; it also has to be about financial sustainability. For example, mobile is a huge opportunity to reach audiences, but if Facebook’s revenue is threatened by the shift to mobile because it haemorrhages ad dollars, how will news organisations make  money from it?

All journalists, whether print or digital, should understand the news business and be constantly thinking of ways that they can add value, not just for their audiences but for the business. We need more innovation, more experimentation, and smarter thinking about how we fund news. This isn’t about the culture wars anymore, it’s about making the difficult transition to a digitally-focused, multi-platform future.

Here is the entire conversation that Dan and I had on Twitter for context:

Social media: One-to-some communication that needs amplifiers

Ethan Zuckerman had a great insight yesterday at the Knight Foundation event looking at the information needs of communities.

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/andrewhaeg/status/172021672419926016″]

Ethan pointed to the coverage of Tunisia and how the video of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation was uploaded to Facebook, one of the few such sites still accessible in Tunisia. Exiled Tunisian Sami ben Garbia covered the early stages of the revolution on her personal blog and also Nawaat.org, but Ethan noted at the time that there was precious little coverage, especially in the US. The video and story of Bouazizi’s self-immoltion was then picked up by Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera became the amplifier.

In the early days of social media, social media an traditional media were portrayed in conflict. In the US, the mainstream media became referred to as the lame-stream media by some bloggers, usually by bloggers on both the right and left that were frustrated that traditional journalists didn’t present the world as viewed through the bloggers’ partisan prism.

However, as both social media and traditional media have evolved, a complex, symbiotic relationship of filtering and amplification has developed. It’s a great insight, and I think one of the biggest challenges for all of us as Ethan has been pointing out for years is to seek views outside of our own circles. That’s a fascinating challenge for journalists. How do we open up echo chambers rather than amplify them?

Journalism: It’s about people

It’s not often when in the flood of social media about journalism a new theme comes out so clearly, but today, the theme I’m hearing is about people. Steve Yelvington, of Morris Publishing in the US, flagged up this post by his colleague, Derek May, an executive vide president at the group. Like John Paton‘s Journal Register Company, Morris is embracing a digital first strategy, but May quoted Billy Morris at length of the challenge facing his company, well known challenges. Morris said that “digital first” was a good first step, but he announced a new strategy: “Audience First”.

What does “Audience First” mean? It means the people come first. What the people want in digital form, we provide in digital form. What they want in print, we give them in print. And what it takes for businesses to reach the people, we provide – both print and digital.

They are setting ambitious audience growth targets, to double their news audience and quintuple their “total audience”. They believe that:

In the digital era, doing a good job on news gets you only a very small slice of the digital audience.

This is really interesting, and as a journalist, it’s something that I’m going to have to digest. On one level, I understand perfectly what he means. The newspaper has always been a bundle that included a lot more than what I might call public service journalism. I guess it begs the question: In a digital era, what is the bundle of information, products and services that creates a sustainable business to support itself, including public service journalism? It’s a fascinating, platform agnostic way to frame a solution to the problems facing news organisations right now.

I’ll tell you another reason why I like the idea of Audience First. In the near term, the next five years, at newspapers, print and digital will still have to co-exist. As much of a digital journalist as I am, I know that simply shutting off the presses would require most newspapers to gut their existing news operations. You only have to look at what happened at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that went digital only and went from 165 journalists to 20. (Note, I’m not suggesting that digital first advocates, especially as I count myself as one, are advocating shutting off the presses.) A counterpoint to the Seattle PI is The Atlantic magazine, which sharpened both its print and digital offerings. In 2010, it turned its first profit and a decade, and in October of last year, The Atlantic announced that its advertising profits were up by 19%.

It takes a village

The next story of people-focused journalism comes from a former college classmate of mine, Cory Faklaris, who works for Indianapolis Star.

In the US, the newspapers that really have really taken an economic beating in the last seven years are the big city metros, and the papers in Philadelphia are a good case in point. The Philadelphia Inquirer, part of the Philadelphia Media Network, is up for sale for the fourth time in six years.

Chris Satullo at Philly public radio station WHYY worked at the Inquirer for 20 years. Satullo notes that another former ‘Inky’ reporter, Buzz Bissinger (name straight out of central casting) asked in the New York Times, “Who will tell Philadelphia’s story“. Satullo responds: The rest of us.

