When Google Labs released their News Timeline feature, it prompted Mathew Ingram at Harvard University Nieman Journalism Lab to call for more creativity from news organisations. Mathew wrote:
One question kept nagging at me as I was looking at this latest Google effort at delivering the news, and that was: Why couldn’t a news organization have done this? … Isn’t delivering the news in creative and interesting ways that appeal to readers what we are supposed to be doing?
In the comments, people pointed out projects that news organisations had done such as the a graphic visualisation of recent news at NineMSN in Australia. I pointed out time-based navigation at El Comercio in Peru. Mark S. Luckie who writes the excellent blog about journalism and technology, 10,000 Words wrote:
It’s kind of sad showing off innovative technologies over at 10,000 Words, knowing it will be years before most newsrooms adopt them, if at all.
Another commenter, Dan Conover, said, “I wish it wasn’t this simple, but the truth is that the newsroom culture is, and has been for years, overtly hostile to the geek culture.”
Getting past the frustration, how do we bring more innovation to news organisations? It’s something that Suw and I write about frequently here at Strange Attractor.
- Journalists, editors and senior managers need to learn about the software development process.
I often say that journalists think that technology is like Harry Potter. Many believe that developers need only to wave a magic wand and voila, faster than an editor can drain a cup of coffee, we have a new interactive feature. Web and software development is more like the Matrix. It’s a rules-bound world. Some rules can be bent, but others cannot be broken. Also, just like in life, some choices preclude others. Web technology is not a blank canvas. A good, dedicated developer can do amazing things, but no developer can do magic. They can’t rewrite the rules, rewrite a programming language or rebuild your CMS in a day.
Most editors don’t need to learn how to code, but editors do need to learn the art of the possible. Some things can be done quickly, in a few hours. Other projects take more work. A basic understanding of what is possible on a daily deadline is essential.
- Develop a palatte of reusable digital elements
When I first started doing online journalism, we often built one-off projects that took a lot of time and had a mixed response from our readers. We were still learning, not only how to execute digital journalism projects, but also we were learning what type of projects people found engaging. We soon learned that ‘evergreen’ projects often were best, things that had a life-span much longer than most news events. Besides, there are very few editorial projects that merit huge one-off investments, and most news orgs can’t afford this in 2009.
At the BBC, when I started, we had a limited palette of things that we could add quickly to primarily text-based news stories. The News website was still very young. But over time, we built on that limited palette. Our Specials team built things, and they tried to determine what worked and what didn’t. The things that worked were added to the ongoing list of elements that journalists could add to their stories.
Modular interactive elements are easier in the Web 2.0 era. For instance, we often build maps, not just locator graphics but actual maps that draw on data (for instance one could create a map using data of the H1N1, swine flu outbreak). More news organisations are using Twitter and other third party services that call external APIs and cache the results.
If you’ve got limited resources (and who doesn’t), you must think in a joined up way. Think of elements that will add value to your entire site not just to a certain section. Think of elements that will work in many areas of coverage.
- Interactivity is a state a mind and doesn’t always require technical development
Much of this isn’t even about software development. It’s about a state of mind. Interactivity isn’t just about the web. It’s still about letters and phone calls. It can be about text messages. When I worked for World Have Your Say on the BBC World Service, Americans called or sent emails. Listeners in the UK mostly called, and Africans sent text messages by the hundreds. The first and most important step isn’t about developing a technology strategy but about developing a philosophy of collaboration with your audience.
Everything will flow from that philosophy because there are many non-technical ways to get your audience involved. One of the most powerful things on World Have Your Say was getting people around a microphone in Africa to talk to Americans who had called in. The marriage of mass media and social media can be an extremely powerful combination.
Add to all of this no-cost of low-cost web services, and you can do many things on a daily deadline.
- Strategic projects require long-term vision
When I was writing the post for the Guardian about Google News Timeline, I found out that Google had begun creating a historical archive of news content in 2006. News is ephemeral, but as news is the first draft of history, news stories put in context can be a fascinating look at history. Google decided that archiving this content might have some value.
There are a lot of things that take a strategic decision and not only long-term development but also a long-term commitment from a news organisation. I think that geo-tagging is one example. It’s a choice that takes a bit of development but actually more commitment from editorial teams, but the addition of a small bit of structured data generated by journalists creates a lot of opportunities, some which might have revenue.
Taking a long view is difficult as news organisations face very serious short-term challenges, but the lack of long-term thinking is one of the things that got a lot of news orgs into this mess. Developing a long-term, multi-platform strategy might have goals five years out, but that doesn’t mean developing the perfect five-year plan. It means setting some strategic goals and getting there one day at a time.