Innovative journalists and valuing “inquisitiveness”

The Harvard Business Review Editor’s Blog has a post titled How Do Innovators Think?. I was just going to add it to my daily list of links in Delicious, but it’s worth more than a quick link.

Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of Insead “conducted a six-year study surveying 3,000 creative executives and conducting an additional 500 individual interviews”. They found five skills distinguished these creative executives from less innovative heads of companies.

Dyer described the first skill they identified:

The first skill is what we call “associating.” It’s a cognitive skill that allows creative people to make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.

They call it associating; I call it lateral thinking. I see it in innovative journalists who find tools or technologies created for another purpose but who immediately see the editorial possibilities. They are journalists constantly striving to wrench out efficiencies in how they work and perfect the process. They are constantly looking for new tools and services that can either solve existing problems they have or allow them to do things they hadn’t thought of before. They experiment, and if something doesn’t work, they move on. It’s not something they were trained to do, it’s something they instinctively do.

However, I don’t mean to say that innovative journalists are time-and-motion obsessed  bean counters simply intent on perfecting a process. They are motivated by many of the same things that motivate traditional journalists such as the goal of telling compelling stories. Long before people started questioning the text story as the atomic unit of journalism, they were exploring new storytelling methods. They unpack stories and examine how video, audio and data can be used to tell those stories in more compelling ways. They realise that in 2009 multimedia story telling is more than simply telling stories with multiple media but rather considering what elements of a story are best told with audio, video, images and now data.

Back to the post in the Harvard Business Review.

Gregersen: You might summarize all of the skills we’ve noted in one word: “inquisitiveness.” I spent 20 years studying great global leaders, and that was the big common denominator. It’s the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children. … If you look at 4 year olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6 ½ years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they’re grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them. 80% of executives spend less than 20% of their time on discovering new ideas. Unless, of course, they work for a company like Apple or Google.

Again, if there was something that sets apart the most innovative journalists I know it is their curiosity, their inquisitiveness. One might say that journalists should be, by vocation, curious but innovative journalists have a special curiosity about their craft and its processes.

How do news organisations unlock the potential of the innovators in their midst? Mostly, all you have to do is give them space and a little support. Recognise that their needs might be slightly different than the rest of the staff. Help them measure the relative success of their experiments and share their success stories. If there was one mistake that I’ve seen news organisations make over and over again (because it’s based on the 20th Century recipe for creating media stars) it is that they try to make their big name reporters or writers into innovators. That is often a fruitless detour. Most people doing this innovative work weren’t trained to do it but instead pursued it on their own. Fortunately, in the age of social media, innovative journalists aren’t all that difficult to find. They stand out if you’re looking.

links for 2009-09-29

Andrew Turner: Beyond Google Maps

Andrew Turner: Beyond Google Maps presentation

Some people might say that I’m geo-obsessed. Since I started geo-tagging my Flickr photos, now about half of my entire Flickr stream is geo-tagged. I use Google’s Latitude, and I’ve written about the opportunities that I see for geo-location and news.

Last week, I met someone even more enthusiastic about geo-data and maps than I am, Andrew Turner. In this more than 200 slide presentation, Andrew presents a treasure trove of mapping concepts and resources. At slide 37, he talks about the near future for mapping and data. Andrew talks even faster than I do after I’ve drunk three cups of coffee, which is saying something so I’m thankful that several of his presentations are on SlideShare. This post is just to highlight a valuable resource.

One of the things I’m thinking about in light of his presentation and my own experience is how to make gathering data – geo-data and other data – easier for journalists. With more demands on our time, the workflow has to be extremely efficient or it won’t get done. I’m also thinking about the stories that benefit from location. One of things implicit in Andrew’s talk is how maps can tell stories, but not every story is best told with a map. The first mash-ups were map-based, and it’s led to an over-reliance on location for data-driven projects. Digital mapping is a powerful tool, but like all tools, digital maps are not appropriate for all tasks. However, the next time I need a map, Andrew’s presentation will definitely point me in the direction of the tools that I need to do the job.