But, please, don’t waste too much breath asking the wrong question: What will happen to the ink-on-paper artifact called a newspaper? That one’s settled: Newspapers will shrink into a graying niche.

Your real worry should not be whether newspapers survive. What you should worry about is the future of newsrooms, those buzzing, resourceful dens of collaboration that make everyone who works in them better than they could be alone.

Satullo points out a truism, as true in the glory days of newspapers as it is now: Great journalism is collaborative. Amen.

Put the audience first regardless the medium, and win more of their precious time by not only giving them great journalism but engage them in doing it. This sounds like a winning strategy.

 

NewsRewired: Tom Standage of Economist ‘Digital is not a zero-sum game’

I’m at NewsRewired again doing a bit of live(-ish) blogging about some of the talks that I find interesting.

Everyone wants to be The Economist because it has managed to increase both its print and digital subs over the last few years, and unlike most publishers, it has see its readership and revenue grow through the recession. Speaking at Journalism.co.uk’s NewsRewired conference*, he gave some insights into its success.

In the current environment, for any publication that acts like a filter the noisier the media environment gets the better you do.

Standage also sees The Economist brand this way that if someone was stranded on a desert island and had to choose one publication so that they believe they are informed that they would choose The Economist. That’s a great statement of how The Economist sees itself.

Their attitude to digital is that it is not a zero-sum game. About a third of their print readers are also using their digital apps. From their own market research, they realised that they needed to cater to their readers who wanted a digital experience for two reasons.

  1. Readers see digital as more convenient. The biggest reason that readers give when they cancel their print subscription to The Economist is that they don’t have enough time to read it.
  2. In their own market research, currently, readers prefer print to digital by a ratio of 80% to 20%, but asking them what they will prefer in two years.

Standage says:

We sell this content bundle, this feeling of being informed when you get to the end of it. That is what we sell. That is essentially the proposition. You can still sell this in a mobile environment.

Some observations: How many other publications have the clarity about what they provide? How many other publications have the clarity of the value proposition they offer?

Standage also gives us this nugget of golden insight. In the past, The Economist’s archive was hidden behind a paywall. The result:

Before 98% of our content was invisible to Google.

They have shifted to metered paywall similar to the Financial Times and the replicated by the New York Times. Any reader on the web gets 5 stories a week free to read. The Economist’s traffic actually went up. Some pay for a digital only subscription, but print subscribers get access to the digital content.

The metered paywall plus all access to print subs is a great model. You get users used to paying for digital.

He added this caveat. “This will not work for everyone. You need to know who your readers are.” He said that such a model would be difficult for The Guardian that sells most of their print copies through newsstands, and he said that The Guardian  doesn’t know about its readers. The Telegraph is starting to build a database of reader information, but he sees The Guardian as behind in this effort. (Any Guardian folk want to take issue with that?)

He closed by saying that there is not one new model but many new models. However, we’re beginning to find some ideas that work. They might require a change to your publishing business – especially in getting to know your readers much more – but we have some elements of a working model.

UPDATE: Adam Tinworth has live blogged this session and adds other details, especially with respect to the media app economy.

* Disclosure: I conduct data journalism courses for journalism.co.uk

Digital has changed reporting

Jay Rosen has an interview with Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton, who said in a recent column that the Post might be guilty of innovating too quickly, and as Jay highlights, Pexton says:

I am not a person who thinks the fundamentals of journalism have changed that much, despite social media. Of course it’s more conversational, engaging. And the online world has changed reporting somewhat, but not fundamentally.

I couldn’t disagree more. Certainly, there are reporting formats that haven’t changed much since the rise of digital. However, in saying ‘online’, Pexton is merely thinking of digital as the internet and thinking of the internet as nothing more than a publishing platform. I also think that he doesn’t see any change in reporting because he sees reporting as a fundamentally text-based project. Furthermore, reporting is part of the journalistic process, a very important part of it. It’s the raw material of story-telling, but digital has fundamentally changed how we tell stories. In short, he’s not thinking of digital as mobile or multimedia devices or services.

I’ve spent most of my career as a field journalist. I continued to report from the field as an editor at The Guardian, and I’ve seen a revolution in reporting in that time. Casting back to my first job at a local newspaper in the US, digital was already changing my job. I had a mobile phone then, although it was what we called in the US a bag phone. It had a simple modem, and we were testing how to use it to file. Our sports reporters used TRS-80 Model 100 portables to file stories from remote locations. Explain to me how that didn’t change reporting? This allowed reporters to remain in the field, report the story and file without having to read a story down the phone.

