The impact of COVID-19 has accentuated and accelerated underlying structural issues, catapulting the industry into a new and uncertain future much quicker than anticipated.
To survive, nevermind flourish, in this environment, strategic innovation — rather than innovation for the sake of it — is more important than ever.
If we accept that principle, what lessons can be learned from other news and media organizations around the world?
In this series, I’ve shared thoughts from leading media scholars, researchers and practitioners for their top tips for successfully implementing innovation as well the principles and likely barriers organizations need to consider.
For this final article, based on their expert insights, I’ve identified nine principles of content innovation, and examples of them in action.
Theme 1: Business Model Innovation
Principle 1: The Value of Niche
“There was a point where the mainstream media industry believed scale was taking marginally valuable audiences and trying to make them bigger. We’ve done the opposite,” Sean Griffey, CEO and co-founder of Industry Dive, told Axios recently.
“This is a company that has taken a ridiculously simple idea — that ‘the real value in business media is in niche, highly targeted audiences’ — and then replicated it profitably multiple times,” observes Rishad Patel, the co-founder of Splice Media in Singapore.
Patel highlighted how Industry Dive had identified a successful approach and replicated it (e.g. Retail Dive, Utility Dive, Food Dive, Supply Chain Dive, Payments Dive). As a result, profits are expected to grow to 30% this year.
As Griffey himself puts it:
“Basically, the true secret to scale for a media business is to do something *valuable* multiple times.”
Thomas Seymat, Editorial Projects and Development Manager at Euronews, and an Adjunct Professor of Journalism at Paris’ Centre de Formation des Journalistes and Sciences Po Lyon, also cited the work of a niche publisher, The Fix.
An online trade publication for media professionals with a strong focus on Central and Eastern Europe, the site has innovated, Seymat says, “by occupying a (to my knowledge) unused space — topic and geography-wise, and in English.”
“They write a lot about media revenue experiments and I hope they too will find the right balance of revenue streams to be sustainable in the long term,” he adds.
Principle 2: Going Against the Grain
Both Patel and Seymat cited further examples of publishers and content creators who have bucked obvious trends.
“Our friends at The Ken in Bangalore realized that their strength lay not in throwing multiple stories at an audience to see which one would stick,” Patel recounted, “but in publishing one well-researched, deeply reported story a day.”
“If you’ll allow me to be corporate, I think my employer’s (Euronews) strategy to launch and grow an affiliates network in Southeast Europe and the Caucasus region is strategically innovative,” Seymat says.
“Finding local partners and investors to start whole new media organizations — facing a pandemic and other challenges — is a great example of innovation that makes sense for the business development side, for the brand, and for the audience too.
“These affiliates bring a new independent voice in their region,” he adds, “and they contribute to Euronews’ main news coverage, along with the rest of our language services.” “I know it’s a ton of work for everyone involved, so I have to give kudos to my colleagues.”
Launching new services in the midst of a pandemic was a bold idea reiterated by Patricia Torres-Burd, Managing Director, Media Services Advisory Services, MDIF (Media Development Investment Fund). Torres-Burd noted efforts led by Styli Charalambous of the Daily Maverick in South Africa, “a CEO focused on product and innovation.”
“He is not afraid to make changes,” Torres-Burd says, “and during the pandemic — this digital news portal — are you ready for it? … Launched a weekly print section. It is entirely counter-intuitive but in line with their goal to reach and inform as many people as possible in their country.”
Theme 2: Cultural Innovation
Principle 3: Investing in — and Creating — Community
“Although news organizations, in general, remain reluctant to relinquish their role in deciding what constitutes news and how best to convey it, there are some creative experiments,” notes Dr. Jane Singer, Professor of Journalism Innovation at City University in London.
Focusing on what Singer refers to as “audience-driven news,” one such organization that has caught Singer’s eye, is Tortoise Media in the UK.
“Although the name stems from its ‘slow news’ approach, I think one of the more innovative things about Tortoise is the way it makes audiences integral to the news process, from deciding what to explore to engaging directly with newsmakers,” she says.
Singer also mentions The Ferret, an award-winning investigative journalism co-operative, based in Scotland. As they explain in their online FAQ, “when you subscribe to The Ferret you become more than just a passive supporter — people become part-owners of the project and can influence how it will develop.”
This community-centric model also resonates with Patricia Torres-Burd, who points to case studies from the Membership Puzzle which showcase innovative forms of content creation, distribution and engagement.
