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 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.

Reuters Digital News Report: Live blogs, smart TVs and paid content

It is a measure of how well respected the Reuters Institute Digital News Report is in how much coverage it received. Most of the attention was focused on the rise in people paying for digital content, but there were a few things that leapt out at me including some fascinating figures of digital media use in Brazil and in-depth coverage of live blogs, news via smart TVs and digging into paid content trends.

Urban Brazil: Social media standout

Most of the last year, in my work with the Media Development Investment Fund, I’ve been focused on the development of digital media outside of North America and western Europe so I paid a lot of attention to statistics from urban Brazil.

With all of the talk about the ubiquity of Twitter in the UK, I would have expected more Brits to have turned to social media to access news than the report found. In the survey, 87 percent of Brits in the YouGov online poll said they turned to traditional news brands with only 31 percent saying that they had turned to social media and blogs.

What was more surprising was that out of the nine countries in the report, Brazil stood out for the highest percentage of respondents saying that they had accessed news via social media at 57 percent. Now, this was urban Brazilians. It would be interesting to see this broken out by rural versus urban populations in other countries just as a point of comparison. It would also be interesting to see research in countries like Malaysia or Indonesia, southeastern social media giants.

Traditional news brands versus aggregators versus social media from Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2013

In another part of the survey, urban Brazilians were off the charts when compared with other countries in terms of participation around news – sharing, commenting, voting and rating. The survey found that 93 percent of Brazilian respondents participated with news in one of the 12 listed techniques. Again, I’d be interested to see if urban users in other countries used the internet in different ways that the population as a whole. (One other interesting thing about sharing news is how popular email remains to pass along news items.)

Live blogging: More engaged audiences

Working with a range of news organisations in the past three years, one area of intense interest has been live blogs. For newspapers, it allows them to play in the breaking news game with broadcasters. Live blogs, especially around major events, can be resource intensive, taking the time of a number of journalists. The question has always been: News organisations seem to like live blogs. Do audiences?

Neil Thurman with City University London answered that question emphatically. He wrote:

According to the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, who oversees the UK’s second most popular newspaper website, live blogs outperform all other modes of online journalism.1 Such anecdotal evidence is supported by hard data showing that live blogs receive more visitors for longer periods of time than conventional articles or picture galleries on the same subject..

Live blogs are especially popular with heavy internet users, he said, and the survey found that 62 percent of UK respondents found them a “convenient way of following news while I am at work”. The other interesting finding is that the short, quick updates common to live blogs work well on mobile devices, a platform that 79 percent of news consumers in the UK used for getting their news fix during the day.

Thurman’s findings were largely positive, although he stopped short of saying that it was helping readers to become more interested in hard news and public affairs. He would say:

what we can say is that, because the format has developed uniquely for the web, and matches so well with readers’ consumption patterns, it seems to appeal as much through its form as its content.

Smart TVs as a platform for interactive news?

For the past several years, I’ve been watching the development of smart TVs and other digital devices that bridge traditional television and the internet. I’m thinking far beyond IPTV and catch-up services and much more about internet services over TV screens. Traditional TV still commands a large percentage of attention in terms of media, and as Dan Brilot of YouGov points out, 97 percent of the UK population now has access to digital television. Brilot considers the possibilities of bringing internet content onto this popular and ubiquitous platform.

I have to admit, my enthusiasm for these services far outstrips their general popularity. In the US, about 9 percent have ever used a smart TV and about 4 percent have ever used a smart TV to access news. Smart TVs are much more popular in European countries such as Spain, Italy, France and Demark, with smart TV usage hovering around 15 percent. This is still pretty low in terms of use.

Brilot quotes Gartner statistics saying that by 2016 85 percent of all flat panel TVs sold will be smart TVs. My question is whether people will actually use these services. Last year, I was staying with a friend who had started his own internet company, he was totally unaware that he could connect his TV to his home network.

In that vein, I don’t really find statistics looking at popular apps as all that relevant. So what if Facebook is really popular on smart TVs in the UK if only 10 percent of those polled ever had used a smart TV?

More interesting was the research looking at what types of apps would be popular based on polls in the France and the UK. On screen news alerts, I would assume similar to tablet or smartphone notifications were the most popular internet news format, followed by news video clips. News text and tickers were quite popular with French respondents with about 50 percent saying that they were interested in those kinds of apps. Weather maps were also popular in both France and the UK.

Interest in news applications for smart TVs from Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2013

Brilot was surprised about the popularity of news alerts considering they would interrupt TV viewing.

One of the major issues with apps on smart TVs is fragmentation in the market. News providers don’t really have the resources to build apps for all of the platforms, and although Android set-top boxes are being sold, there is no one provider that dominates.