When I covered the 2000 US presidential elections for the BBC, we used satellite equipment and an small, inexpensive digital video camera to conduct live webcasts where we took questions from our readers around the world. Two years later, I covered the one-year anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks with colleagues. I shot video and edited it on my laptop, compressing it so I could file it over a modem to London. During the same assignment, I had an early mobile modem capable of a then blistering 128kbps, and I worked with my colleagues to cover the concert in Central Park. We took pictures with digital cameras, wrote the text and filed all from park before Billy Joel finished New York State of Mind. My colleagues told me that someday all journalists would work like this.

Then in 2008, my main reporting tool was my mobile phone. I used Twitter to bring readers along with me as I journeyed across the US with a Guardian Film team in the lead up to the election. I filed updates and pictures via Twitter. I could report and file pictures as people celebrated outside of the White House in the wee hours of the morning. It was a watershed moment for me. I didn’t have to leave the scene of story to keep reporting. Explain to me how that hasn’t changed reporting.

Beginning in November 2010, I began working with Al Jazeera, training hundreds of producers, correspondents and staff on how to use social, mobile and digital tools. Their work stands on its own as proof that digital has changed reporting.

Since 1996, I have worked as a digital journalist. I have never pushed change just for the sake of it but because that is where I knew my audience was going. They were going online. They were getting their news via social media and engaging directly with journalists and sources.

Many journalists have have been working to adapt to this change for a long time now. We’ve been fighting for a long time, and only recently, did I feel like the conversation was starting to move again. After a lot of innovation in the 1990s, we lost a lot of great young digital journalists to the dot.com crash. After rebuilding in the last decade, we sadly lost a lot of excellent digital veterans to the integration wars.

As former Sacramento Bee editor Melanie Sill said recently:

Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels.

I can see green shoots again. Leaders are rising to meet the change rather than to rehash the tired arguments of the last 15 years. It’s heartening, and I’m starting to get the itch to get back into a newsroom after being independent.

I’ll agree with Pexton that we don’t pursue innovation just for the sake of change. As journalists, we pursue it because it can serve our audiences better, engage them more deeply and, with innovation on the business side too, generate revenue to support our journalism. In 2012, I’m looking for the next big challenge and for like minds to meet that challenge with.

Newspaper innovation: Not too much but too little

If you’re a newspaper editor, and you want some much needed inspiration, you’ll want to add the blogs of Melanie Sill and John Robinson to RSS feeds or daily reading, and follow both John and Melanie on Twitter. John recently stepped down as the editor of the Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina, and Melanie recently made a similar move, leaving the top job at the Sacramento Bee in California. John wrote an excellent post about rebuilding a newspaper’s relationship with its community last week, and in her most recent post, Melanie looks at newspaper innovation. It comes after the ombudsman at the Washington Post, Patrick Pexton, agreed with some readers who thought the Post was innovating too quickly. (As someone who lived in Washington for seven years and considered the Post my local paper, it was always a schizophrenic place with a lot of digital innovation under Jim Brady while the print offices in Washington tried to change as little as possible.)

Melanie’s thoughts on the pace of innovation?

Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels.Amid legitimate struggle in newsrooms to make this outdated formula work with vastly reduced staffs and greatly increased production demands, there’s not enough attention on creative breakthroughs — the kind of conceptual innovation needed today. What should a print edition do in a 24/7 news world? How is it differentiated from other platforms in content, format and organization?

Yes! Digital is different. It’s something digital folk have been saying since the 1990s. It’s not enough to shovel print content onto the web just because both print and the web are largely text-based. Just as reading a newspaper out on TV would seem silly (although there is some value in the newspaper reviews common on European television), simply copying text to the web was always an approach lacking imagination.

  • How is digital different?
  • What is possible in digital, on the web and via mobile, that isn’t possible in print?
  • How does this change audience expectations about news and information?
  • How do we meet those expectations?
  • How can use those differences to come up with new opportunities for revenue to support the work we do?

This is what I’ve been thinking about since I first became an ‘internet news editor’ in 1996. We’re at a pivotal time, and it’s great to see leadership from veterans like John and Melanie. I look forward to working with leaders like them in the future.