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.