“I absolutely love and devoured these,” Torres-Burd says, “but the stand outs are KPCC and their community-driven efforts during the pandemic, and Black Ballad out of the UK and how they built a safe space online for Black women.
“This effort not only created a community, engaged and active participants but has now turned it into so much more with opportunities for revenue and brand alignment that fits their mission.”
Torres-Burd also highlights the Mexican media platform “Malvestida, which “is focusing on women’s issues beyond fashion and beauty … amplifying the voices and experiences of a new generation who can define their needs and identity on their own terms.”
“Most of what they have to say and discuss is region agnostic,” she adds, recommending people check out their Instagram page, and reminding us how in the digital age communities are no longer bound by geography.
Principle 4: Collaboration
Community building principles are not just embodied in the relationship organizations have with their audience, but increasingly with each other.
“As I write, the Pandora Papers has just dropped,” Jane Singer commented in an email. “They are the latest manifestation in a growing trend of journalists from different news organizations working together, rather than competing, to tell different parts of a major story.”
Other efforts shared by Singer include how “BureauLocal, (part of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK) has “brought local journalists from around the country together to collectively explore a national data set and develop local stories from it, ” and the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance database (created by the International Fact-Checking Network), “a compilation of debunks of coronavirus hoaxes by fact-checkers all around the world.”
“Innovation is not easy,” Patricia Torres-Burd reminds us. “It can be internally disruptive and expensive. Collaboration can provide an excellent opportunity to test and find the best ways to reach audiences with relevant content.”
By way of an example, she cites the work of Hashtag Our Stories (and their collaborations with Snapchat and NBC LX, a local news network targeted at younger cord-cutters), and two examples from India: Josh Talks and Sheroes a social network for women.
“While they are not traditional media outlets — both are utilizing social and content platforms to connect with and improve communities,” she says.
Principle 5: Transparency and an Open Innovation Culture
“I’ve spent a couple of intense years leading Euronews’ immersive journalism efforts,” says Thomas Seymat, Editorial Projects and Development Manager at Euronews, “so VR, AR, etc. are mediums I keep a (nostalgic) eye on.”
“However, the field evolves constantly and it’s easy to fall behind if you’re not paying close attention.” Because of this, Seymat says he was “happy to see that the New York Times’ R&D department published a guide teaching how journalists can create stories through photogrammetry using only their mobile devices.
This was “cutting-edge stuff made available to the greater public,” he notes.
“It’s one thing to lead innovative projects with cutting-edge technologies with the financial support of tech companies, it’s a whole different thing to do it openly (as Seymat’s company has previously done) so it benefits the rest of the industry.”
It’s a model others have also adopted, with Jane Singer underscoring how “growing numbers of large news orgs also now have dedicated ‘spaces’ for exploring new ideas.”
Found on Medium and elsewhere, efforts like BBC News Labs can help spark discussion and “explicitly seek to foster and encourage creativity.”
Theme 3: Audience-first Innovation
Principle 6: Products Designed to Meet user Needs
“A lot can be learnt from looking at other traditional industries,” argues Joon-Nie Lau, Director, Asia, WAN-IFRA (World Association of News Publishers). “Entire books have been written about how these industries have transformed digitally.”
“What they [and the media] have in common is that they make their money by serving consumers and addressing customers’ needs, constantly tweaking their products and services to ensure that consumers will want to pay for them.”
For Splice Media’s Rishad Patel, one example of a company embodying these ideals is The Information. “[It] has such a richness of products for its users that all speak to its mission — to cover the technology business like nobody else — and that it does this in so many formats that meet their audiences where they are (or want to be),” he says.
“They understand that the text-based article isn’t the only way we consume information, so their ‘stories’ take the form of paid products like conference calls, Slack channels, events, workshops, commenting on their website (because they get that being a part of the conversation is something their members were willing to pay for) and… org charts.”
“I think [the org charts] is a genius product in that The Information understands the needs of that segment of their tech insider users who work in finance or journalism that would pay for this sort of intelligence because of its utility in the work that they do.”
Theme 4: Content and Tech-led Innovation
Principle 7: Embracing New Formats and Products
“I love what The Guardian, The New York Times, Washington Post and NPR are doing — particularly in the areas of data storytelling, immersive podcasts, VR and AR storytelling on Instagram,” says Devadas Rajaram, a Professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India.