links for 2009-09-26

links for 2009-09-25

  • Kevin: I agree with Zachary Seward at the Nieman Journalism Lab, DocumentCloud is a project to watch. I would say it's not only a project to watch, but if you're a news organisation, I'd say that it's a project to join. The project to house primary source material has signed up 20 more organisations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the New Yorker and The Atlantic, just to name a few. The other interesting part of this announcement is that they have also partnered with Thomson-Reuters OpenCalais to generate meaningful meta-data across all of these documents.
    Hats off to bloggers at Nieman Lab who have been doing some excellent original journalism covering developments like this.
  • Kevin: Dan Blank looks at how social media has changed the work of one of his colleagues, Wes Kennedy. He looks at how Kennedy uses social media, and he also explains "How to Leverage Social Media to Boost Your Career & Value". It's a useful post for why people do this. Those of us who use social media have found it valuable, but sometimes, it's important to explicitly make the case.

Tooting my own horn

It’s not often I toot my own horn, but I’m going to let myself do so on this occasion. I usually find self-congratulation quite difficult as I am haunted by the feeling that I Should Have Done More, but it is nice to occasionally have a little recognition from someone else. I’m thus quite chuffed to be listed at No. 50 in the Telegraph’s list of The 50 Most Influential Britons in Technology.

I’m on the list, apparently, because of Ada Lovelace Day – the international day of blogging about women in technology that I organised earlier this year. There are only five women in the Telegraph’s lower 25, listed yesterday. I can’t help thinking that’s slightly ironic, not to mention another indicator that we have long way to go before Ada Lovelace Day becomes unnecessary.

I can’t deny that it’s nice to be recognised. I remember feeling equally chuffed when, years ago, The Guardian added Strange Attractor to its list of essential blogs. We still sometimes even get traffic from that archival page! But I also think it would have been nice to have been recognised for some of the meatier work I’ve done, such as being a social media pioneer or founding the Open Rights Group.

Of course, lists are always subjective and there are plenty of “Eh?” moments with this one. Baroness Greenfield is someone I think is hideously misguided, not to mention often flat-out wrong and whilst she may be influential it is entirely the wrong sort of influence. The majority people included come from ter intarwebz, with only the aforementioned Greenfield (“scientist”), Tanya Byron and James Dyson working in other fields.

I hope that today’s second part includes more people from other areas of technology. Nanotech, biotech, electronic engineering, software, games – none of these areas are represented. I suppose it could be argued that influence these days relies on having a hefty presence on the web and that because this is a list of influencers the web is going to be over-represented.

There’s also the perennial argument of “Why do a list anyway? They’re just a waste of time.” That’s a view I often sympathise with, but I have to admit there are a lot of people on this list I’ve never heard of, just as I’m sure the vast majority of readers will not have heard of me. Wouldn’t it be nice if this list was titled Interesting People You Might Not Have Heard Of, because that would have been both more useful and more honest.

Still, I shall enjoy my little moment of pride in what I have achieved. … Right, done! Now to get on with Doing More!

links for 2009-09-24

  • Kevin: ProPublica is using money from the Knight Foundation to hire two companies to improve its abilities to raise fund online and through traditional means of institutional and foundation fund-raising.
  • Kevin: Dan Kennedy blogs about a Clay Shirky Presentation: With newspapers supplying about 85 percent of accountability journalism, Shirky said that what we need are a large number of small experiments to try to make up some of the gap. He divided those experiments into three parts:

    * Commercial: The traditional advertising model for newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.
    * Public: News organizations funded by money unconnected to commerce, the prime examples being public radio and non-profit news sites.
    * Social: Journalism produced mainly through donated time, including certain pro/am crowdsourcing initiatives such as Off the Bus, a citizen-journalism project that covered the 2008 presidential campaign for the Huffington Post."
    The entire post is well worth reading. There is a lot to digest in this discussion about "accountability journalism".

  • Kevin: This is definitely one of the posts where the comments are probably just as important as the post itself. Why? Emily Bell, the head of digital content at The Guardian, and Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger respond to comments. In response to the a commenter implying that layoffs at the Guardian are due to the amount of money spent on our internet operations, Alan says: "That's not actually right. Since 2002/3 our spending on (operational and capex) has exceeded revenue by just £20m. There's a crisis in the industry, and the Guardian is no more immune than anyone else, but it's a myth that we've plouged lunatic sums into digital."
  • Kevin: Marshall Kirkpatrick attempts to explain the real-time web in 100 words or less. He begins: "The Real-Time Web is a paradigm based on pushing information to users as soon as it's available – instead of requiring that they or their software check a source periodically for updates." He asks for input.
  • Kevin: Wendy Parker looks at a the possibilities of a one-man news operation taking over a local news site in Kansas City Kansas. "Nick Sloan, 24, purchased the Kansas City Kansan from Gatehouse Media and will be a one-man news operation, covering suburban Wyandotte County." She has a nuanced, pragmatic take on the project. "It’s important to outline the possibilities for hyperlocal news, and to offer words of caution. But it’s also unfair to fold any single effort either into insanely optimistic projections of success or into a dismissive argument that they are unlikely to reach their readership or earning potential.

