Strategy is not just for Christmas

I’ve spent a lot of my time over the last decade helping businesses to put together strategies for the use of social media, both internally for collaboration and externally for community building and marketing. I know that for some companies, my strategy was a document that they continued to refer to for literally years after we put it together. (I caught up with one ex-client three years after I delivered his strategy, and he said he and his team will still referring to it and still found it useful!)

But many strategy documents come with built-in obsolescence. If you’re not very careful, social media strategies can age fast, because of the rapidity of change within social media. But it’s not just the tools that change, it’s the demographics. Facebook is ageing, Twitter getting younger, and the 55+ demographic is growing faster online than any other. Your target audience could be shift platforms whilst you’re busy implementing a strategy that’s now out of date, and how would you know?

That being the case, I was very interested to stumble on Thomas Martin’s blog post about “agile strategy development”, in which he calls for the Agile methodology to be applied to company strategies.

Similar to software development, the complexity of strategy development is increasing. Globalisation, faster innovation cycles, stronger competition are only some of the factors that make it harder and harder to devise stable, long-lived and eventually successful strategies. Agile strategic planning addresses this by keeping the strategy fluid.


Agile strategy development shares the following characteristics with agile software development:

•  Continuous monitoring of the external environment during the Analyze activity.
•  Regular review and – as required – updating of strategic objectives and plans during the Define and Plan activities.
•  Frequent feedback from Execution on the effectiveness of the implementation.

Although Martin suggests that such an approach requires “less external input” from consultants, I’d argue that what it requires is actually a longer-term relationship with a good consultant who has a familiarity with your business but also enough distance to help you see the bigger picture.

I succeed as a consultant because I can see a company’s problems from a very different vantage point to them, not only because of my own deep experience with social media, but also because I’ve worked with so many companies that I can see common errors in thinking and execution that would otherwise be missed.

To get the best result from social media you need an informed strategy, a regular review process, and dependable advice that both ensures that you are on track whilst also bringing in a fresh perspective and valuable expertise. An agile approach to strategy makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s something companies should seriously consider. If you’re going to spend time and money on strategic thinking, it’s essential that you keep that strategy fresh, relevant and up-to-date.

User-generated content: Free isn’t its competitive advantage

For news organisations to survive and thrive, they have to understand their competitive advantage and the relative competitive advantage of different digital strategies. I was reminded how important this is when I read a great article by Anika Gupta, the product manager for Citizen Journalist Online, a new user-generated content portal for Indian news channel CNN-IBN. Writing on MediaNama, Gupta points out that free content is not the competitive advantage for user-generated content:

Either you pay content producers or you pay content editors, but somebody has to get paid. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Even if you don’t have a portal, it still takes time, someone’s time, whether that’s a social-media savvy reporter or editor or a dedicated team and portal. She writes about the challenges of “polishing” UGC, making sure the content is spelled correctly while also retaining the voice of the user. She works for a citizen journalism or UGC portal, and there are also issues of filtering and verification. If your UGC portal is even mildly successful, you also run into scaling issues. You receive more content than you can use much less evaluate. The ability to filter relevant content can become huge even before you have to assess whether it’s accurate. This is all to say that user-generated content, especially done right, might be less expensive than original content but it is far from free.

If free content isn’t the competitive advantage for user-generated content, what are its true competitive advantages:-

Become the go-to news organisation for UGC

Of course, as Gupta points out, tapping into UGC allows news organisations to get photos and videos from a much wider range of sources. It is impossible to anticipate breaking news events, but now, many of the first bits of footage we see come from mobile phones. However, to gain an advantage over your competitors, you need to have already established your news organisation as the outlet where people will send their photos, videos and first person accounts.

Long before the BBC created its UGC hub, the BBC News website (where I worked from 1998 until 2005), had long been engaging its audience to help it report the news. The BBC had a couple of journalists who monitored and verified photos and emails that came mostly via an email address put on the bottom of stories. However, this allowed the BBC to develop a relationship with its audience so that when big news stories broke, members of the public would send their photos, videos and first person accounts to the BBC. That became a huge competitive advantage for the BBC even in early 2000s, long before many outlets had even realised the opportunity.

Nothing beats local content”

This is a huge competitive advantage for local news operations, and one which a lot of local news groups have yet to fully embrace. As Gupta says:

A blog post by your neighbor will always feel more authentic than a TV news story by an unknown anchor who has visited your town once.  People are drawn to what they know.

