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In the digital age, innovation is the only thing that keeps journalism from becoming irrelevant and dying out. So why do media companies still struggle to embrace change?

“Are we [the media] out of touch?” was the title of the first keynote speech at News Xchange an event that brought together hundreds of journalists in Copenhagen on 30 November 2016. One of those in attendance was Cillia Benk, Director General of Swedish Radio. In fact, she was barely able to walk across the venue’s lobby without being recognized.

Benk tries to get in touch with users via innovation. At Swedish Radio, several teams of up to three internal staffers are separated from the daily journalistic workflow. In addition, external expertise is hired if required and end users are included into the process as well. “The teams are funded from start, but the results aren’t,” Benk explains. “If we decide to implement something coming from a team, we need to find money to do so by moving internal resources.”

Most important, according to Benk, is that “failure is a way of going forward. If you tried 10 ideas and one will actually become reality, that is a success.” Her mindset is built around the fact that risks for losing investments remain low, especially for developing markets, because no company has an advantage in these sectors. Not so long ago, no one knew how to tell stories with Snapchat or how chatbots could help to increase page impressions. These still emerging markets will eventually take over journalism. In particular chatbots, which have the potential to become personal assistants to everybody in the near future.

On top of this, “old media companies”, as Benk puts it, should look at “start up like” companies and how they go about innovating, and learn from this. But she doesn’t want to create a start up herself: “I strongly resist those who are saying that you have to have small companies outside of these big old companies because if you put all your innovations in an external start up, you lose the internal creativity which hampers the company brand.” Benk believes in the mix of internal and external competence. However, one public broadcaster did exactly the opposite: founded a start up.

Vlaamse Radio en Televisieomroeporganisatie (VRT) is the Flemish Radio and Television Broadcasting Organization, based in Brussels. In 2013 the broadcaster founded the “VRT Start up”, with the main goal of developing formats for 15 to 25 year olds. After researching the target group’s news consumption and mobile phone habits, “Ninja News” was created:

Crimea from VRT Start up on Vimeo.

The 15 second news videos are distributed via Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter and Snapchat. They focus on current affairs and are meant to be “snackable” so younger audiences can engage with them more easily. In addition, the format is used by the broadcaster’s young radio station MNM on social media. Other projects involve the “NUUUS” app, which specializes in social media news and easy to understand hard news.

Ezra Eeman, former Head of VRT Startup and now Head of Digital at the EBU, praises his unit for being cut loose from old structures, which makes it more effective. “By bypassing the existing structures and still focusing on the core mission, we come up with new solutions,” he explains. One part of the unit’s core mission is to inform people, wherever they are.

In the beginning, it was especially important for VRT Startup to be independent and think freely. But Eeman stresses the importance of not losing touch: “It becomes hard to hand innovation back to the company. Then you are just the cool boys in the back of garden doing fancy stuff and nobody really cares.”

For this reason, they decided to bring the departments that they are working with into the process. During “NewsHub”, a project in which news formats were developed for social media,
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one third of the team consisted of well respected journalists from the newsroom. “This is how they viewed it as their own project,” Eeman said. In addition, we put up a big whiteboard in the newsroom where everybody could ask questions. But of course, after the struggle of starting a project within a department, there is the struggle of keeping it alive.

Chris Gibson works for BBC Minute. This is a radio format that delivers one minute of news to people in Africa. It’s designed for people under 25, because the average age in Africa is 18 to 20. It is also distributed via Amazon Echo to a worldwide audience, but mainly used in Britain. According to Gibson the format has run up to 11 million listeners since it started two years ago. To strengthen their presence in the African market, they also plan to deliver a video news format, which focuses on consumer habits in Africa.

For Gibson, one key component to success is a constant survey of the format’s performance: “In a few weeks I am going to South Africa and Namibia to speak directly to our listeners. There is no excuse for not investing into market research at this point.” In his view, many broadcasters only do research while developing a product and then suddenly stop.

Apart from fighting for an audience’s attention, new formats must fight for attention within a news organization itself: “It is also about attracting the best staff. We need to attract the best staff who can rise to the challenge to get this product going,” says Gibson. For the BBC Minute, a “brand new” team was hired to meet with the format specialties.

Yusuf Omar, former mobile editor of the Hindustan Times and now part of CNN Snapchat Discover Team, still senses room for improvement in many journalism driven companies. Despite best practices developed by companies like the BBC or CNN, there often is a lack of communication between innovation departments and newsrooms. This is how new formats die right after being developed. “You literally can’t build an “innovation”, “mobile journalism” or even a “social media” team. I think you really have to build an entire newsroom with that culture,” says Omar.

Omar’s advice is to identify departments which are open for change. Start small projects and teach them how to be innovative. If done successfully, other departments will pick up the trend and not only ask you for ways to change, but the department it started with as well.

A key aspect for Omar is to differ between old legacies and the “new stuff”. “The mobile phone can do things which the broadcast camera never did in the first place, but they aren’t supposed to replace each other,” stresses Omar. When people accept this, they will stop equating change with competition.

“Listen”, says Greg Barber, Director of Digital News Projects at the Washington Post:

The idea that you have may be a good one, but if it doesn’t connect to somebodies workflow, it’s not going to get implemented. If you have an idea, go to talk to the colleagues whose workflow you might impact. See whether your idea is any good or if it needs to be tweaked to connect better with the existent workflow. Understand the reality of peoples daily live.

Barber recognizes first hand feedback and continuous communication within a news organization as the best way to push innovations forward.

When we launch a product within the newsroom, we always launch with a partner within the newsroom usually with multiple. So, that when you built something there is an immediate use case. Now, when we tell others we can say: “You could do it just like this team that used this tool.”

His demand also embraces another aspect of innovation: listen to young journalists.

Of course, there is no need for a 20 year old editor in chief, but a great need for younger journalists in decision processes. Simply by consuming media in a completely different way, they bring new visions into companies.

They are the users so many outlets desperately want to get hold of who know that a Snapchat Story is equally important as the 8 o’clock TV news. Give “reverse mentoring” a go and watch where it leads. Established 1999 by Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electrics, it teams up senior staffers with young professionals. Back in the day, Welch recognized that his top 500 mangers lack understanding of the internet. Other companies picked up and soon it was a common tool to overcome struggles with internet based technologies.

In journalism driven companies senior editors could teach youngsters about the company’s structure, who the decision makers are and which people to look out for. In return,
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young professionals could elaborate on the vague idea that “Facebook is somehow important” and make their counterpart understand how viral hits work. One awesome side effect: such sessions create awareness about innovation within a whole company.