    Each project deserves to be looked at on its own merits, in the context of the unique community and niche it serves."

links for 2009-09-23

  • Kevin: Steve Outing, who I count as a friend, has another blockbuster column full of analysis in Editor & Publisher looking in-depth about paid content. He draws on a lot of information and experience. He says: "But MOST digital news content, I am going to suggest to you, has no monetary value to readers or viewers. Sure, it has value for advertisers, who will pay to get in front of the audience assembled to consume the content." Instead of simply heaping scorn on paid content ideas, he also looks at ideas that could work including 'freemium' models and apps. Well worth the read.
  • Kevin: Great career advice for journalists from Steve Buttry. "Wherever you are as a journalist and wherever you want to go, you can elevate your career by working on personal development. Editors, colleagues and training programs will help you move to a higher level, but nothing will help as much as your own commitment to improvement." Couldn't agree more with that. The post reminded me of areas that I can improve. If there is anything I suffer from, it's lack of focus. It's not just about being distracted by shiny technology but by having possibly too many things going on at once.
  • Kevin: Paul Walsh writes: "I agree governments (not just the Irish one, but others too as they’re all the same wherever you go) should do more to help small businesses – especially during the troubled times.

    However, I think too many entrepreneurs feel ‘entitled’ to hand-outs in the form of grants and conference subsidies."

Paid content: Real scarcity versus artificial scarcity

Mathew Ingram at the Nieman Journalism Lab has an excellent post looking at the issues of paid content in general and micro-payments in particular. It’s a really useful post because he rounds up quite a number of posts and points of view on the subject. One thing really leapt out at me. Mathew writes:

Does that mean newspapers can’t make any money? Not at all. I think Mike Masnick has done a great job of pointing out how a media business can make money even if it gives content away for free — his company Techdirt does it, plenty of musicians and artists do it. And they do it by using the free content to promote the aspects of their business that have *real* scarcity rather than artificial scarcity.

After the Great Recession, news organisations are all seeking news sources of revenue and a more diversified revenue base so that we’re not as dependent on one highly recession-sensitive revenue stream, advertising.

As we look for new revenue streams, journalists need to get real about what adds value and need to be brutally honest about real scarcity. Currently, too much of the paid content discussion is obsessing over the societal value of journalism and not about rebuilding a revenue bundle that supports the socially valuable work that we do. Non-niche news has always been subsidised by other content and revenue streams. It is not dirty and it doesn’t devalue the social mission of journalism to think in terms of what other services and products we will need to develop to support that social mission. I’m more than happy for lifestyle news and food blogs to pay for investigations and bread-and-butter daily journalism. In many ways, it’s the simple recognition that our audiences are interested in many things, not just hard news.

Last week, speaking at the Norwegian Online News Association annual meeting, one of the points made by my fellow panelists was that news organisations have created a lot of innovative editorial projects but not many innovative commercial products. There are a lot of opportunities for news organisations to develop niche news and information products, but we best move quickly. Niche sites and services have already set up a dominant presence in many key content verticals. We also best move quickly on developing mobile apps, desktop apps and other tools to distribute our content and allow for easy recommendation. Steve Outing, for one, sees a lot of possibilities in mobile news and information services. What possibilities do you see to help pay for the social mission of journalism?

links for 2009-09-22

  • Kevin: "Blogs are often criticized for helping to kill print media. Last week, though, the prominent political blogger Andrew Sullivan used his forum on to tell readers to subscribe to the print edition of the magazine. … It worked. Within two days after last Monday’s post, Mr. Sullivan’s appeal pulled in 75 percent of the subscriptions that the Web site draws in a typical month, the magazine’s publisher, Jay Lauf, said."