Build up a group of core contributors over time

Al Jazeera is relaunching its UGC portal, Sharek, and one of their goals with the new site is to allow them to more easily identify consistent, credible contributors over time. Developing an effective UGC strategy means building up a relationship and sourcing information about those contributors. This will make it easier to evaluate material in a breaking news situation because you will develop confidence with frequent contributors.

Make sure there are ways to reward those contributors. A couple of years ago, the local version of freesheet Metro in Finland actually listed the price they paid for high quality user photos on the photo itself. However, the reward doesn’t need to be monetary. The BBC’s interactive radio programme World Have Your Say (I was on the launch team) developed ways that active members of their community could take on informal roles in helping the show, whether that was with community management or suggesting show topics.

Increased audience loyalty

Most newspapers in developed digital markets boast a larger digital audience than a print audience. However, many of these visitors read a single story per month and can’t really be considered a core audience. Again, this type of engagement is not free. It takes a lot of time from smart social media staff who blend traditional journalism skills such as evaluating sources and verification with community management skills.

The deeper your engagement and UGC strategy, the more savvy news organisations will have to become with their business strategy to support it. This goes back to Gupta’s original point: UGC isn’t free. UGC and engagement strategies have often been poorly thought as editorial products, with the primary emphasis being on tapping low or no-cost content. The Guardian recently launched its new citizen journalism project, GuardianWitness, with a partnership deal with mobile phone operator, EE.

For local news sites, I still believe, even in the age of Facebook, that there are opportunities to develop deeper relationships with their communities through user-generated content. One of the big issues with these local strategies is that they need to represent a much broader range of the lived experience of local communities and not just focus on hard and breaking news.  The national newspapers (and national journalists) love to poke fun at what they see as boring parochial news stories, but local food, fêtes and sports are part of that lived experience. News sites that become truly woven into the fabric of the fabric of their communities will have a better chance of attracting the loyal audiences that advertisers want. Building up a loyal audience of community contributors will also help news organisations gather the kind of user data that is critical to modern, targeted advertising.

That again, will take investment. I think that local and regional newspaper groups in the US and UK are facing what could be their last opportunity to adapt their editorial and, just as crucially, their business model to the market they find themselves in. It’s not clear that many of the hollowed out groups have the money, the stomach and the smarts to make targeted strategic investments. They might think that UGC is the way to pad out the skeletal products left by years of savage cuts. They should think again.

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.


Sky News and Twitter: Do news organisations trust their journalists?

With all the hullabaloo about Sky News’ new draconian Twitter policy, I am actually more interested in the why rather than the policy as it was reported by The Guardian.

  • No retweets of rival journalists or “people on Twitter”.
  • Stick to your own beat.
  • Don’t tweet about personal or non-professional subjects on their work accounts.

First off, “people on Twitter”? People on Twitter? This reminds me of the old debate we had about quoting bloggers years ago. Yes, a lot of blogs were personal musings, but experts blog about topics including the US Supreme Court, arms control and volcanoes, important if a volcano in Iceland shuts down your airspace. People on Twitter include US President Barack Obama (although usually a member of staff. Tweets from the president end with BO.), the Secretary General of Nato Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Noriyuki Shikata, a Japanese cabinet spokesman tweeting in English, providing at least the official view of what was happening at the stricken nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

A good journalist, such as Sky News’ digital news editor, Neal Mann, builds up a network of verified sources using Twitter just as any journalist does with more traditional sources. I follow more than 700 people on Twitter, and I can tell you sourcing information about almost all of them. Any journalist worth their salt knows the sources on their beat, and for savvy journalists like Neal, Twitter is just an extension of those sources.

Why would a news organisation do this in 2012? I can understand that they want to make sure that tweets by their journalists aren’t completely outside of their editorial process, but they shouldn’t be. What even precipitated this? This question is especially important when their digital news editor, Neal Mann, is the kind of exemplar of how a journalist should use Twitter.

When the Washington Post had a bit of a Twitter clampdown in 2009, it came after a bit a controversy with personal comments from then digital and feature managing editor Raju Narisetti. The Associated Press revised its Twitter policy last year specifically to address the issue of retweeting to include:

Retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like you’re expressing a personal opinion on the issues of the day. A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying.

And much as with Sky News’ policy, the AP says in its full policy (available in PDF form by the link above):

Don’t break news that we haven’t published, no matter the format.