“They are very engaging and user-centric,” he adds, reflecting on the fact “it’s ironic that they’re all legacy media organizations.” Of digital-born entrants, Rajaram adds BuzzFeed News and Hashtag Our Stories into the mix.
Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), stressed how content-led innovation can be found across a number of different areas, from the types of open-source investigations produced by outlets such as Bellingcat and the BBC Africa Eye team, through to product format innovation like Quartz Obsessions, The New York Times’ podcast The Daily, and live events hosted by Tortoise.
The next leap forward, he believes, will be in “flash briefings,” as well as “personalized” and “atomized audio.”
Principle 8: New Tech
Although there’s a deluge of new tech that companies can — and are — using, Dr. Gillian Youngs, a strategist, innovation and ecosystem expert, who has worked across the creative, digital and academic sectors, stressed the role of AI as a major focal point for innovation in media and journalism.
Youngs pointed to the role of this technology in tackling areas such as misinformation, (through initiatives like the EU-funded Fandango project).
“Even if automatic detection of Fake News and disinformation is not possible for the moment…, Machine Learning technologies and Big Data analysis can strongly support journalists and media professionals to detect disinformation in their day-by-day working activity,” she says.
More widely, “curating audience preferences and interests, social media, and links across different forms of content can be part of this picture in far more complex ways than is happening at present,” Youngs argues.
Embodying principles that can go way beyond managing misinformation, Youngs notes how “innovation in these areas requires a lot more thinking outside of traditional mass media boxes, and new interdisciplinary strategies.”
Theme 5: Changing Editorial Culture
Principle 9: Leadership Matters
Underpinning much of this is the ability of leaders to change editorial culture and a companies mindset.
With this in mind, Jane Singer admits this “reflects my own reader biases,” but, she cites The New York Times and The Guardian as two examples of where this can be seen.
“Not incidentally, both also have strengthened their financial situation as a result of these changes, including by adding significant numbers of new readers.”
Innovations can resonate beyond institutional boundaries, priming the entire industry.
Nic Newman points to efforts such as engagement metrics like RFV (which measures the Recency, Frequency and Volume of reading the FT digitally) a move from the Financial Times which “galvanised the industry on loyalty.”
Meanwhile, Joon-Nie Lau, Director, Asia, WAN-IFRA (World Association of News Publishers) highlights innovation strategies at outlets such as Stuff NZ (New Zealand), Mediahuis (Belgium) and the South China Morning Post as outlets others can learn from.
Led by new CEO Gary Liu, the South China Morning Post has “transformed a local English paper of record into a global news publication helping readers understand China.”
Liu “started with 250 staff producing print, 40 on digital, and transformed headcount to 250 on digital and 40 in print.”
“To create the space for innovation and the opportunity for growth, companies at every scale and every stage from start-up to storied legacy media must decide not only what to do,” the journalist and communications consultant Kevin Anderson argued for the Reuters Institute back in 2017, “but also what they will stop doing.”
The reason for this, Anderson suggested is “so that they can focus on editorial and commercial innovation — not simply for the sake of doing something new but to achieve their journalistic mission and their editorial ambitions in a constantly changing media environment.”
That’s an argument that remains as true today as it did four years ago.
After all, as Federica Cherubini, Head of Leadership Development, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) reminds us, we all want to be “inspired by those who are really embracing the change, not for the sake of changing or just doing something new, but for their ability — and commitment — to find the best way to serve their audiences, build a sustainable business, and nurture their newsrooms.”
Hopefully, this three-part series has done exactly that!
About the Author
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism, a Professor of Practice, an affiliate faculty member of the Department for Middle East and North Africa Studies (MENA) and the Agora Journalism Center, and a Research Associate of the Center for Science Communication Research (SCR), at the University of Oregon.
Alongside holding the Chambers Chair at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), he is also a three-time Fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies (JOMEC), and a life fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).
An experienced digital analyst, consultant, journalist, and researcher, Damian has worked in editorial, research, policy, and teaching positions for the past two and a half decades in the UK, Middle East and USA. This includes roles in all media sectors (commercial, public, government, regulatory, academic, and nonprofit/civil society) and all platforms (print, digital, TV and radio).
Damian continues to be an active journalist, writing monthly columns for ZDNet (Red Ventures) and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the University of Missouri. He also writes regular features for the International Journalists’ Network (IJNet), What’s New in Publishing, journalism.co.uk and other outlets. Damian writes about digital trends, social media, technology, the business of media, and the evolution — and practice — of journalism. Follow him on Twitter @damianradcliffe