Out of disruption, comes media innovation

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Quit your job in a traditional newsroom, and go it alone to innovate in journalism … or work within existing newsrooms, which have the most money to try new things.

These were the two messages that emerged from the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s panel on media innovation on Thursday night, in a talk entitled “Journalism, Disrupted: How to create media innovation.”

The panel was comprised of three disruptors: Michael De Monte, who left a top-level job at CTV and CHUM to found Scribblelive, a live blogging tool that has completely disrupted the workflow of a newsroom; Zach Seward, former social media editor and reporter at The Wall Street Journal, now the senior editor of Quartz, a global business news venture by Atlantic Media Company; and David Skok, Director of Digital News at Globalnews.ca (yes a traditional newsroom but wait for it…) and Nieman Fellow who co-authored with Clayton Christiensen Breaking News: Mastering the Art of Disruptive Innovation in Journalism.

Marissa Nelson, acting director of digital media for CBC News moderated the panel.

Seward argued that innovation in journalism comes more easily when operations are in startup mode. Quartz was an example of this – he intentionally set operations up in New York while the Atlantic is based in Washington D.C., removing any geographical connection to the traditional media.

He also set up his newsroom so that conversations would occur organically: developers next to writers and designers.

“Innovation is easier when starting with a blank slate,” Seward said.

De Monte agreed, and said that big media companies suffer from size, which cripples nimbleness.

“When you’re a huge media corp, you’re surrounded by more than a dozen folks publishing content,” De Monte said. “To get anything done at CTV, you had to go through me, and innovation suffered.”

Nelson asked if he was the bottleneck to innovation at CTV – De Monte laughed and said the system was set up so that too many decisions had to funnel through the top.

Culture change

More than once, Nelson made the point that it’s great/easy to innovate in start up mode, but how can someone in a traditional newsroom bring change?

Skok said simply: It’s culture.

“When we talk about news and what has to be done, we talk about paywalls and sponsored content,” Skok said.

“But the giant elephant in the room that needs to be addressed is culture… it’s hard to change culture, that’s a process that needs to happen. Clay’s [Christensen] research argues there is no way you can throw something new into the existing culture and it will work.”

Skok said one example of culture change in a traditional newsroom, Skok pointed to the New York Times, which “has put a group of developers and journalists together and told them to go play.”

He added that there are two other options for change in traditional newsrooms: creating a spin-off organization (like Quartz) or acquiring an existing organization.

Skok added that “front-line” journalists need to get the people in the building, the folks who work in IT, the developers and build relationships to get new tasks done.

‘Quit your job’

De Monte took a more direct approach when asked what advice he’d give a twentysomething journalist working in a traditional newsroom who wanted to bring about change:

“Quit your job – [traditional newsrooms] are not going to move fast enough. If you really have innovation on the brain, find a job somewhere else that you can take passion,” he said.

The room fell silent.

“Great journalism, great storytelling will always be necessay. Do I think news infrastructure surive? No. But I think great storytelling will,” he said.

De Monte said that media organizations need to look at content marketing as an avenue for innovation, pointing to The Felix Baumgartner Red Bull jump.

“Imagine if they just did a press release about Red Bull?” De Monte asked. Every media outlet around the globe covered that event as news, and gave Red Bull promotion.

“One of worst things that happened is that media looked at paper and the web and moved the paper onto the web. That’s not what people will do on the web,” De Monte said.

Seward said that journalists need to remember that fewer and fewer people are making the home pages of traditional news outlets their home pages and sole source for news.

“You need to produce the kind of material that people would be willing to share.. I tell every writer at Quartz to assume that when they hit publish the audience starts at zero,” Seward said.

Funding innovation

Wilf Dinnick, CEO and founder of OpenFile, had the first question, and asked how to fund innovation.

Skok argued that traditional news organizations (at least in Canada, he clarified) “still provide the best vehicle/platform to create quality journalism in a disruptive way.”

“When you step back and look at a newsroom, you have to look at three elements of production (newsgathering, distribution, sales and marketing). News organizations have kept to an integrated business model. I would say break it up and see where you can capitalize on it,” he said.

One example of finding different sources of information is the Walrus, which made $538,000 in event marketing last year, Skok said.

“Newsrooms have to ask ‘where will the revenue come from? There are so many different ways.”

While traditional newsrooms are in for a tougher hall than nimble startups, the good news is that many are not a slave to money “just yet”, he added, pointing to Global’s broadcast arm which sees 1.5-million viewers a night. This gives newsrooms the freedom to create a little bit more.

Still, news organizations can’t lose sight of making money.

“You can be patient for growth, but you have to be impatient for profits,” Skok said..

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