Last week, I chaired a social media and journalism panel at’s News Rewired conference that included Neal;  Katherine Haddon, head of online with English, AFP; Tom McArthur, UK editor of; and Laura Kuenssberg, business editor with ITV News. Laura summed up Twitter best practice succinctly:

If you wouldn’t say it on air, don’t tweet it.

Certainly there are some specific considerations for social networks, but frankly, this sums it up. If you can’t trust someone on social media, how can you trust them on air, on your site? There should be one standard of journalism regardless of the platform. Rather than clamping down on Twitter, why don’t news organisations incorporate tweets from their journalists more effectively? The Guardian does this quite effectively on its site. Why don’t broadcast news organisations selectively incorporate tweets from their correspondents in the on-screen crawl or ticker?

Fundamentally, this is down to trust. At The Guardian, when I was blogs editor, we allowed some journalists to publish their own blog posts directly to the site. With live blogging, you have to have trust in the blogger. It was a privilege earned by writers who produced clean copy quickly.

Instead of such self-defeating policies, why not train the staff and when they have proven themselves, then their Twitter accounts are incorporated directly in the site. You can also have it so that tweets only appear on the site when a special hashtag is used. There are so many practical, smart ways to deal with this rather than the retrograde repression that Sky News has chosen. When things like this happen, it says volumes about who is in charge and how little they trust their own staff.

Other posts covering this story:



Unique content part of metered paywall success

Last year, a university journalism classmate of mine and I were talking the various plights of journalism, and he told me some advice that a business-savvy relative had given him. Roughly, it was this:

To be successful, you have to know how to create value but also how to capture value.

Basically, this means, that yes, you have to create value. Many journalists are focused on this part of the equation, the valuable service that we provide and the social value that we create. However, to be a sustainable business, we also have to know how to capture value. From that service or social value that journalists create, how do we get a return on it so that we can continue to provide the service? This is really the pressing business issue for digital content businesses, including journalism. How do we capture the value of the service that we provide? Subscriptions? Advertising? Events? Consulting? Marketing services? Most likely all of the above and more.

It’s worth interrogating the first part of that and being pretty ruthless and honest with ourselves as journalists about what value we are creating. There is a lot of redundant content out there right now, and as I said over and over in 2011, content is abundant; attention is scarce. Metered paywalls such as those at the Financial Times and the New York Times seem to be working. Is it because of the metre or the content (or a bit of both)? Adam Tinworth has a view on that:

I was involved in a significant amount of work in my final year at RBI looking at exactly what kinds of content people will pay for, through what mechanism, and how to create more of it. Uniqueness was certainly one key factor – as was the amount of business value that investment returns to the reader, which is exactly why the FT does so well.

Adam was responding to Frédéric Filloux’s most recent Monday Note looking at how both the Financial Times and the New York Times are increasing the cost of their printed product, which makes their paid digital product seem less expensive by comparison for loyal readers. Filloux also keyed in on unique content:

Of these three factors, the uniqueness of content remains the most potent one. With the inflation of aggregators and of social reading habits, the natural replication of information has turned into an overwhelming flood. Then, the production of specific content — and its protection — becomes a key element in building value.

To me unique content and a strong, active social media strategy builds audience and engagement. Note that I said an active social media strategy. The only thing that has continued to propel my career forward has been a personal active social media strategy, engaging my peers and also my audiences. This isn’t just about promoting myself or my content via social media but also connecting with people and connecting those people with information that I think they will find useful, whether I reported and wrote it or not.

Finding the signal in the flow

Suw and I had been noticing a bit of an economic uptick on our local high street here in London last autumn and into the winter. Shop fronts that had been empty were getting new tenants, and just in our corner of the Big Smoke, we could see green shoots of recovery.

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This morning Jonathan Lloyd who has a hyper-local content and commerce platform, Media Street Apps (story about the platform here on, tweeted this observation that he was seeing gutted shop units. It’s not the first rather grim economic observation that I’ve seen on Twitter as the UK economy seems to be softening again.

As a journalist, I immediately started to think of how we might find the signal in this flow of updates. Jonathan is very close to local retailers, and he might be flagging up an indicator of the direction of the economy. Google is already mining its own online shopping data to map local inflation trends in the US to create its own price index, and while I was writing this, Techmeme editor Mahendra Palsule says that financial market analysts are already doing this and flagged up the Stocktwits service.

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I wonder what other signals we could find in the flow of social media and how this might be used for journalism.