Paid content: Growth from a low base

Paid content has become an important source of revenue for some news organisations such as the New York Times in the past few years, and the report looked at the growth of paid content over the last year. Those paying rose in some countries in the survey including the UK, France and the US, but it also fell in Germany and Denmark. In the UK, those paying rose by 5 percent to 9 percent of those polled. Sure, you can say that was almost double the rate of last year, but it is still a relatively small part of the audience.

Robert Picard did find that across all of the countries in the survey, of those who don’t pay, about 15 percent said that they would be willing to pay amongst all news consumers and almost 20 percent amongst “news lovers”.

However, as Nic Newman found, 50 percent of those surveyed said that they had paid for a newspaper in the last week but only 5 percent said that they had paid for digital content. Digital paid content is still a long way from being a mass behaviour.

One last thing I found interesting is that digital subscriptions were more common in countries where print subscriptions were the norm versus single copy sales, and in country where single copy sales were the norm, then users were more willing to buy digital day passes.

I do hope that next year that the Reuters Institute are able to expand their research to more emerging markets. It would be fascinating to compare across a wider range of markets, but even with these nine countries, there is a wealth of information. It’s great to back up or knock on their head a lot of assumptions about digital media audiences.

Journalism and community: Creating your own little corner of the internet

Alan Mutter categorised the shift from traditional advertising to digital advertising as ‘each versus reach’, and I think that speaks to changes in content as well as advertising in the digital era. Some of the problems with current digital strategies is that they rely on mass media thinking, and no where do I think this more evident than in social media or community strategies. Most still are mass media strategies, with the goal of creating undifferentiated large audiences instead of aggregating smaller, more focused audiences. 

Create a focused conversation worth taking part in, and you’ll develop a loyal, focused audience too. It will make not only make a better community, but a focused audience is easier to sell to advertisers too. 

If you want to see a master in the art of host of an online conversation and creating a focused audience, it’s worth checking out Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at the Atlantic. He has a great interview with NPR’s On the Media, How to create an engaging comments section. The first thing to notice is that it takes a lot of work, which I think is why most media just opt for punching the biggest, baddest trolls in the pit. It’s easy, and it is like a shot of meth for page views. 

Coates on the other hand has decided that rather than a troll pit, he wants to play host to a dinner party, and as he says:

I try to keep the conversation interesting, in terms of what is the bane of all comments sections, and that is, you know, rude commentary, people going over the line, trolling, that sort of thing. I generally follow the same rules, so I always tell people, if you were in my house and you insulted one of my guests, I would ask you to leave. I don’t understand why it would be any different in a comments section.

Amen, and I think most journalists would agree with that. He moderates his comments pretty aggressively, possibly a bit more aggressively than I would. However, I long ago stopped buying the argument that moderating comments is tantamount to censorship. Freedom of expression should not be used as an excuse for freedom from civility.

However, Coates isn’t arbitrary in deleting comments. His rules? 

You can’t call people names. I mean, you can’t say, listen, you idiot. You can’t change the topic because you don’t like the discussion. It’s like, y- you’re more curating comments. So what you’re trying to do is present a conversation that’s interesting, not for everyone but for a certain small group of people.

There is a somewhat absolutist argument about freedom of expression on the internet that one should be free to say whatever one wants and act in any way one wants. However, we have norms of behaviour and conversation in real life, and I personally have always applied to them my online behaviour. I have one standard of behaviour online, in print and in real life. Do I want to impose those standards on everyone? No, but as the host of a conversation, I do retain the right to say those are the ground rules for the conversation that I’m trying to have. 

I also like how Coates interprets freedom on the web. He says:

But the beauty of the Web is that whatever my comments section is, it’s not the Internet. So if that’s not what you want, you can go somewhere else. 

This is key, and a key shift in thinking in terms of digital. You don’t have to be all things to all people. Actually, being something very important to a smaller, defined group of people offers more chance of success. The Atlantic is succeeding because it is building a team of people like Coates who have distinctive voices and are able to create their own definition of community online.

James Fallows, one of the smartest writers in Washington, is another example of a personal take on engagement at The Atlantic. He doesn’t have comments on his pieces, and he has explained why, twice in fact. In his biography on The Atlantic site, it says, “If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a “Comments” field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.” That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t engage with people. He does accept comments but via email., and he’s actually held a few AMA discussions on Reddit. 

I think this is one of the secrets of The Atlantic’s success, both editorially and commercially. It has hired smart engaging writers who want to engage. The fact that they engage in their own ways show they value engagement but have found a way that works for them. Engagement is the goal, but as Coates and Fallows show, there are a number of ways to get there.