Journalism: Opening up the ‘insider’s game’

I met Jonathan Stray this past summer when I was speaking at Oxford, and I’ve really enjoyed keeping up with him on Twitter and on his blog. He’s smart, and if you’re thinking about journalism in new ways and thinking of how we can, as Josh Benton puts it, change the grammar of journalism, then you definitely want to add his blog to your RSS feeds.

I noticed Jonathan was having an interesting exchange with Amanda Bee, the programme director of document hosting project DocumentCloud, about the need for a service to help her get up to speed on an unfamiliar news story. I captured their conversation using a a social media storytelling service called Storify.*

In writing about information overload, one of the solutions that Matt has advocated and explored is the wiki-fication of news. Reading Matt and also based on my own experience as a journalist, I think there is another solution that involves journalists bringing their audiences along with them as they explore topics in-depth. In 2004, when I started blogging as a journalist, I turned Fox News’ tagline “We report, you decide” on its head. I said: You decide. I report. In describing this to Glyn Mottershead, who teaches journalism at Cardiff University, he called it concierge journalism. Put another way by Matt, having a good journalist around is like having a secret decoder ring to explain the news.

Editorially and socially we need deep engagement strategies like this. It’s not just about promoting our content to the audiences using Facebook an Twitter. It’s actually about engaging with them so that they will spend some of their precious time and attention following news rather than the myriad of other entertainment and information choices they have.

There are some important issues and challenges with this approach. One is an issue of scaling. When I started blogging in 2004, I had support at the BBC News website to manage the interaction and help with the production. You need that level of support to scale to that level of audience and also that level of engagement. I also think there has to be a better way to capture all of the insights and intelligence that this approach captures. A traditional style blog probably is a little too simplistic, although smart use of tags, meta-data and categories can overcome some of it.

Matt put the challenge to status quo this way:

I started to realize that “getting” the news didn’t require a decoder ring or years of work. All it took was access to the key pieces of information that newsrooms possessed in abundance. Yet news organizations never really shared that information in an accessible or engaging form. Instead, they cut it up into snippets that they buried within oodles of inscrutable news reports. Once in a while, they’d publish an explainer story, aiming to lay out the bigger picture of a topic. But such stories always got sidelined, quickly hidden in the archives of our news sites and forgotten.

As Jonathan says, this is serious problem worthy of serious discussion. It’s one that I think a lot of about, and there aren’t any easy answers. It’s complex and it really does require a lot of rethinking of not only how we present journalism but also how we practice journalism. As I’ve found, it’s much easier to change technologies and change the design of websites than it is to convince journalists that they need to change how they do journalism. Technology is easy to change. Culture is devilishly difficult to change because so many people, very powerful within organisations, have an investment in the status quo.

The difference now as opposed to any other time in my career is that there are new news organisations that don’t have a status quo. They have no legacy operation tied to another platform. They are digital.

* A few words about Storify: This is the first time I’ve used it. It’s the embedded element highlighting the conversation on Twitter. It’s a system that makes it easy to build a story out of content from the social web, whether that is tweets, Facebook updates, Flickr pictures or YouTube videos. The drag-and-drop interface is nice, and the built-in search makes it easy to find the content and conversations you want.

In terms of adding text in between the updates I wanted, I found a few tools missing that I’ve grown used to in my normal blogging. One was paste and match (or strip) formatting so that when I copy a quote from another site I’m not cluttering up the page with lots of different fonts and type styles. I’d also like blockquote. It might be available by simply adding the HTML, but with a tool like Storify, this would definitely be a good shortcut.

In terms of Storify, I’ve watched with interest as social media journalists have embraced it quickly. My quibble with it hasn’t been in the tool itself but with how it’s been used. I’ve seen some instances where it seems little more than a collection of tweets and actually seems to be doing exactly what Amanda and Jonathan are worried about, playing an insiders game. They assume knowledge of who the people tweeting are. Collection without context is poor journalism.

Participatory media: Encouraging people to ‘level up’

Derek Powazek has an interesting analysis of the quirky quiz show on US public radio (NPR) called Wait, Wait Don’t Tell me and looks at the lessons the show provides in developing participatory media projects. What I like about this post is that he’s looking at a relatively traditional media format, the radio quiz show, through a different lens, from the point of view not of radio but of social media and gaming. I like from the start how he re-defines the term “crowdsourcing”.

For my purposes, it means collaborating with the people who used to be the silent audience to make something better than you could make alone.

I’m going to focus on two of his points and let you read the rest of the post to get the full monty. I couldn’t agree more with his second point about structuring input. You have to give crowds a goal, something to aim for.

Too many crowdsourced projects create a blank canvas and have a rather utopian view that the crowd will create a masterpiece. It just doesn’t work like that. You’ll most likely get obscene graffiti rather than a Van Gogh because not a lot of people engage with something when it isn’t clear what they are engaging with. A vacuum encourages vandals. They assume that no one is looking after your particular corner of the internet and will usually start trying to sell Viagra if you’re lucky. I still hear Field of Dreams strategies at conferences, a “build it and they will come” ethos that was discredited by anyone with credibility a decade ago. (If someone espouses such a strategy and dresses up with a lot of buzzwords stressed to impress, run away. They really are just snake oil salesman.)

I think Derek makes another good point when he says “Encourage the audience to level up”. Again, this is taking a concept from gaming and applying it to participatory media. Most people still passively consume media (although many more people are sharing and recommending media). It’s often referred to as the user-generated content pyramid or the 1-9-90 rule (although this might be changing). A participatory media project or service should give “new users a clear path, limited tools, and an awareness of that those on the next level can do”, Derek says.

Too often, media create crowdsourced projects that are akin to bad dates, they are all about us. It’s focused on what we, the media, not what we, the people, get out of it. As I’ve been saying for several years now, if user-generated content plays actually provide value to users, not just media outlets, then more people will participate. Creating levels for users and clear benefits for them as they contribute more is one solid strategy for achieving greater participation and better results.

News organisations miss opportunity to build community with online photo use

As Charlie Beckett, the director of the politics and journalism think tank POLIS at LSE, points out, the Daily Mail is getting a lot of grief for using pictures, mainly from photo-sharing site Flickr, without the permission of the users or in violation of the licencing on those pictures. Charlie’s post is worth reading in full, but here are some of the questions he poses:

At what point does material in the public domain become copyright? the people who published these images didn’t do so for financial gain. There is a genuine, if very slight, news story here which feels worthy of reporting. If I link to those photos am I also infringing people’s copyright? Might it be possible that they will actually enjoy seeing their work on the Mail’s website where it will be connected to millions of other people?

I don’t want to dwell on the copyright issue too much, apart from saying that if the newspaper industry is fuzzy on copyright on the internet, it undermines their arguments with respect aggregators, ‘parasites’ and ‘thieves‘ online. I’d rather make the case that there is a benefit to news organisations in not only respecting the copyright of others but also in being good participants in online communities like Flickr. Here’s part of the comment that I left on Charlie’s post:

Leaving (the copyright) issue aside, this is another example of the news industry missing an opportunity to build community around what they do. When I use Creative Commons photos from sites like Flickr, firstly, I honour the terms of the licence. Secondly, I drop the Flickr user a note letting them know that I’ve used a photo on our site. It’s not only a way to use nice photos, but it’s also a way to build goodwill to what we’re doing and do a little soft touch promotion of our coverage. It takes a minutes out of my day to create that email, but instead of a backlash, I often get a thank you. They let their friends know that the Guardian has used their picture. It’s brilliant for everyone. Their are benefits to being good neighbours online, rather than viewing the internet as a vast repository of free content. As a journalist, I wouldn’t use a photo on Facebook without permission. Besides, the photos on Flickr are very high quality, and with the common use of Creative Commons, I know exactly what the terms of use are. As a user of Flickr who licences most of my photos under Creative Commons licence, I also feel that whatever photos I use, I’m also giving back to the community. It’s a much more honest relationship.

Last year during the elections, I found an amazing picture of Democratic candidate John Edwards on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution licence that allows commercial use and used it on a blog post on the Guardian when he dropped out of the race. I let the photographer, Alex de Carvalho, know that I used his photo, and he responded:

Thank you, Kevin, for using this picture; I’m honored it’s in The Guardian.


  • Great picture.
  • Credit where credit is due.
  • Mutual respect for copyright. Creative Commons clearly states the rights wishes of the photographer.
  • Light touch outreach to promote our work at the Guardian.
  • Building community both on our site and on the broader internet.

That’s what we mean at the Guardian about being of the internet not just on it, and this is why I believe that social media is about creating great journalism and building an audience to support it.

The long view in building news businesses

Google News Timeline

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.